Assessing 21st Century Skills

Educational leaders around the world now realize that our schools need to do a better job of fostering creativity and collaboration abilities in students. Creativity and collaboration are two of the so-called “21st century skills,” abilities that are essential to life and work in the future.

Now that everyone agrees that schools need to teach creativity and collaboration, the next question is “How will we know if we’ve been successful?” and to get the answer, we have to assess students by giving them a test. I know that a lot of people involved with education are upset about the increasing emphasis on standardized tests. But in today’s education systems, whatever isn’t tested simply won’t be taught.

An international effort, centered at the University of Melbourne in Australia, has been working to develop assessments for 21st century skills. I just returned from an academic conference, CSCL (computer supported collaborative learning), where I sat in on a workshop presented by an international team that’s developing an assessment of collaborative problem solving skills–with experts from several universities and from Pearson and ETS. I like the framework they developed to break down the components of collaborative problem solving (CPS):

  • First, they identified two main sub-skills: social skills and cognitive skills.
  • Second, they were able to identify lower-level sub-skills for each of these. Social skills includes participation, perspective taking, and social regulation.
  • Cognitive skills includes tak regulation and knowledge building.

After developing the framework, the research team is now able to develop actual test items associated with each of these five component sub-skills. One intriguing development is their decision to administer the test via computer, with the child collaborating not with another actual person, but with a computational agent. (This is the only way you can reliably measure the skills of any one person; in a real team, each person’s performance is affected by the other’s.)

This new assessment will be included in the international PISA assessments to be implemented in 2015. Look for news stories describing which countries are “better at collaboration” based on these skills! The need for standardized tests is unfortunate in many ways, but I believe that having politicians and parents focused on collaboration will lead our teachers, students, and schools to emphasize collaboration more.