The new student cohort and the development of digital era key competences for the twenty-first century



On 12 September, the school bells rang in Romania for the first time this year. Bucharest traffic reached catastrophic proportions, streets everywhere were full; the whole country was buzzing with the little ones, who were trotting towards schools carrying heavy backpacks, hauled by busy moms and followed by dads with huge flower bouquets in their hands or by weeping grandparents.shield-1651266_1920

About half a million “ducklings” have started kindergarten in the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year. This rite of passage symbolizes the first official enrollment into formal schooling, be it public or private, of a new cohort of Romanian students.

By comparison, 4 million students have started kindergarten in the United States of America (Zielezinski, 2016). Despite the huge difference in school enrollment rates, both countries, as well as many others all over the world, face turmoil at the beginning of each new academic year. Everywhere, the year opening ceremonies and the emotions experienced by children on that occasion are always complemented by vigorous debates about the current state of education, and even more intense ones about its future.

What should our kids know and be able to do in the 21st century society?

The 2016-2017 cohort will graduate from high school in 2028-2029 and enter the labor market in mid 2030’s, after college.

But can we even image what the world will look like in the 4th decade of the 21st century?elevator-1598431_960_720

Judging by the progress of technology, it is hard to create a preview of the world in 2035. However, one can imagine people living in smart cities and driving smart vehicles, robots performing daily chores, etc. Macro phenomena, such as globalization, interdisciplinarity, and digitalization, will drive the demand for experts in many new fields, for instance counseling in choosing a personal robot, financial analysis with alternate currencies such as Bitcoin, Big Data medicine, 3D food printing, or extinct species revivalist, etc.

In a 2011 interview for The Atlantic (Rosen, 2011), Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke University in the US estimated that:

65 percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet.

Hence, it is only natural to ask educators, curriculum specialists, researchers, politicians, futurists, or anyone with a stake in the future of the workforce, the following:

What should our kids know and be able to do to function as adults in the 21st century?

How to teach them to become capable adults to manage our common future in the 21st century? board-1647323_1920

In March, 2015, the World Economic Forum released the following list of key 21st century skills:

  • Foundational Literacies, i.e. core skills used by students in everyday activities: literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, cultural and civic literacy.
  • Competencies used by students as they approach complex challenges: critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity, communication, collaboration.
  • Character Qualities developed by students as they approach a changing environment: curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, social and cultural awareness.

At European level, in December, 2006, the European Council and the European Parliament adopted a joint framework for defining key competences for lifelong learning in the 21st century (Looney & Michel, 2014). The framework defined the following 8 key competences and 7 transversal skills:

  • Key competences: communication in the mother tongue, communication in foreign languages, mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology, digital competence, learning to learn, social and civic competences, sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, cultural awareness and expression;
  • Transversal skills: critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving, risk assessment, decision taking and constructive management of feelings.

The opening ceremony of the 2016-2017 academic year in Romania was a good occasion for Mr. Mircealeave-364178_1920 Dumitru, Minister of Education and Research, to voice his own concerns regarding the same issue. Minister Mircea Dumitriu expressed a vested interested in this topic and challenged the Romanian civil society to ponder over the kind of education and school system which are expected for the future generations. Just as his foreign counterparts, the Romanian Minister suggested that the demands of the 2016-2017 generation requires an entirely new paradigm (perhaps several ones!) for the Romanian preK-12 education system.  In order to do that, Mr. Dumitru inquired whether the revamping process should start with the definition of the goals and objectives of the entire education system.

In teaching the new generations, which methods are appropriate and which are outdated?

Unfortunately, identifying the faults of conventional education seems to be easier than discovering the most effective and appropriate practices for the future. Many educational researchers and policy makers are talking about the outdated school systems in their countries. For example, the Romanian Minister of Education, Mr. Marius Dumitru, has complained about the traditional model, i.e. the process of information transfer from teacher to student and old-fashioned measurement of factual recollection.

The school model described by Mr. Dumitru, with students grouped by age (i.e. grade 1 for 6-7 year olds,factory-35081_1280 etc.), seated in rows and taught in periods of 50 minutes, has been designed for efficiency. In this model, schools are the assembly lines, teachers the factory workers, and students the standardized products manufactured in the Ford automobile factories, turned into army factories during World Word I. Also at the beginning of the 20th century, the “school as factory assembly line” metaphor inspired Frederick Kelly to develop “The Kansas Silent Reading Test”, the first multiple-choices test and the precursor of the standardized tests still heavily used in schools today (Davidson, 2011).

In the US, the intense debate on the issues of the public education system is complemented by a diligent search for solutions. For example, several public schools from California, with funding from Facebook, are piloting a personalized learning model (Zielezinski, 2016).  The success of this enterprise stems from the paradigm of transferring the responsibility for teaching and learning from teacher to student. Each student works with a mentor (NB: a 1:1 student teacher ratio) to build a personalized curriculum with a set of short-term and long-term goals correlated with “playlists” of contents that can be studied at the student’s own pace. Also, students are no longer separated by grades, but grouped according to their needs and interests, while teachers act as mentors equipped with meaningful data used to personalize instruction of each pupil in real-time. board-1273128_1920This way, students not only feel empowered, but also learn an important lesson for the future, namely that the freedom to control their instruction process comes with the accountability for the learning progress (or the lack of it!).

The European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme funded KeyCoNet, a network of 100 organizations with vested interests in the education systems of 27 member countries. The purpose of this growing network is to identify the key competences for the 21st century and to guide the implementation of these competences in the school curricula of these countries.

What is the future role of technology in education, esp. of educational software?

Specialists across the entire spectrum agree that eLearning has the potential to become the star of education in the 21st century. When asked about the future of technology in education, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University and President Barack Obama’s former adviser on education policy maintained that:

Skillfully done, technology can create very large gains in achievement.

Darling-Hammond also described how, during her years of studies, she concluded that educational technology does support learning when used in productive ways, such as school initiatives whose aim is:

to promote engagements with peers, to support inquiry into content and to create projects such as a museum display or website that explores a problem.

Prof. Cathy Davidson explained that the promising early 1990s studies on the impact of video games stalled after the Columbine massacre in 1999, during which 21 students were wounded and 15 others were murdered, including the aggressors (Rosen, 2011). According to Davidson, who is a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, despite the fact that the investigation into the tragic event could not positively pin the blame on video games, the public opinion has driven the research funds away from studies into the possible benefits of video games.

For more than a decade, the gaming industry continued to prosper from serious games used for training professionals, such as pilots, surgeons, etc. However, things are about to seriously change for educational

On the one hand, researchers warned that lack of motivation and engagement with school curricula are affecting students on both sides of the performance spectrum. Davidson (in Rosen, 2011) speculates:

We know that boredom – for the most gifted students and also for the lowest academic achievers – is the biggest inhibitor of learning there is. Games motivate. Checkmate!

On the other hand, new trends in the game mechanics indicate a shift towards forcing the player to create complex strategies in order to advance to upper levels and win the game. In turn, not only does this challenge fuel into the player’s appetite for more games, but it is also conducive to developing higher order thinking skills and other key competences for the digital age.  In other words, a win-win recipe for the 21st century.


Corcoran, Betsy. A Ninja’s Take on Education Policy: Interview with Linda Darling-Hammond. EdSurge.   20 Sep. 2016.

Davidson, Cathy N. Where Did Standardized Testing Come From Anyway? HASTAC. 2 Sep. 2011.

Looney, Janet & Michel, Alain. KeyCoNet’s Conclusions and Recommendations for Strengthening Key Competence Development in Policy and Practice (Executive Summary). European Schoolnet, Brussels. November 2014.

Rosen, Rebecca J. Project Classroom: Transforming Our Schools for the Future. The Atlantic. 29 Aug. 2011.

Zielezinski, Molly B. Preparing For an Unknown Future. EdSurge. 19 Sep. 2016.


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