AI, automation & 21st century skills needs: what do they mean for education?


The profound changes ahead demand an education approach that will provide young people with enduring capabilities and skills to harness the opportunities of technological change.

The passport that today’s kindergarten students will need for life and work in 2040 includes the strong foundations provided by a great school education. This starts with literacy and numeracy but goes well beyond that to the higher order skills provided by quality post-school education and training.

The profound changes ahead in the nature of work demands an education approach that lifts the proficiency of all students if we are to ensure they have the level of cognition, confidence and skill required to navigate a more complex world.

We will also need to lift our top performers to a level of cognitive skill higher than we’ve previously anticipated to harness the opportunities of the innovation economy.

We cannot predict exactly what the workers of 2040 will need to know and be able to do to succeed. However, in the context of greater uncertainty and change arising from these global trends, there is an emerging view that young people – in addition to strong literacy and numeracy, content knowledge and technical skills – will need well developed ‘21st century skills’ to ensure they are able to engage with and capitalise on technological change.

While there is no single definition of what the ideal set of ‘21st century skills’ should be and there are differences in how individual factors are defined, broadly they tend to include both cognitive and non- cognitive skills particularly problem solving, critical thinking, digital literacy, collaboration and communication.

21st century skills are by no means new however in recent years particularly educators have explored whether they need to be explicitly taught, included in academic content standards and routinely assessed, and the extent to which these skills are subject specific or transferrable.

There is also an increasing awareness of the interrelated but distinct role of the early years, school and tertiary education in developing these skills.

The increased focus on 21st century skills in the school context has served to highlight the gaps in our understanding of them. While the development of 21st century skills requires strong disciplinary foundations there is a general lack of specificity about some of these skills – what teachers need to teach in the classroom and the learning outcomes expected of students.

Unlike the teaching of literacy and numeracy, there is not the extensive body of evidence for schools to draw on about effective teaching practice for some of these skills. Nor is there the same rich understanding about how students build foundational skills and support deeper learning, or the established suite of tools to assess different dimensions of their attainment.

Advances in developmental psychology and research on the science of learning are increasing our understanding of how particular capabilities are acquired but the evidence base is more developed for some of these skills than others and research is pointing to some complex interrelationships between them.

There is little doubt that for today’s kindergarten students to succeed in tomorrow’s more complex world they will need to be resilient to change and confident and adaptable learners, capacities which are developed through the mastery of subjects and development of skills.

For schools and education more broadly it will be more critical than ever to support engagement, encourage lifelong learning and create a culture of high expectations for all students.

This article is an extract of a discussion paper, Education Future Frontiers: The implications of AI, automation and 21st century skills needs, from the NSW Department of Education.