Today’s kindergartners, tomorrow’s workforce

(Cross-posted from The Microsoft Blog)

Today’s kindergartners will retire around 2075. They will likely look back at 2010 as a quaint time, the way many of us remember the time before VCRs, color television and the Internet. Now is an important time for us to think about their future: What kind of education will be meaningful to them and ensure they can adapt and succeed right up to their retirement?

It’s a question we think about a lot, and something people are talking about at education conferences around the world, including this week’s Learning and Technology World Forum and BETT 2010, two education technology shows in London.

Today’s kindergartners will be growing up in a world where there are tremendous challenges, as well as fantastic opportunities. They’ll need the best education we can give them. But in a world that is changing rapidly – remember, Facebook didn’t even exist eight years ago – what on earth should we teach them?

The question is actually not so much what, but how. We can’t possibly imagine what skills today’s kindergartners will need as they reach the middle of their careers. They will learn in a world that is diverse, globalized, social, and complex. And it will be a world with more information and data than we can possibly imagine. In 2007, computer industry analyst IDC reported that the world produced 281 exabytes of data that year. That’s nearly 30,000 times the holdings of the U.S. Library of Congress. And the growth in information created by humans will only increase – explosively.

But how students learn, and how they learn to use the knowledge they acquire is something that can – and should – be taught. What today’s students need is an education that teaches them to think critically, collaborate effectively, understand technology, and live as a student not only in their specific town or country, but as a student on the entire planet.

Today, teachers, school administrators and education leaders alike are trying to better understand what skills are critical for the future, how to teach them, and perhaps most importantly, how to measure their success at teaching those skills in the classroom. With the right assessments in place, more schools will have an incentive to embrace teaching those skills effectively.

To foster the adoption of more applicable assessment, a year ago we announced an initiative in partnership with Intel and Cisco, as well as other global assessment partners such as the OECD and the IEA. Called the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S –, the initiative is aimed at helping schools escape an educational model from the 19th century, and adopt one that creates and assesses core curricula based on the needs of today – and tomorrow, so that students are ready for this fast-changing world. You can read a status report about the ATC21S program here.

As a first step, more than 60 worldwide researchers and academics created a framework for what skills need to be assessed, and laid the groundwork for how to assess those skills. Specifically, those skills related to ways of thinking, ways of working, and tools for working and living in the world. For the next steps, we will be working with an initial set of countries to pilot ways to assess these skills.

The first skills that we will be looking to assess in schools in our pilot countries of Australia, the United Kingdom, Finland, Singapore, and Portugal are problem solving and digital literacy.

When we’re successful, we’ll change how schools and students are evaluated. Instead of looking solely at math and reading scores to measure performance, teachers, schools, districts and governments will also examine how students are acquiring the skills to succeed in the future.

At Microsoft, we believe that every one of the planet’s 1.4 billion students deserves the best education we can give them. Our participation in the ATC21S program is an example of our efforts to help schools deliver on that belief. Please be sure to read about other ways that we are focused on transforming education over the course of this week, including: our work in connecting colleges and universities; helping youngsters grasp computer programming; and enabling students in impoverished countries to make better use of the scarce PCs available to them.

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