Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities in Skills Based Education

Reflections on Brookings’ annual research and policy symposium

by Loren Crary, Director of External Relations

In sub-Saharan Africa 1 million young people will enter the workforce every month through 2030. This stunning statistic, shared by Mattias Lundberg of the World Bank Group last week at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education’s annual symposium, exposes the scale of both the challenge and the opportunity before us.

It’s no longer enough for schools to give young people knowledge and information. Throughout the education community, students, parents, educators, and policymakers are speaking up to agree that students need to learn a breadth of skills to thrive in our rapidly changing world. Which skills do they need, and even more challenging, how do we ensure they get them? Education leaders from around the globe gathered to discuss these ambitious questions posed by Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education. Educate! grapples with these issues on the ground every day, and we’d like to share some of the fascinating themes that emerged from the conversation and resonated with our work.

Skills-based education is a truly global movement

Kate Henderson of Brookings opened her panel on breadth of skills in regional networks by noting the concern some have raised that the skills-based education movement is driven by the Global North, developed in the context of wealthy economies. But in the panel and throughout the symposium, representatives of each region of the world shared strikingly similar goals and challenges, with innovation and progress in every corner. Brookings’ skills movement mapping project powerfully illustrates the universality of the movement.

At Educate!, we’ve known for years that East Africa is one of the leading regions in the world for skills-based education innovation, with exciting work on the ground and industry-leading reforms ongoing at different stages in Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. We were thrilled to hear the stories from across the world of how different countries are orienting their systems toward skills and sharing what they learn in the process. Education leaders from Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Argentina, Norway, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Thailand and beyond shared insights and experience that were remarkably aligned, as each region works towards education that gives youth the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

From WHAT to HOW: We need more work on how to close the gap between policy and practice

Perhaps the challenge raised most frequently during the symposium was the issue of implementation—how we get change on the page into change in classrooms. As Sten Ludvigsen of the University of Oslo put it, “There is no direct relation between what is happening in a minister’s head and what is happening in a classroom.” As was clear from the many contexts in which this question arose, the thorny issue of implementation must be addressed at every stage of the life cycle of education, from initial conception of curriculum reform, to pedagogy design, to pre- and in-service teacher training, to textbook design, and all the way through to assessment. Changing education to give youth a breadth of skills requires a deep mindset shift for actors in every group of stakeholders, and if reformers fail to reach any group, they will ultimately fail in their reform goals. 

Teacher training is the “million dollar question”

The implementation stage that all agreed is at the heart of the challenge is how to train teachers to deliver new policy to give youth the skills they need. As Hubert Mathanzima Mweli, Director-General Department of Basic Education of South Africa put it, “Teacher education is the million dollar question.” And as Marie Therese Bustos of the University of the Philippines asked, “We are asking teachers to teach skills they don’t have, how on earth can they teach them?”

The government of Rwanda is an example of a country working to address this question through innovative, collaborative teacher training models, that seek to tackle the challenge framed by Eliya Zulu of the African Institute for Development: “The easiest thing in the world to do is to sit in a conference room and make up a new curriculum. Changing how teachers teach is the hardest thing.” Rwanda is using the methods many speakers endorsed, like collaborative learning for teachers, encouraging experimentation, and supporting teachers, to close the gap between curriculum reform and the classroom. Educate! is thrilled to be working with Akazi Kanoze in Rwanda to support this innovative and critical initiative.

Education systems need evidence they can put into practice

Evidence was a controversial topic at the symposium. Some policymakers felt there are so many studies and research papers that they pile up on the shelf. Some practitioners and researchers cited a lack of evidence as a critical barrier to successfully skilling more youth. Counterintuitively, both are true—There is an abundance of evidence, but a lack of actionable evidence, targeted to contexts where work is being done, and showing effectiveness at scale. At Educate!, one of the biggest questions we have are what pedagogical and teacher training practices are proven to create better life outcomes for youth, especially on income, job creation, and employment outcomes. We are working to fill this gap with our own research, and we’d love to know the evidence you have seen in these areas, or what evidence gaps you are facing. 

Skills-based education is an urgent question for today, not an inquiry for the future

It can be easy to fall into the mindset that modes of learning and education reform are academic questions that can be studied leisurely as we wait for consensus to emerge on the best way forward. But a final recurring theme of the symposium was the urgency of answering these questions for the students whose lives are being charted by the experience they are having in classrooms around the world as we sit together debating the issues.

As our Educate! Board member and global youth expert, Dr. Nicole Goldin, shared with me, “There is no time like the present to invest in youth as the world is currently at ‘peak youth’ with half its population under age 30.” 

Kedrace Turyagyenda of Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports reminded us that the youth growth rate in Uganda, for example, is over 3% annually; Mattias Lundberg of the World Bank Group highlighted that in sub-Saharan Africa, 1 million young people will enter the workforce every month through 2030. But with the scale of the challenge comes an equal opportunity, especially where we work in sub-Saharan Africa. Eliya Zulu affirms “What is happening in Rwanda is happening across the continent. There is a big window of opportunity of countries asking what should we do and how should we do it?” We must leverage this window and answer these questions to serve the students who need these skills today to become the 21st century learners and leaders that the global community needs.