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Are teachers trained to deliver the kind of education needed for the twenty-first century?

Written By: Joanne Hill and Simon Spencer
8 min read

Vision for the twenty-first century

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Report: New Vision for Education (2015) is based on a detailed analysis of research literature and defines what it considers to be the most crucial skills for twenty-first century citizens worldwide. The WEF states that:

To thrive in a rapidly evolving, technology-mediated world, students must not only possess strong skills in areas such as language, arts, mathematics and science, but they must also be adept at skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity. All too often, however, students in many countries are not attaining these skills (2015:1).

The WEF notes the existing, and perhaps more familiar, deficit skills in adult standards of literacy and numeracy, but also draws attention to the even more startling figures quoted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Adult Skills’ survey which finds that between only 2.9% and 8.8% of adults demonstrate the highest levels of proficiency in problem-solving in ‘technology-rich environments’ (2013:23).

The WEF defines the skills needed in the twenty-first century under three categories:

  • Foundation Literacies which include, literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy and cultural and civic literacy
  • Competencies which include, critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity, communication and collaboration
  • Character Qualities which include, curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership and social and cultural awareness (2015:3).


The WEF compared selected skill indicators (literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, cultural and civic literacy, critical thinking/problem solving, creativity and curiosity) among a sample of high-income OECD countries, presenting the comparison percentile rankings in five pentiles with pentile one being the lowest (WEF, 2015:7). The WEF reports that, compared with other high-income OECD countries, the United Kingdom appears to perform very well in the skills of critical thinking/problem solving and curiosity (ranked in the fourth pentile in comparison with other high income OECD countries); quite well in the skills of literacy, scientific literacy and cultural/civic literacy (ranked the third pentile) but poorly in numeracy and creativity (ranked in the second pentile). There was no data available for ICT literacy and financial literacy, the implication being that this represents a gap in provision. In fact, “At an individual country level, a gap exists between foundational literacies and competencies and character qualities such as critical thinking, creativity and curiosity” (WEF, 2015:7). Of the nine skills measured, Finland, Japan and South Korea perform particularly well (ranked in the fifth pentile in at least seven skills) (WEF, 2015).

If these are the skills needed by the next generation of twenty-first century adults, all educators should question the extent to which they form an explicit part of the education of young people. Are new teachers trained to be able to deliver this education?

Where is ITT now?

Initial teaching training has been of great interest to politicians since 1983. Debate has centred around:

  • the move towards a more schools-led model
  • the consequential role of universities in ITT
  • the nature of teaching as a craft or a profession
  • what the content of initial teacher training should include.


There are clear statements of what the national expectations for teacher training must be and these impact on the actual content. The Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) is perhaps the most obvious, along with the Initial Teacher Training (ITT): criteria and supporting advice (DfE, 2018). Helpfully, perhaps, the government commissioned a review of the content of initial teacher training led by Sir Andrew Carter. The findings led to the statement that, ‘ITT should introduce new teachers to crucial elements of knowledge, skills and understanding that all teachers need’ (DfE, 2015:3). The recommendations of the Carter Review were an attempt to improve initial teacher training in the current climate of what ‘teachers need’ for schools and schooling. However, is this current climate addressing the needs of the citizens of the twenty-first century to enable them to thrive?

The conclusion of the review was that, ‘ITT should have a relentless focus on pupil outcomes (including pupil progress, achievement and well-being) and should be delivered purposefully towards this overarching goal’ (2015:6). The review identified five areas that it considered to be ‘significant gaps in a range of courses’. These were ‘subject knowledge development, subject-specific pedagogy, behaviour management, assessment and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)’ (2015:6). However, the proposals of the Carter Review would seem to be more in line with a continued focus on what the WEF report lists as the ‘Foundation Literacies’ to the exclusion of ‘Competencies’ and ‘Character Qualities’. Whilst Carter states that pupils are, quite rightly, the centre of education, in reality it is the outcomes that pupils achieve that are the focus of the Carter Review. It is our view that this focus seeks to strengthen our own system of education rather than the broader skill set that the WEF report recommends.

Where should it be?

In considering what initial teacher training ought to include, we have been influenced by some of the thinking of Orchard and Winch (2015) who argue that teachers need to understand the principles that underpin practices to make sense of the specific education system for which they are being trained in order to exercise professional judgment. Because ‘If they do not understand at the level of principle why the subjects they teach are worthwhile or the methods they use are appropriate, they will be operating as mere technicians’ (2015:20). This statement echoes the debate surrounding the nature of teaching as either a craft or a profession introduced by Gove in 2010 at the Annual Conference of the National College for Teaching and Leadership. Kirk (2011) argues that teaching is both a craft and a profession in his article for the Times Educational Supplement, It’s not a craft or a profession. Teachers without both skills will be a walking disaster. On one hand, he argues that the craft of teaching ‘involves the exercise and deployment of an extensive repertoire of practical skills and strategies to motivate pupils’. These need to be learned under the supervision of accomplished practitioners in the classroom. On the other hand, Kirk argues that, ‘the personal knowledge associated with the learning of a craft has to be complemented by the broader knowledge that comes from the review and study of existing academic evidence about the conduct of teaching’.

We would suggest that if teachers are to respond to and develop in light of changes in practice for the twenty-first century, they need to be trained as professionals; they need to be leaders of learning, and to be leaders of learning they need to be able to make decisions. To make effective decisions they should, as Orchard and Winch (2015) suggest, understand some of the history of education, how education policy comes into being, how and who makes the decisions and why some potentially worthwhile educational activities became established whilst others never took hold. ‘This awareness will help teachers to discriminate between compelling and incoherent reasons for one action rather than another’ (Orchard and Winch, 2015: 20). There are those who insist on the term ‘teacher education’ rather than ‘teacher training’ to reflect this view.

Nunn (2017), however, sees a value for initial teacher training in also developing an understanding of the psychological and sociological factors that impact on the learning of children and young people, not in an abstract way but to be ‘linked to practical teaching in schools and help to contextualise professional practice’ (2017: 63). This view is also supported by Boyd (2017)who suggests that trainee teachers need curriculum subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge (how best to teach key concepts and skills) and, more controversially, knowledge of the wider social context in which they are working, ‘Beginning teachers need to critically consider and articulate the purposes of education’ (2017: 99-100).

Orchard and Winch go on to propose that trainee teachers need to know something about general philosophy, Plato, Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle as ‘Engaging with these classic accounts enables teachers to clarify their own understanding of the purposes of education and their reasons for favouring some educational activities and approaches over others’ (2015:20). This understanding, we concur, would enable teachers to contribute to the development of national education policy which is something that Critchley (2018) argues has been removed from the workforce with the reduction of the Civil Service. It has been some time since the Civil Service acted as the conduit for various expert groups allowing the ‘much broader understanding of the various stakeholders in the educational system to be thrown into the policy mix’ (2018). As professionals, educators have lost the voice they once had through the channels of the Civil Service and Local Government; the more significant influencers on Ministers now are their Special Advisors, ‘who tend to come from the same ideological space as Ministers’ (Critchley, 2018). Surely educators would want teacher trainees to have that philosophical understanding of the purposes of education if they are to create influence in the twenty-first century?

Critchley (2018) gives a detailed analysis of the way in which education policy making has changed over the last two decades and not for the better, resulting in an overstretched teaching workforce that does not have time or inclination to question. As university teacher educators, we have seen this in our own practice and have despondently noted a generation entering teaching with a ‘tell me what to do and I’ll do it’ attitude. A by-product, whether intentional or otherwise, of the national strategies, first introduced in 1998, has been a contribution to the compliance culture witnessed in today’s teachers. The initial strategies were focused on literacy and numeracy at key stages one and two, the Primary Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. Furlong (2013b:36) states that ‘for the first time a government took it upon itself to define what effective pedagogy should be in relation to these two aspects of primary teaching’. The glossy documentation supporting the National Strategies provided the theoretical underpinning behind the pedagogy which, in our opinion, results in a reduction in teachers’ independent thinking.

In 2002 the government of the day revised the list of teacher standards arguing that some of the standards linked to the national strategies with the expectation that newly qualified primary teachers would know ‘the frameworks, methods and expectations set out in the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies’ (TTA, 2003:8). The implicit message from the government here, we argue, is that they are now the experts; teachers’ expertise has been eroded. We would agree with Critchley (2018) who states that ‘we need to restore experts to the centre of policy making: Experts who have walked the classroom walk for years, rather that talked the talk for a couple of terms (of office)’.

The way forward

In summary we are proposing that education for the twenty-first century needs to be much more in line with the WEF Report which includes competencies and character qualities as well as foundation literacies. In light of this we propose that, initial teacher training ought to incorporate, amongst other things:

  • principles and practice specific to the education system for which they are being trained
  • the history of education
  • education policy making
  • psychology and sociology of education in the context of professional practice
  • philosophy leading to an understanding of the purposes of education.


We want teachers to become engaged and critical thinkers, empowered professionals whose expertise is sought to influence and inform education policy and practice. It is clearly time to start thinking about an extension to the duration of teacher training programmes allowing those in training to really understand children and their society alongside the competencies and character qualities needed for the twenty-first century.

We would suggest that if teachers are to respond to and develop in light of changes in practice for the twenty-first century, they need to be trained as professionals.

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