Making changes

Text by Emma Dicks

The infusion of technology into all fields has given rise to an increasing polarisation of the workforce: low-wage, lower-skilled, routine work, where workers are easily replaced by lower-priced global competitors or automated processes; and high-paying, creative work that requires a combination of complex skills.

A workforce with the skills to drive innovation is crucial to long-term economic growth. I therefore see it as an economic imperative that we invest in an education system that actively nurtures young people’s ability to innovate.

To prepare young people to be able to contribute meaningfully to innovation systems, traditional content knowledge needs to be supported by 21st-century skills.

21st-century skills can be understood as a complex skillset that supports any content knowledge and allows a student to leverage that content knowledge in a 21st-century environment.

Firstly, in addition to sound content knowledge, a learner needs to be equipped with learning and innovation skills to allow them to leverage that content knowledge for innovation. These skills include creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. These skills allow learners to assimilate new knowledge effectively, connect disparate information and

Furthermore, a learner needs to be able to use, evaluate and create information, media, and technology. An effective 21st-century worker is, for instance, able to evaluate various forums on the internet to teach him/herself how to automate a routine process, implement the automation, and effectively share this knowledge with others.

Finally, a learner should be well equipped with the life skills needed to navigate fast-changing life and work environments. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has cited the following life skills as critical for a 21st-century environment:

  • Flexibility & Adaptability
  • Initiative & Self Direction
  • Social & Cross-Cultural Skills
  • Productivity & Accountability
  • Leadership & Responsibility

This skillset cannot be taught without experiential learning. To develop these skills, learners need to constantly practice these skills through project-based learning and meaningful reflection. We need educational environments that provide learners with a platform where they can experiment in a safe space, have their voices heard, develop their thinking and explore different perspectives.

To address industry’s urgent need for skills we need to teach technology skills alongside creative problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills. Learners should be given the space to make use of user-centred design to identify problems and design meaningful solutions. Learners should apply coding skills to implement working solutions. Project-based learning is imperative so that learners experience how to work in a collaborative work environment, using appropriate technology to aid collaboration and communication.

Ultimately, I believe we need to see this kind of learning environment at scale in order to adequately address our country’s skills shortage and ensure that South Africa has a workforce with skills that can drive innovation and economic growth in our country.


Originally presented by Emma Dicks at the SOUTHERN AFRICAN IMPACT INVESTING NETWORK 2016 CONFERENCE (Johannesburg, September 2016).

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