Dominoes and drones: How do we teach our children for the 21st Century?

Teaching children what we know starts with the presumption that we already have the knowledge that they will need in the future. But what if the skills they will need are for jobs that we haven’t even thought of yet? Do today’s children need new skills and do we have what it takes to help them prepare? Researcher, lecturer and 2018 ECA National Conference presenter, Caroline Cohrssen found these questions surfacing in a conversation with friends. The answers, she says, may be close to home.

Recently, we had dinner with friends. One person was a chemical engineer who became a chief commercial officer of a multinational company; another holds a Bachelor degree in engineering, but now does financial modelling. Two people studied law—one is a business advisor and the other is now a financial analyst. Almost all of us are in different disciplines from the ones for which we originally trained. During the evening, the discussion turned to the way in which robotics and artificial intelligence are changing the workplace, and a topic that has been in the media recently: will computers soon be doing jobs that people do now? What jobs will become redundant and what new jobs will emerge? What skills are we meant to teach our children to equip them for success?

Many parents share this concern. Teaching children what we know starts with the presumption that we already have the knowledge that they will need in the future, but the rapid evolution of ‘knowledge’ disrupts this immediately. We read about how tomorrow’s workforce will change career direction frequently, but tomorrow is here—the career changes made by the people at our table demonstrate that already. As people progress through their chosen professions, their specialisation tends to become narrower—this is important, as attention to detail and deep knowledge is critical. Paradoxically, ‘broad’ understanding and the ability to contribute to cross-disciplinary teams is also a critical skill.

Whether a person is employed in the home, in arts, sport, journalism, mining, finance, law, education, politics, construction, retail, or any other profession, skills in reasoning and communication, intellectual flexibility, the ability to engage in critical self-reflection, to collaborate and to think creatively are all very important. These are critical skills that are transferable across contexts—they are skills that are relevant regardless of occupation. These skills are fundamental to a person’s ability to evaluate and respond to our rapidly evolving society. These are skills that are influenced by the home learning environment, yet the extent to which parent–child conversations support thinking skills varies from family to family (Niklas, Cohrssen & Tayler, 2018).

How do we foster these skills in our children? We can foster these skills by asking children open-ended questions, and by engaging in back-and-forth conversations in which we encourage children to explain their thinking. We need to encourage children to seek out information and to be open to new ideas. We need to encourage children to evaluate what they hear, see and read in light of other information. We also need to encourage children to seek out and be open to people who think differently from themselves, recognising that different people bring differing world views and knowledge with them.

The world of work is changing. We can, however, foster the analytical and creative thinking skills that will equip tomorrow’s adults to respond to the challenges that the future will bring. And while we call these 21st Century skills, are they really new skills? Or are these actually skills that the earliest civilisations required for survival too? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dr Caroline Cohrssen will be presenting concurrent sessions at the 2018 ECA National Conference in Sydney, to be held from 19–22 September. Join over 2000 early childhood education and care professionals to learn more about her work fostering young children’s foundation mathematical and spatial skills and reflective approaches to practice. To book now, click here

Dr Cohrssen is a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne and is currently working with the Northern Territory Department of Education to develop STEM resources that support the Northern Territory Preschool Curriculum. She is also collaborating with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority in the development of supplementary resources to augment mapping the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework to the Victorian Curriculum F–10.


Niklas, F., Cohrssen, C., & Tayler, C. (2018.) Making a difference to children’s reasoning skills before school entry: The contribution of the home learning environment. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 54 (July), 70-88.

Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is Professor in Early Childhood Education at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW. As she is particularly interested in children’s learning from birth to five years, her research encompasses the home learning environment as well as early childhood education and care settings. Her research ranges from fine-grained analyses of interactions, to collaborations with quantitative researchers in Australia and overseas. She recently collaborated in the development of the Early Childhood Learning Trajectories that have been published by the Australian Education Research Organisation. These assist educators’ enactment of the early years planning cycle.

One thought on “Dominoes and drones: How do we teach our children for the 21st Century?”

    Sue-Ellen Judson says:

    Is how children learn becoming more important than what they learn. If children have a deeper understanding of how they gain knowledge, then when they need to learn about something new ‘on the horizon’ then they have the skills to do this. Maybe also why problem solving skills are becoming more important.

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