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So What Are the Essential Skills Our Young People Need for 2020?

Associate Jackie Beere OBE has a new book coming out which helps schools address the real key skills needed for 2020 and beyond. Here is a sneaky preview with plenty to think about when we ask our favourite question, what are they learning while you're teaching them?

During this current pandemic, it has never been more obvious that our children need to have crucial socio-emotional skills, as well as the ability to be creative thinkers and fearless learners if they are to thrive in an uncertain world.

While there are many lists of what these key skills are, in my new book The Complete Learner’s Toolkit, I draw on those suggested by the World Economic Forum in 2016 for this year, 2020 (they shuffle the pack quite often). In my book I share a whole range of lessons and activities to help our young people, especially those in Key Stages 2 and 3, develop those skills and attitudes to help them thrive in work and in life in the next decade.

What follows is a brief overview of the skills in question, each with a short extract from my book, due out later this year.

  • Active learning and learning strategies.
  • Complex problem solving.
  • Critical thinking.
  • Creativity
  • Leadership and social influence.
  • Emotional intelligence.
  • Judgement and decision making.
  • Service orientation.
  • Negotiation.

Active learning and learning strategies

Aim: To help students understand more about how their brains work so that they become more effective learners.

We know that learning changes brains. Learning grows new neural pathways, enabling us to develop new skills and solve problems. If we want our learners to retain new knowledge long term, they need to embed these neural pathways by actively applying the knowledge in novel situations, using it to problem-solve whilst enjoying the process. The terminal examinations that currently dominate many curricula (or did before the crisis helped us realise we could live without them), should require confident mastery and retention of the knowledge, not merely rote learning which is shallow and short term. It is essential that we teach our students how to review their learning, maximise their memory and grow their neural pathways so that they can perform in these examinations and – beyond them – and be prepared and able to tackle new challenges.

Complex problem solving

Aim: To remind students that they are natural problem solvers and that there are many ways to tackle any problems they face in their learning.

According to Mike Berners-Lee, (brother of you know who and Professor at the Institute of Social Futures) as we have created an ever more complicated and complex world, it demands an increasingly challenging mix of interdependency and technical mastery.[1] The good news is that we are born problem solvers. Children are experts at solving problems. As infants, they solved the problem of how to get fed, talk, walk and adapt to life. They did it through playing, watching, listening, copying, practising and learning how to learn, showing that we – as a species – are natural problem solvers who can follow our instinct to work out what to do next.

Critical thinking

Aim: To help students realise and practise how to think and reflect objectively so that they can make good judgements.

Critical thinking is a crucial skill for achieving success at school and at work in later life. It involves observing, analysing, assessing and evaluating evidence in an objective, open-minded manner. It also asks that we cultivate a sense of curiosity that is always willing to ask questions. Socratic questioning is at the heart of critical thinking. Using open questions in the classroom and for homework helps deepen students’ understanding and helps embed knowledge. In addition, developing the habit of critical thinking will help your students grow up to be open-minded and willing to listen to both sides of an argument before making up their minds.


Aim: To make students consider ways in which they can have the courage to take necessary risks to find new ways of thinking.

Creativity develops new thinking, leading to different approaches and novel ways of doing things, solving problems and finding new answers. It takes courage to be creative because as we grow older, we get used to doing things in ways that make us feel comfortable. We become creatures of habit, with the tendency to sit in the same places, read the same newspapers, listen to the same style of music and have similar friends with similar hobbies. To step out of this comfort zone and become more creative involves taking a risk. Being creative means breaking the rules – innovating, finding new solutions and pushing back the boundaries. This takes courage and confidence as it could go wrong. These lessons encourage children to be brave and to create new experiences and new thinking – habitually.

Leadership and social influence

Aim: To help students develop the skills to lead and communicate effectively.

The skills needed to get on with other people are key to success at school and in the workplace. Good interpersonal relationships and the confidence to be a leader can be developed and nurtured in school. Students are massively influenced by their peers, especially as they get older. We need to help them understand how to influence and lead, rather than only ever to follow, and to understand how to work in harmony with their peers. When you develop a classroom culture that combines challenge and nurture, where children unconditionally support each other, it develops the ultimate climate for good progress for all.

Emotional intelligence

Aim: To help students develop the self-awareness and emotional regulation that will serve them well at school, at home and in their future workplace.

Emotional intelligence encompasses self-awareness and self-management skills which develop confidence, tolerance and success.[2] Emotional intelligence combines interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence and leads to the development of expert communication skills. Becoming emotionally intelligent helps children to see ‘struggle’ as ‘growth’ because they can stand back from their automatic negative response to struggling and enjoy a challenge without self-judgment or comparison with others. This habit of metacognition, or stepping back from your thinking, helps creates that all-important growth mindset.

Judgement and decision making

Aim: To help students identify their values and encourage them to make conscious choices for their own benefit.

Having good judgement and being able to make sensible decisions is an essential skill for us all. So why is it that some children (and, indeed, some adults) make choices that endanger their health and happiness? When children become susceptible to peer pressure, it is often because they haven’t yet developed a clear set of their own values, which can act as an anchor in their tough formative years. We can help students to practise standing back from their immediate, often automatic, responses and to think through the consequences of their decisions, so that they get in the habit of making good judgements.

Service orientation

Aim: To encourage students to want to help other people and to take pride in delivering high-quality outcomes.

The idea of being ‘in service’ could be seen as demeaning – perhaps slightly reminiscent of domestic duties or outmoded class hierarchies. However, adopting the mindset of serving others is a very powerful way to see the emergence of a generous spirit and the humility of true self-confidence. When we genuinely want others to be happy and satisfied with how we treat them and take pride in our work, whether we are leaders or not, we learn the dignity and self-esteem that can lead to our own peace and happiness. Helping children to understand how ‘helping others helps me’ will also build the thinking habits that will enable them to reap the rewards of learning from others in our diverse society, in which there are so many different perspectives.


Aim: To practise good listening and communication skills that will empower students to develop healthy relationships.

Being able to negotiate involves effective communication and emotional resilience. To be able to stand back from your emotions so that you can take an objective view and see all aspects of a situation also requires metacognition and a growth mindset – qualities that we can nurture in the classroom. In this way we also help young people develop the gifts of patient listening and empathy that make them great negotiators.

Cognitive flexibility

Aim: To help students be able to adapt to new situations and maximise their learning capacity.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to change your mind and adapt to different circumstances. This will create resilience and confidence and, above all, a growth mindset that deals effectively with change. Our own individual day-to-day experiences of life are influenced by our conscious and unconscious thinking habits. We all sometimes suffer from cognitive biases: those sets of fixed beliefs about the way things are, or about our own attributes. For example, students may believe that they are poor learners or that maths is too difficult for them, that making friends is too hard or that singing in tune is too tricky. These beliefs may have been triggered by comments or comparisons with others, but once formed they can be hard to challenge.

To finish, let me take you back to the words of Mike Berners-Lee:

‘We have seen…how urgently we need to learn how to think in ways that let us deal more effectively with the situation we have created for ourselves. We need thinking skills and habits that fit in the twenty-first century context of enormous human power and technology on a now-fragile planet.’[4]

Given our current global crisis, such words are both true but also prescient. We would do well to listen. [ITL]

 The Complete Learner's Toolkit is published by the Independent Thinking Press and is due out this September, pandemic permitting.


[1] M. Berners-Lee, There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 189.

[2] D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).

[3] Berners-Lee, There Is No Planet B, p. 188.

[4] Ibid p185

About the author

Jackie Beere OBE

Jackie Beere OBE

Jackie is a former classroom assistant, teacher, AST, headteacher, education advisor and coach. She is the author of many books about school improvement, teaching and learning and personal development including The Complete Learner’s Toolkit.

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