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Foundations for Future Skills

“Change is the only constant in life” – Heraclitus

Heraclitus’s famous quote, stated nearly three millennia ago, rings truer than ever. When I began my tertiary education, slightly more than a decade ago, many of today’s top performing sectors, like cloud computing and smart phone app design, were no more than someone’s crazy pipe dream.

This speed of change has increased faster than in recent history at least.
If change is the only constant and recent innovations have created major disruptions to business models, how will educators be able to identify the skills needed by today’s students for tomorrow’s economy? How should the provision of education, particularly within Southeast Asia, adapt?

At the early stages of formal education, the solution to ensuring that students are prepared for future jobs may be found in the past: a strong foundation in language and numeracy.

One of the biggest challenges facing Southeast Asian countries is the provision of high quality foundational knowledge in language and numeracy, the basic requirement for the acquisition of employable skills. I am concerned that some Southeast Asian countries, in their haste to keep up with changing global trends, may reduce the emphasis on foundational knowledge in preference of teaching ‘new skills’. In many countries across the region, despite having enjoyed high levels of economic growth, the provision of basic education, particularly in rural areas, is far from ideal. This, in my opinion, does not bode well for countries looking to leverage on disruptive technologies and the gig economy for sustained economic growth.

The successful mastery of a language must extend beyond fundamental measurements of literacy, and include the ability to utilise a language to be an effective communicator. In a gig economy, fewer people are going to find themselves in stable long term employment; instead many may be juggling multiple projects for different employers at any given time. One could imagine such a structure to be highly competitive with applicants ‘bidding’ for a limited number of projects.  Effective and impactful communication, beyond basic literacy, would be necessary for an individual to be ‘heard’ in the cacophony of a gig economy. Today’s educators, particularly in less developed regions of Southeast Asia, still measure language by a student’s ability to read and write. This is not sufficient, students must be able to utilize a language to be an effective communicator expressing their ideas in a concise and easily understandable manner.

The challenges facing the provision of numeracy skills is no less complex. Basic numeracy, as traditionally defined, is an individual’s ability to comprehend the fundamental arithmetic skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. These skills though necessary, are far from sufficient in a world consistently bombarded by new and disruptive technologies. Understanding the importance of information technology, some countries like Singapore have incorporated coding and computer programming into the mainstream curriculum. Such a move allows students to acquire the basic knowledge to remain competitive in the technological age, but presupposes numerical skills beyond an understanding of basic arithmetic. An understanding beyond basic numeracy allows a student to observe patterns and trends, the basic building blocks of computer programming.
Having a strong foundation in language and numeracy will allow students to be able to not only learn but effectively utilize ‘new skills’.

Having acquired the basic foundations in language and numeracy, a student entering tertiary education would be focused on the acquisition of skills that would increase their desirability among employers.

Organizations like The HEAD Foundation aim to work with partners in the region to not only improve the provision of basic language and numeracy education but to also help teacher training methods be in line with global best practices.


Vignesh Naidu is Research Manager at the HEAD Foundation. His research area focuses on skills and employability.

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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