Thoughts on 21st Century Skills Education

Thoughts on 21st Century Skills Education

Popularized by employers, and those concerned with the future of work seem to have identified a set of broad competencies that are necessary to fully engage in future jobs and remain relevant, known as 21st Century Skills. 

21st century skills are abilities and learning attitudes that have been identified as essential education for 21st century children. These skills have been categorized, known as the 4 Cs:.

  • Critical thinking is essential as students are expected to both identify and confront problems that are local, national, and global in scale with neither a single nor a prescribed solution.
  • The ability to relate well to others, cooperate, resolve conflicts, and acknowledge alternate viewpoints—all attributes of an effective collaborator—are indispensable in the world of work.
  • Workers need to be able to communicate across corporations, sectors, time zones, nations, and cultures. Communication requires an individual to clearly articulate his/her viewpoint and help move conversations forward through effective and focused participation.
  • Problem solving is an exercise in creativity that requires its participants to integrate knowledge across silos, combine existing patterns in unique ways, and originate new ideas.

The Partnership for 21st Learning has its own 21st century skill framework, this model identifies several essential skills, including: core subjects, 21st century content, learning and thinking skills, ICT literacy, life skills, and 21st century assessments. The P21 framework encourages higher-order thinking skills.

21st Century Skills Framework by P21

21st century skills vs core knowledge

The Core Knowledge Foundation, argues that that there is little to no research to support frameworks such as 21st century skills, but it just governed by ideologies/theories. Instead, they believe the development of 21st century skills and competencies depends on students acquiring core knowledge, i.e.: the need for a solid foundation in reading, writing, and mathematics cannot be displaced. 

This also means applied skills and competencies can be best taught in the context of the academic curriculum, not as a replacement to it or an ‘add on’ to it. The Core Knowledge Foundation provides references to cognitive research that demonstrate some competencies like critical thinking and problem solving are highly dependent on deep content knowledge and cannot be taught in isolation.

For the full benefits of core knowledge to be realized, students need to be able to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills and apply their learning. Since many of the challenges that our children will face in the 21st century do not have clearly defined answers, recall will not serve students well in the roles of student, employee, citizen, and consumer. Rather, success in any of these domains depends upon the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate core knowledge when faced with a difficult situation that demands a solution. 

Another interesting framework was released by (an education researcher practising in America, currently developing a framework called TPACK) . According to him, the 21st century learning needs is effective when the knowledge is broken down into 3 parts. These are:

1. Foundation Knowledge (To Know): Digital/ICT Literacy, Core Content Knowledge, Cross-disciplinary Knowledge.

2. Humanistic Knowledge (To Value) : Life/Job Skills, Ethical/Emotional Awareness, Cultural Competence.

3. Meta Knowledge (To Act): Creativity and Innovation, Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration.

The Challenge

In order to develop youth that are future ready, we must start with the schools and learning environment. As mentioned previously, I believe, this teaching should come from within the academic curriculum, not as a replacement to it or an ‘add on’ to it.

So how can we create a teaching and learning system that fosters the development of these 21st century skills?

Although the path to the answer may not be very clear just yet, I believe, the answers lie somewhere between personalized learning (not tuition but customization), the use of technology, identifying the new role of a “teacher,” change in the learning environment, new way to delivery learning and a new measurement of ‘learning’. These thoughts have been expanded below:

Personalized Learning: When I was in school, an agency made my class do a test – a simple questionnaire. At the end of this exercise, each one of us was given an analysis pointing to the type of learners we were. They had identified 4 types of learners; visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. This was an eye-opener for me. As I understood my best-method of learning I started to take notes differently in class which aided more comprehensive and easy learning. This makes me believe that, because each human brain is wired differently, students comprehend knowledge at different times and at different depths. But, it is absurdly opposite to the uniformity that education institutes and system work with. So what would schools and students look like if teaching and learning environment addressed the needs of each student rather than treat them as one single unit? 

Use of Technology: This one is an obvious one. The very foundation of 21st century skills and the 4th industrial revolution that we in, is tech based. There is a concern arising from this rapidly evolving tech dependent society – how do we keep our people and students skilled enough to remain relevant? Technology will not in itself create students with 21st century skills. Schools will have to go beyond using chromebooks for research. Technology, if used intentionally, provides teachers with a tool to determine students’ needs and serve them accordingly. But more importantly, teachers need to prepare students to be critical consumers of online information.  As digital natives, students have access to vast knowledge and very understand technology’s capacity to support learning. Tapping into their expertise both enhances the learning experience and empowers students by allowing them to take on a more active role in the classroom. This brings me to the next concern of many teachers I have met – who is the teacher then?

The New EducatorThe days when your teacher was the sole source of knowledge and authority in the classroom is over; way over! Students have access to the a variety of information online. Therefore the chromebook in your classroom becomes the content king and may challenge the authority a teacher may have over a subject. In this context, do teachers become facilitators of knowledge generation? Or facilitators of learning/ learner’s journeys.

Learning Environments: For children, learning has always happen in and out of the classroom, this is more true for today’s digital natives that can learn anytime, anywhere. For community-based, collaboration-enabled learning to be possible, the learning environment needs to be altered. Schools worldwide, currently operate on 50(40)/6(5)/180 schedule. I.e.: 40 minutes per period, 6 or 5 days a week, for 180 days, or similar. This is at odds with the ubiquity of online learning resources. Forty to fifty minute class periods hinder interdisciplinary study. The short episodes of instruction divides subjects and disconnects subjects from each other, and affects application of the content learnt. To create a more student-centered learning environment, “the school day need[s] to be redesigned to include more learning time beyond the school day, including summers, but also a different kind of learning, anchored in high standards and authentic curricula and utilizing technology, the Internet, and community-based experiences” (Task Force on Time, Learning, and Afterschool, 2007).  

Delivery of Learning: Effective learning delivery includes focusing on depth of content rather than breadth, as well as connecting disciplines rather than dividing them into subject areas. Connecting disciplines enhances creative problem-solving skills by preparing students to use content and apply them to real life problems or scenarios. Teacher collaborations too provide everyone in the eco-system a richer experience

Measurement of Learning: How do you assess learning, without giving a percentage or a grade that seems almost too concrete to students? Altering how learning is delivered also requires redefining how learning is measured. Should not new assessments methods need to be developed to measure student performance more deeply and assess 21st century skills then content memorization?

What are your thoughts about 21st century skills and learning environments? Do write your opinions below or email us at:

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