Which 21st Century Skills?

by Jean Tower

I want our students to have opportunities to become expert at “21st century skills” but have yet to be successful in getting a widespread conversation about what the term 21st century skills means to us, in our schools. Several different organizations have developed frameworks defining the term, but the frameworks are not all the same. This lack of clarity may lead to confusion – we mean different things when we say 21st century skills – and this confusion may well lead to inertia – “we can’t ‘do’ it until we define it.”

Current Frameworks:
Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Metiri Group with NCREL

ISTE Standards for Students

In addition, there are books like:
21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel

21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn (Leading Edge) by James Bellanca and Ron Brandt

Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World by Heidi Hayes Jacobs

Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century by Richard M. Cash Ed.D.

Integrating Computer Technology into the Classroom: Skills for the 21st Century (4th Edition) by Gary R. Morrison and Deborah L. Lowther

Accelerated Learning for the 21st Century: The Six-Step Plan to Unlock Your Master-Mind by Colin Rose

The New Literacies: Multiple Perspectives on Research and Practice by Elizabeth A. Baker EdD and Donald J. Leu

Who wouldn’t be confused? The good news is that the various frameworks are very similar. Some include skills that others do not and the emphasis on certain skills varies plan to plan, but reviewed at a macro-level, they are fairly consistent. (Dede, Comparing Frameworks for 21st Century Skills)

Given broad consistency, I suggest that a school district choose any of the frameworks – simply pick the one that appeals to your community of educators and learners. I think the real work (the interesting work) will come when a school system endeavors to define what it means to bring these skills into the curriculum and to include them in teaching and learning on a daily basis.

Typically, in school decisions like this, I think the process is as important as the outcome. That is, in deciding what framework to adopt there will be worthwhile conversations and school and district leaders will have to confront local realities and teachers will have their voices heard – this is all very important. I never read a school mission statement that was as impactful as I assume the process of writing it was.

Nonetheless, I still suggest schools simply adopt a 21st Century Skills Framework and start moving. Think of it as a straw man or pilot – something to get things going and to at least react to. Plan on an annual review of the 21st century skills, and an ongoing cycle of review and re-adoption. It may even be satisfactory to start with an abbreviated framework for the first year or two. One could take the top five or six skills that appear in all the frameworks and start with that and refine on an annual basis.

The reason I suggest ACT first and PROCESS later is that if we do not act immediately, we are educating students for a past that is not their reality. One reason I think it is reasonable to adopt any framework is the consistency between them.

Here’s an (almost) irrefutable set of 21st Century Skills – not complete but included in all the taxonomies. Adopt these, get going, and review and revise as needed!

Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
Effective Communication
Collaboration and Team Building
Creativity and Innovation

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