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21ST Century Skills

21ST Century Skills

27 February, 2016

The term 21st century skills refers to a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that are believed—by educators, school reformers, college professors, employers, and others—to be critically significant to success in today’s world, particularly in collegiate programs and contemporary careers and workplaces. Generally speaking, 21st century skills can be used in all academic subject areas, and in all educational, career, and civic settings throughout a student’s life.

Knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits commonly associated with 21st century skills:

  1. Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesizing information
  2. Research skills and practices, interrogative questioning
  3. Creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, personal expression
  4. Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, initiative
  5. Oral and written communication, public speaking and presenting, listening
  6. Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, facility in using virtual workspaces
  7. Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, media and internet literacy, data interpretation and analysis, computer programming
  8. Civic, ethical, and social-justice literacy
  9. Economic and financial literacy, entrepreneurialism
  10. Global awareness, multicultural literacy, humanitarianism
  11. Scientific literacy and reasoning, the scientific method
  12. Environmental and conservation literacy, ecosystems understanding
  13. Health and wellness literacy, including nutrition, diet, exercise, and public health and safety


Generally speaking, the 21st century skills concept is motivated by the belief that teaching students the most relevant, useful, in-demand, and universally applicable skills should be prioritized in today’s schools, and by the related belief that many schools may not sufficiently prioritize such skills or effectively teach them to students. The basic idea is that students, who will come of age in the 21st century, need to be taught different skills than those learned by students in the 20th century, and that the skills they learn should reflect the specific demands that will placed upon them in a complex, competitive, knowledge-based, information-age, technology-driven economy and society.

How 21st century skills intersect with efforts to improve schools:

  1. Teachers may be more intentional about teaching cross-disciplinary skills in subject-area courses. For example, in a science course students might be required to learn research methods that can also be applied in other disciplines; articulate technical scientific concepts in verbal, written, and graphic forms; present lab results to a panel of working scientists; or use sophisticated technologies, software programs, and multimedia applications as an extension of an assigned project.
  2. States, accrediting organizations, and schools may require 21stcentury skills to be taught and assessed in courses. For example, states can adopt learning standards that explicitly describe cross-disciplinary skills, and assessments may be designed or modified to evaluate whether students have acquired and mastered certain skills.
  3. Schools and teachers may use educational approaches that inherently encourage or facilitate the acquisition of cross-disciplinary skills. For example, educational strategies such as authentic learning, demonstrations of learning, or project-based learningtend to be cross-disciplinary in nature, and students—in the process of completing a research project, for example—may have to use a variety of applied skills, multiple technologies, and new ways of analyzing and processing information, while also taking initiative, thinking creatively, planning out the process, and working collaboratively in teams with other students.
  4. Schools may allow students to pursue alternative learning pathwaysin which students earn academic credit and satisfy graduation requirements by completing an internship, apprenticeship, or volunteer experience, for example. In this case, students might acquire a variety of practical, job-related skills and work habits, while also completing academic coursework and meeting the same learning standards required of students in more traditional academic courses.


Arguments supporting teaching 21st century skills:

  • In today’s world, information and knowledge are increasing at such an astronomical rate that no one can learn everything about every subject, what may appear true today could be proven to be false tomorrow, and the jobs that students will get after they graduate may not yet exist. For this reason, students need to be taught how to process, parse, and use information, and they need adaptable skills they can apply in all areas of life—just teaching them ideas and facts, without teaching them how to use them in real-life settings, is no longer enough.
  • Schools need to adapt and develop new ways of teaching and learning that reflect a changing world. The purpose of school should be to prepare students for success after graduation, and therefore schools need to prioritize the knowledge and skills that will be in the greatest demand, such as those skills deemed to be most important by college professors and employers. Only teaching students to perform well in school or on a test is no longer sufficient.
  • Given the widespread availability of information today, students no longer need teachers to lecture to them on the causes of the Civil War, for example, because that information is readily available—and often in more engaging formats that a typical classroom lecture. For this reason, educators should use in-school time to teach students how to find, interpret, and use information, rather than using most or all of the time to present information.

Arguments against the concept of 21st century skills:

  • Public schools and teachers have always taught, and will continue to teach, cross-disciplinary skills—they just never gave it a label. The debate over “content vs. skills” is not new—educators have been talking about and wrestling with these issues for a century—which makes the term “21stcentury skills” somewhat misleading and inaccurate.
  • Focusing too much on cross-disciplinary skills could water-down academic courses, and students may not get “the basics.” The more time teachers spend on skill-related instruction, the less time they will have for content-based instruction. And if schools privilege cross-disciplinary skills over content knowledge, students may be denied opportunities because they are insufficiently knowledgeable. Students need a broad knowledge base, which they won’t receive if teachers focus too much on skill-related instruction or “learning how to learn.”
  • Cross-disciplinary skills are extremely difficult to assess reliably and consistently. There are no formal tests for 21stcentury skills, so the public won’t know how well schools are doing in teaching these skills.