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21st Century Skills: A Vital Foundation for Students’ Success

Author: Paul Pitchford
August 27, 2014

21st Century Skills is a term dominating discussions about what makes an effective educational experience for students for over 20 years.

Non-academic competencies such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and teamwork are often labeled 21st-century skills or global life skills. They may be defined through many lenses, but whatever the lens may be, the discussion centers on the development of personal learning outcomes that provide a foundation for success beyond the academic experience.

21st Century Skills

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills created a framework that identifies the preferred learning outcomes for students as (1) Core Subjects (3Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic and 21st century themes), (2) Learning and Innovation Skills (creative thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity), (3) Life and Career Skills, and (4) Information, Media, and Technology Skills. All these skills, in an ideal environment, are connected and supported by 21st-century education systems and practices.

Another organization, Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, located at the University of Melbourne, identified four broad categories in which to organize the skills:

  • Ways of Thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision making, and learning.
  • Ways of Working. Communication and collaboration.
  • Tools for Working. Information and communications technology and informational literacy.
  • Skills for Living in the World. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility.

The importance of our children acquiring these 21st-century skills is no longer in question. Then, why do we still see large numbers of young people who are not proficient critical thinkers, problem solvers, collaborative communicators, and who are not socially responsible? Schools can provide an effective venue for students to learn 21st-century skills if the focus is on educating the whole child.

The majority of current educational environments emphasize academics, test scores, and fact-based learning outcomes. The measure of a student’s success typically includes high-stakes tests that reflect a student’s current mastery of a specific set of academic competencies. These competencies are important for future academic success and should be a central focus of public schooling.

However, success in life is not based on a score from a bubble sheet, so academics cannot be the only focus. We need to teach our students life and leadership skills as well. Finding ways to do this is the current challenge of many educators.

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