15 May 2019



Preparing a child for the world that doesn’t yet exist is not an easy task for any teacher. Step back and look at that picture from a broad perspective. What are the critical 21st century skills every student needs to survive and succeed in our world? What abilities and traits will serve them in a time that’s changing and developing so rapidly?

Although some educators have grown weary of the term “21st-century learning,” the drive to transform education “matters more today—a lot more—than when we started the conversation,

No pupil in the history of education is like today’s modern learner. This is a complex, energetic, and tech-savvy individual. They want to be challenged and inspired in their learning. They want to collaborate and work with their peers. They want to incorporate the technology they love into their classroom experiences as much as they can. In short, they have just as high a set of expectations of their educators as their educators have of them.

Figuring out how schools should respond, however, remains an open question for many communities. In my own work with educators around the globe, I’ve watched the emergence of 21st-century trends such as makerspaces, flipped learning, genius hour, gamification, and more. Each has its own champions, teaching practices, and even hashtags; all have the potential to disrupt what we think of as traditional, teacher-centered education by giving students more voice in how they learn.

Beyond the core knowledge and concepts that a basic education2 provides, or that technical and vocational education within a formal education system provides, society demands that education systems equip graduating students with the ability to use and apply core knowledge and concepts. This would manifest through young people solving problems, communicating clearly, making evidence-based decisions, working together, and thinking creatively–all within the socio-cultural context of their societies. These competencies, combined with the attitudes, values, and ethics of their societies, have now become explicit aspirations of the formal education sector. The consensus is that students need transparency-level skills in these areas:

  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication

This 21st century skills list is purposefully embedded within the Essential Fluencies. In the meantime, let’s talk more about why these skills are important. We’ll go through each point separately and talk about it in detail.

Collaboration Collaboration has been described as a learning skill (Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2015), an interpersonal skill (National Research Council, 2011), a way of working (ATC21S, 2014); and a way to learn about how individuals think (Enyedy & Stevens, 2014). There is agreement that collaboration is a key skill that improves student learning in school, performance at work, and throughout one’s personal life (Lai & Viering, 2012). Collaboration builds on effective communication skills by inserting these into interpersonal situations (Greenstein, 2012). Collaboration occurs when meeting a goal requires more than what any one individual is able to manage alone and needs to pool resources with others. Collaboration therefore involves a construction of shared meaning that involves an iterative cycle of sharing, confirming, repairing conceptions, and managing the task at hand.

Critical thinking Critical thinking is intentional, goal-directed, and reflective (Lewis & Smith, 1993). It comprises mental processes, strategies, and representations that are used to evaluate, make judgments, and learn new concepts (Sternberg, 1986). Critical thinking also involves evaluating the thinking process (Halpern, 1998). Critical thinking is not a developmental phenomenon where a sequence of competencies emerges at certain ages, but rather a progression in which the constituent processes become more coordinated and sophisticated over time (Kuhn, 1989). In general, critical thinking involves both non-executive and executive processes, but much of the focus has been on metacomponents—or the higher order executive processes used to plan, monitor, and evaluate.

Problem solving Real-world problems and goals are rarely well identified, and the information relevant to them is equally unclear. Problem solving is the basic cognitive process for identifying the nature of problems, assessing different options, and making informed choices when there is no clear or routine solution (Greenstein, 2012; Mayer, 2013). Problem solving requires acquiring and evaluating information to solve different kinds of complex, and sometimes nonfamiliar problems in both conventional and innovative ways.


As the 21st-century learning movement expands internationally, we’re seeing an abundance of frameworks, assessments, and semantic labels as different organizations put their spin on what’s worth knowing.

 ISTE Standards for Students highlight digital citizenship and computational thinking as key skills that will enable students to thrive as empowered learners. The U.S. Department of Education describes a globally competent student as one who can investigate the world, weigh perspectives, communicate effectively with diverse audiences, and take action. The unifying theme of these various frameworks seems to be the human factor. “The core skills of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking are things that humans do well and machines not so well,” argues Ross. “Machines are getting better at them,” he adds, “but perform them best in concert with humans.”

The good news is, there’s no shortage of creative ideas for fulfilling the promise of 21st-century learning. In all kinds of contexts, teachers  are designing learning experiences that challenge students to not only imagine the future, but help to shape it. The challenge that remains is making sure all students have similar opportunities to dream and do.

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