21st century skills and their relevance today

21st century skills and their relevance today

By Lottie Dowling

‘21st century skills’ is a term that has been around for some time now and, despite being 17 years into the 21st century, it seems many people are still grappling with what these skills are, their relevance and how they can be developed.

What are 21st century skills?

There are currently a number of different interpretations, definitions and models of 21st century skills; however, they are all based on the idea that ‘deeper learning’ is a core requirement to prepare us all for the demands of the 21st century.

What is common to them all is the moving focus from knowledge to values, attitudes, capabilities and skills. As participants in the information age, each with a smart phone in our pockets and the ability to find answers to any knowledge-based questions in seconds, the need for acquiring knowledge has vastly decreased, replaced by the need for values, attitudes, capabilities and skills that will equip us more effectively for the challenges of the 21st century.

The Models

Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), has a comprehensive Framework for 21st Century Learning. It has three key areas of skills (Life and Career, Career and Innovation, Information, Media and Technology Skills) along with subjects and themes, and it envelops them within the wider context of education-related areas: assessment, curriculum, professional development and learning environments.

In this model, in the key area of Career and Innovation Skills, there are the 4 C’s, which P21 did a research series on: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity.

Michael Fullen’s New Pedagogies for Deep Learning  project presents The Deep Learning Competencies, or the 6 C’s model, adding Character Education and Citizenship to the existing 4 C’s outlined above.

Finally, around the world we are beginning to see various school curriculums include aspects of these skills, values and attitudes, such as the Australian Curriculum’s inclusion alongside subjects of seven general capabilities, including Critical and Creative Thinking, ICT and Intercultural Understanding.

Why are they needed?

Our world is evolving at breakneck speed and many aspects of our life are simultaneously being disrupted by several main forces including globalisation, automation, digital technologies and increasingly flexible living and working arrangements. These forces have an impact on all aspects of life: the world of work, travel and leisure, sourcing and consuming food, health and medicine, and new and continued world problems.

Flexible working arrangements mean our students will face a working environment that is increasingly insecure and more flexible. The jobs they will be doing may not exist yet or will exist in very different forms. They will need the skills, values, knowledge and attitudes to find suitable work and be able to do it competently.

Automation means the world of work is rapidly transforming. Any job requiring manual labour is already or will probably soon be replaced. Our daily life can increasingly be run from smart phones or computers: online shopping, working remotely, online banking, and sourcing labour and services. Jobs for humans will require higher order thinking skills that robots cannot do.

Globalisation also means there is more competition for work as more educated individuals are applying for jobs not just in their own communities and cities, but in other parts of the world. Websites such as Upwork allow people to bid for projects from all over the world, with skilled workers in first world and developing countries bidding on the same projects.

Our world is facing increasingly complex challenges due to globalization. Migration is as it never has been before and our current refugee population is one of the highest in modern history. The planet’s environment is under huge pressure with a growing population to feed and climate change being a large focus for environmental changes. Our future will depend on us being able to solve these challenges.

How can they be developed?

As educators, the opportunities to develop these 21st century skills exist in a number of different ways.

Ensuring our curriculum develops skills alongside knowledge, that opportunities for problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking are embedded in every subject and that the curriculum subjects themselves are really relevant is a practical place to start. Curriculum design and teaching and learning activities need to be reflective of the world’s diversity and therefore supports students’ development of intercultural understanding, truly preparing them to be global citizens. For example, coding, robotics, design thinking and applied problem solving can be embedded into interesting topics to simultaneously engage and equip students.

Building students’ digital technology skills through engaging teaching and learning activities and ensuring there are relevant opportunities to use digital technologies are widely acknowledged as a core part of educators’ responsibilities. It is essential to design meaningful learning experiences that use digital technologies to build students’ knowledge of not only how to use the technology itself, but also how to use them to build other skills and competencies.

It is our absolute responsibility as educators to ensure that we are constantly up-skilling and educating ourselves about what students really need, and can provide these opportunities for them. We don’t have to know how to do everything – we can’t all code or build robotics – but there are plenty of programs and resources that can do this for us. Having an open mind and an ‘I don’t know all the answers’ attitude will ensure that we don’t miss out on opportunities that both up-skill ourselves and our students.

Global competencies

Seventeen years into the 21st century, a newer term, ‘Global Competencies,’ has emerged and is widely used. Its absolute relevance has been acknowledged by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through the assessment of ‘Global Competence’ for the first time in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams. This will have a huge impact on the wider dialogue around these skills and the question of whether, around the world, we truly are equipping students adequately for the 21st century.


Lottie Dowling has worked in education as a school practitioner and professional learning leader on a global, national and regional level for over 16 years in a number of roles including; educator, designer and deliverer of professional learning, capacity building, curriculum development, global competency program content development and education management. Follow Lottie on Twitter @LottieDowlingNZ.

Source image: shutterstock.com/Rawpixel.com

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2 Comments
  • Richard F
    Posted at 03:00h, 18 April Reply

    Hi, I enjoyed reading your blog. I thought it was a useful summary of how development impacts education. I agree that these elements help us to think about reorientating the curriculum, though personally I’m not sure industrial skills or labour will go away anytime soon by just exist in a modified form. Nethertheless it is exciting to think about a curriculums goals and its relevance. It makes me think about the purpose of education too, perhaps the models mentioned in this blog embed skills that lead students to construct and participate in an unknown world rather than being left behind or confining to old type transmission-based thingy…

    • EduMaxi
      Posted at 10:23h, 03 October Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Richard. Indeed there are more to be discussed and explored when we push boundaries. I think it is crucial for teachers, parents, students and other stakeholders to think about the purpose of education. I believe there is room for being critical.

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