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Why Are We Still Talking About 21st Century Skills?

We are almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century, so why are we still talking about 21st century skills? Are they still important and timely?

The answer is a resounding YES! In case you had forgotten, business leaders, politicians, and educators came to a consensus in the early aughts, identifying the crucial skills all students must acquire to be successful in school and the global workforce. Branded as 21st Century Skills, they are not solely academic, but include dispositions and life skills. We have heard this umbrella term so often, that most of us have forgotten what it includes. Typically, we think about the 4 Cs of Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration, but 21st century skills encompass so much more: cross-cultural skills, information literacy, initiative, and even leadership.

Are these skills really new?

Ultimately, 21st century skills are an extension of last century’s focus on character and civics. Back when I was in school, students were expected to grow up to be productive members of society. To do so, they needed to be literate, diligent, conscientious, able to do simple calculations, and knowledgeable about our shared history and system of government. Hence, the emphasis in schools on these traits and subjects. Now, in our rapidly changing, technologized society, we recognize that students need to focus less on content knowledge and more on teamwork, analytic reasoning, and digital and media literacy. They need to know more than just facts, but how to decide what the facts are. They have to determine if a source of information is reputable, analyze a vast array of often conflicting information, and work cooperatively in groups. It is incumbent on all teachers in every subject from English and science to world language and math, to infuse teaching and learning with these 21st century skills to ensure our students become not only good citizens, but global citizens.

From Discrete Skills to Higher-Level Thinking

With the ubiquity of computers, every learner has virtually all knowable facts at their fingertips, so necessarily the focus of learning has moved away from acquiring discrete facts at the knowledge level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead, the focus has shifted to the higher levels of Bloom’s. Students are expected to apply knowledge, to create and innovate, and to communicate clearly with multilingual colleagues from diverse cultures. Students must show initiative, direct their own learning, hold themselves accountable for their productivity and progress, all while remaining flexible and persistent. And we expect them to do all this while being responsible stewards of resources, the very ones we may have squandered. That is a tall order for K-12, even K-20 education.

Challenges Abound

As a teacher and administrator, I have grappled with developing curriculum that is anchored in both 21st century skills and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, while leaving room for quiet moments of wonder. Project and problem-based learning offer strategies that motivate learners as they work cooperatively to solve real-world issues. But these experiences take much planning and expertise, which may feel like an extra burden for teachers in a post-COVID world. I recall offering a teacher a chance to attend a professional conference only to be rebuffed with the response: “I have enough I can do to keep up with my school obligations now, with students who have lost so much in terms of learning and socialization. It would be more work to create meaningful plans for a substitute, and to catch up upon my return.” Now is not the time to add more – of anything.

A Simple Solution – Virtual Exchanges

If teachers are overworked and students are stressed-out, how can we as educators ensure that learners have equitable access to opportunities that develop all of the critical 21st century skills? By connecting classrooms across the world for project-based inquiry on STEM and STEAM topics, Level Up Village’s global, virtual exchanges foster almost every 21st century skill! Working cooperatively to explore essential content including art, literature, music, science, and social studies, students aged 4-18 gain both intercultural communication and digital literacy. 4th grade teacher, Nancy Simmons, in upstate New York has participated in several exchanges with a school in Kenya, focusing on human impact on the environment. She raves: “I love it because not only are they learning content, but they’re learning technological skills that will be important when they go on in education and in the workplace.” By connecting with partners in vastly different cultures from Ukraine to Zimbabwe, students reflect on their own and other cultures in ways that cannot be taught, but are learned through the process of discovery. Shares Shelly Nichols, a Spanish Teacher in New Jersey, who engaged in an exchange with a school in Argentina: “Teaching cultural competence is extremely important these days, given the fact that we are increasingly more globalized. To nurture students into aware, global citizens, we need opportunities like this to engage students in conversations that share perspectives and firsthand experiences.” These authentic global experiences make a huge impact on students in the US and their partners abroad, preparing them for the 21st century and beyond.

For more information about 21st Century Skills and the Partnership for 21sts Century Learning Frameworks:

For more information about Level Up Village’s virtual, global exchanges:

About the Author

A former teacher of Spanish and IB French, Jen Carson is a past President of the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages (NADSFL) and a Chevalier in the French Order of the Academic Palms, in addition to teaching at Old Dominion University. Currently, she serves as the Foreign Language Association of Virginia (FLAVA) Teacher Education Chair and member of the Southern Conference on Language Teaching (SCOLT) Board of Directors, while working for Language Testing International as a Proficiency & Learning Specialist.