The ABCs of 21st Century Skills

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Many of our posts have encouraged you to highlight 21st century skills in your sales and marketing communications. Today’s post offers a quick refresher on what the 21st century skills are and why they’re relevant as you engage K-12 schools and districts. 

Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic Are Only the Beginning

The term “21st century skills” has been part of the K-12 lexicon for more than a decade (and many of the underlying ideas have been discussed far longer than that). But its meaning and scope have expanded and evolved. In the Center for Public Education’s paper Defining a 21st Century Education, one educator complained, “For all of the talk about 21st century skills, trying to figure out what they really are is not easy…One framework lists 22 separate sub-skills deemed necessary to succeed in the 21st century!”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) was one of the first groups out of the gate to call for this paradigm shift in K-12 schools. Co-founded in 2002 by Ken Kay with support from heavyweights like AOL, Cisco, Microsoft, and the U.S. Department of Education, P21 sparked a national conversation as it proposed a set of 21st century student competencies that evolved into a multifaceted framework.

Arguing that American students were significantly unprepared for college and careers in a globally competitive society, P21 challenged schools to embrace an innovative new model of education. While it lauded progressive ideas like experiential learning, it was also careful to preserve traditional academic subjects as its core: “U.S. schools,” P21 suggested, “must align classroom environments with real world environments by fusing the 3Rs and 4Cs.”

The group emphasized certain skills, literacies and interdisciplinary themes to foster creativity, critical thinking and other future-forward outcomes. The goal was to teach students to apply the subject matter they learn to solve real-world problems and help them to develop the critical skills necessary for success in an ever more complex economy.

The 3 Rs

In the context of 21st century skills, the 3 Rs is shorthand for all core academic subjects, including: English, reading, language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history, government and civics.

The 5 Interdisciplinary Themes

To prepare K-12 students for success in the modern world, P21 argued that classrooms should foster a stronger connection between the students and that surrounding world. To that end, the organization suggested incorporating 21st century interdisciplinary themes into the core subject lesson plans. They highlighted the importance of improving literacy around global cultures; finance, economics, and entrepreneurship; civics; health; and the environment.

The 4 Cs

P21 also identified “learning and innovation” skills that K-12 students would need to develop in order to best learn and then apply those learnings in school, work, and life. They referred to the four “most important” learning skills as the 4 Cs:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

P21 Framework Grows in Scope

Over the years, the P21 consortium has grown considerably and now counts more than 40 member organizations, including Apple, Lego Education, and Ford Motor Company, and 19 partner states. Its formal recommendations have evolved as well, based on input from a wide range of professionals. The current Framework for 21st Century Learning includes the 3 Rs and 4 Cs (although recategorized), along with Information, Media & Technology Skills and Life & Career Skills.

To better ensure student outcomes, P21 has also developed a formal call for 21st Century Support Systems, outlining recommendations for Standards, Assessment, Curriculum and Instruction, Professional Development and Learning Environments.

A Brief View of Alternative Frameworks

While P21’s framework is the most well-known, other organizations have since come up with taxonomies of their own. The Assessing & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) organization, sponsored by Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft, defined four categories of 21st century skills:

  • Ways of Thinking (creativity and innovation; critical thinking, problem solving and decision making; learning to learn and metacognition)
  • Ways of Working (communication; collaboration and teamwork)
  • Tools for Working (information literacy; information technology and communication literacy)
  • Living in the World (life and career; personal and social responsibility)

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) also issued a set of guidelines: Their Standards for the 21st-Century Learner outline recommendations for student skills, literacies and dispositions, emphasizing themes like digital citizenship.

Tech Competency Is Both a Means and a Goal

Technology is woven into all of the 21st century frameworks, guidelines, and recommendations described above. Over the past decade, the focus has shifted from simply pursuing technological competencies to using the technology as a means to build other 21st century skills (e.g., collaboration, communication, and creative problem-solving).

New Guidelines for Using Technology in Education

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is currently one of the most buzzworthy terms in K-12 technology discussions.

P21’s full framework outlines standards for Information, Media and Technology Skills, including detailed recommendations for ICT literacy.

The National Education Association (NEA) defines ICT literacy as “the ability to use technology to develop 21st century content, knowledge and skills. . .[in order to] know how to learn, think critically, solve problems, use information, communicate, innovate and collaborate.”

The International ICT Panel similarly defines ICT literacy as “using digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate and create information in order to function in a knowledge society.” It defines the key steps to ICT literacy as: Access – Manage – Integrate – Evaluate – Create.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for learning and teaching in the 21st century have been adopted worldwide. They further the development of many of the same 21st century skills embraced by P21 and the Common Core State Standards, such as critical thinking, creative problem-solving and collaboration skills.

A New Sense of Urgency in a Changing Economy

Tony Wagner, who currently serves as an Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab, lectures widely on “Transforming Education for the 21st Century.”  Wagner argues that, “the future of our economy, the strength of our democracy, and perhaps even the health of the planet’s ecosystems depend on educating future generations in ways very different from how many of us were schooled.”

The 21st century skills movement raises the bar for students, teachers, and administrators; provides a basic benchmark to expose gaps and shortfalls in learning materials, tools, and technology; and presents countless opportunities for you to pitch to existing and emerging needs in every state in the U.S.

The implications affect 1) standards and assessment, 2) curriculum and instruction, 3) professional development, and 4) learning environments. For K-12 publishers, developers, and businesses, this presents huge potential in all four areas.

While there’s widespread agreement and buy-in on the importance of 21st century skills, many schools are lagging behind. To raise the sense of urgency, P21 and others are rallying behind the 21st Century Readiness Act, a piece of legislation introduced to Congress in 2011 to support the use of funds for state and local innovation to support 21st century readiness. Major K-12 grants such as the Carl D. Perkins program, Promise Neighborhoods, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers focus on helping school districts prepare their students for college and career success.

Are You Prepared to Show 21st Century Alignment?

As you engage with schools and districts, make sure that your sales team is prepared to explain how your products facilitate 21st century teaching and learning. For example:

  • How does your product align specific areas of core academic subject content with key, interdisciplinary themes?
  • How does your product engage today’s digital natives and motivate them to excel in school and beyond?
  • How will your product meet the ramped up needs for curriculum, instruction, assessment, or professional development?
  • How does your product improve connections between the classroom and “real world” environments?
  • How can your product help prepare students for college and the careers that follow?
  • How does your product help to fuse the 3Rs with the 4Cs?
  • How is your organization specifically prepared to support and empower teachers within the new framework?
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