21st Century Skills!

Dear Commons Community,

Over the past few years, we have increasingly heard the need for educators at all levels to emphasize the need for students to learn 21st century skills.  The definition of 21st century skills is a bit complex but generally involves a heavy dose of learning and keeping up with information and communications technologies integrated with the development of critical/analytical thinking and interpersonal skills.   For a more thorough examination of a definition, an organization known as the Partnership for 21st Skills (P21) has  an extensive website devoted to discussing definition, issues, and implementation strategies. (see:  http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/)

However, in a recent article that appeared in Education Week, the entire question of emphasizing 21st century skills came under attack as nothing more than an attempt by technology companies to sell products and “to gain more influence over the classroom”.   Here is an excerpt from an article in Education Week stating the criticism:

“after seven relatively quiet years of work, P21 is facing a vocal chorus of detractors of its initiative, primarily from among advocates for a liberal arts and sciences curriculum…

Recently, those critics have leveled a more serious charge at the organization. P21, they allege, is a veiled attempt by technology companies—which make up the bulk of the group’s membership—to gain more influence over the classroom.

“The closer we look, the more P21’s unproven educational program appears to be just another mechanism for selling more stuff to schools,” [says] Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington group that advocates a stronger core curriculum,..”

The entire article can be found at:  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/12/09/14partnership_ep.h29.html

The issue raised in this article is a good one to ponder because too many times the term  “21st century skills” is used  as a fait accompli rationale for using technology in our teaching and learning.  While I fully support  integrating technology in instruction, I do get concerned when colleagues stress too strongly the need to change, transform or revolutionize our pedagogical approaches in the name of teaching 21st century skills as if we would be short-changing our students and hurting their chances to compete in the future for jobs, careers, and professional opportunities.



  1. My own daughter is teaching me about the 21st century skill sets and it worries me to be honest..There is so much to learn to keep up and I feel its over stimulating and in some ways effecting our kids. Thanks Tony for the read, it was right on point.

  2. Unfortunately, some schools might take a look at the list of 21st century skills and expand its traditional courses by using technology more often and feel comfortable that they have “covered” those skills. Although to be encouraged, the notion that teaching curricula via digital media is the be-all and end-all of 21st century education shortchanges not only the understanding what of 21st skills are, but also undercuts the emphasis on critical and creative thinking that have been identified as imperative. In addition to paying attention to technology, teachers need to provide projects and activities in ways that require a combination of creative problem solving and collaborative learning, and include the application of skills and knowledge learned in other curriculum areas as well as in their own.

    Bottom line: it is not about the knowledge or the thinking but how we relate the two. Over dependence on either facts or thinking reduces the potency of both. We will still need to learn basic facts and processes because we need them as tools and guides to thinking. For example, we learn to read so that we can read to learn. We want kids to know their math facts, but not as an end. We want them to be able to apply them to solving problems. And yes, facts are becoming increasingly easy to look up – provided we know how and where to look. However, content and skills are not an end, but rather a means. They are tools and vehicles for students to apply if they are to meet and successfully address the multiple challenges of the 21st century. Students will also need to learn how to think with facts and processes – and on occasion, think in spite of them.

    • Hal,

      Thanks for responding to my post. The points you make are fine and I agree with them totally. As I indicated in my original post: “The definition of 21st century skills is a bit complex…involves a heavy dose of learning and keeping up with information and communications technologies integrated with the development of critical/analytical thinking and interpersonal skills.”


  3. Boone,

    Thanks for replying to my post.

    In response to your question regarding my concern: for my entire career, I have always been for integrating the teaching/use of technology into our academic programs and curricula. It is incredibly important that our students see us (faculty and others) using the “new” technologies and requiring them to use them also in their course activities. I believe that most of our academic programs – not necessarily every faculty member – have begun to integrate technology. We have also seen the progression of computer literacy to information literacy to digital literacy to information fluency to emphasize the need to make sure our students are aware of, understand and have experiences using information and communications technologies. What I get “concerned” about is the reference to teaching 21st century skills a bit too alarming as if we – the faculty – have not been doing anything over the past 30-40 years to make greater uses of technology. We also have to be careful in what technologies to use or to adapt to our academic programs. If we look at some of the available information and communications tools (blogs, wikis, spreadsheets, database building and querying, etc.), not every faculty has to use these tools in every one of their courses but somewhere in each program the technological tools appropriate to the discipline/subject matter would be desirable if not required.

    Thanks for raising the question!


  4. A great post, Tony, and very timely, as I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately.

    When the teaching of ’21st century skills’, or what I might call a bit more broadly ‘digital literacies’, is a means of selling gadgets, then I’m 100% on the side of those who deride the P21 movement.

    When you look at the teaching of such skills as a vocational requirement, there is an obvious impetus to incorporate them into the curriculum. You say that you get “concerned” about such arguments, but I’m curious to know why: is it because you don’t think that a lack of such skills will not hurt their chances of competing, or is it because you don’t think that career-specific preparation shouldn’t be a focus of the liberal arts education?

    In any case, I am a strong believer that it’s possible to make an argument for the teaching of broad kinds of digital literacy without explicitly referencing vocationalism. New technological changes lead to changes in the nature of the way that we communicate with one another, which will have (albeit belated) effects on how scholarship happens, even in the most stodgy of disciplines. Thus, insofar as scholarship will change in the 21st century, we have a duty to think about the way that we change the way we think about teaching students in our disciplines. What do you think?