Understanding of 21st Century Skills and Outcomes

Business and education leaders agree: mastery of core subjects and 21st century skills are essential for success in life and work.

Early in the 21st century, leaders and visionaries in the business and education communities joined together to recommend the skills needed to enrich the lives of those living in the 21st century and to make them more successful in their work.

Business leaders have been especially outspoken in their call for a workforce well versed in 21st century skills. In a recent survey, business leaders were asked about the skills most needed for readiness for today’s business environments. Casner-Lotto, J. & Brenner, M.W. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce, 50-51. The highest ranked skills for students entering the workforce were not facts and basic skills; they were applied skills that enable workers to use the knowledge and basic skills they have acquired.

The most desirable skills: work ethic, collaboration, social responsibility, and critical thinking and problem-solving. Employers also see creativity and innovation as being increasingly important in the future.

Current thinking about 21st century skills is based not only on recommendations from business leaders, but also on research about how people learn. Much of the early research on this topic was carried out by cognitive psychologists during the 1970s and 1980s and focused on how individuals, especially experts, learn and solve problems. Although fruitful, researchers realized that their work did not take into account the rich environment in which individuals worked to solve problems-environments filled with tools and colleagues. This realization has led to the study of learning and solving problems in social environments.

In the 1990s, cognitive psychologists began to study collaboration and the role of social context in learning, while educational researchers began to study collaboration in school settings. Sawyer, R.K. (2006). Introduction: The new science of learning. In R.K. Sawyer, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (19-34). New York: Cambridge University Press. These studies underscore the importance of expanding goals that we have for students to include both basic and applied skills and to focus on both individual and collaborative problem-solving. Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Through the efforts of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) and other organizations, specifics regarding these skills have been refined. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills developed a complete framework for articulating these skills, which is being widely adopted by visionary states and school districts. These states and districts are beginning to strategize how these skills might best be supported.

The framework recognizes the centrality of core subject areas in the educational milieu but also emphasizes new themes that must be interwoven across disciplines to increase the relevance for today’s learners. In addition, the framework outlines skills in three areas: Life and Career Skills, Learning and Innovation Skills, and Information, Media, and Technology Skills. Partnership for 21st Century Skills. August 2, 2007. www.21st centuryskills.org. Each of these areas is described briefly here, but much more information can be found on the P21 website.

The term “core subjects” is used in the P21 framework to designate the content knowledge that most people recognize as school subjects. While content knowledge has always been a part of schooling, cognitive psychology research on expert problem-solving has helped explain the nature of the content knowledge needed for the 21st century. This research demonstrates that experts have extensive amounts of content knowledge and that they organize this knowledge about important concepts in their field of expertise. This method of organizing content helps them retrieve it when it is needed quickly and with little effort. Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Although most learners will not become experts in the fields that they study, it is important to understand that knowing a subject is not just about memorizing facts and acquiring basic skills. It is also about organizing this knowledge in a way that connects it to problem situations. Experts’ knowledge organization is acquired in thousands of hours of experience in attempting to solve problems and understanding which facts and skills are useful in which situations. Educational research has suggested that these kinds of connections can also be established in school settings in which students learn facts and skills while they are solving problems.

Developing conceptual structures that are correct and rich requires a deep understanding of a domain. This process can be facilitated by curricula that emphasize depth over breadth so that learners have time to develop understanding. It can also be facilitated by instruction that encourages learners to reflect on their process of learning and their understanding.

Interwoven within each of these content areas are several interdisciplinary themes. Although there are many important and interesting interdisciplinary themes, the ones presented here have been identified by the Partnership as areas likely to be increasingly important in the future. Casner-Lotto, J. & Brenner, M.W. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce, 50-51. They represent emerging content areas that are not typically covered in school today.

These themes are intended to cross content boundaries and should be developed within multidisciplinary study. Economic literacy, for example, contains key social science concepts. And without mathematics and persuasive writing, the effectiveness of any economist would be diminished. These themes are best developed through rich, authentic work that mirrors the work of professionals in the field.

Diagram Rainbow

Also linked to core subjects and interdisciplinary themes is the need for information, media, and technology skills.

Today, students get their information from sources that have not been vetted by the traditional publishing processes. Consequently, they “must be able to recognize when they need information, what kind of information they need, and where to look for it to complete a task successfully. They must also be able to do this effectively regardless of the information’s format, source, or location.” The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998). Reinventing undergraduate education: A blueprint for America’s research universities, 11. Accessed on Jan. 23, 2008 http://naples.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/ And they must also be able to judge the quality of the information, its accuracy and objectivity.

Information literacy moves beyond students’ ability to evaluate the information they receive to being able to communicate their own understanding and perspectives in a wide variety of media modes, genres, and forms. For example, Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis have put students in the position of being creators as well as consumers of published information.

One example, controversial among educators, is the use of Wikipedia as a research tool. This collaborative, socially constructed encyclopedia can be edited by anyone and thus may contain errors and biases. While some teachers forbid its use for research, others are using it as a tool for helping students become more information literate by having them create and verify their own entries. Students may begin by looking up entries for their own hometown, check it for accuracy, and add something that is missing. This idea of knowledge as the product of students working collaboratively is strongly connected to the way that academic and scientific communities work. It also supports the development of students in providing evidence and argumentation for their ideas. Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3, 265-283. Goldman, S.R., Duschl, R.A., Ellenbogen, K., William, S.M., & Tzou, C. (2002). Science inquiry in a digital age: Possibilities for making thinking visible. In H. van Oostendorp (Ed.), Cognition in a Digital Age. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Sandoval, W.A., & Millwood, K.A. (2005). The quality of students’ use of evidence in written scientific explanations. Cognition and Instruction, 23(1), 23-55.

By June 2007, Wikipedia was getting 7 billion page views per month. Leuksman.com June 2007. http://leuksman.com/log/2007/06/07/wikimedia-page-views/

Wikipedia has 75,000 active contributors working on more than 9,000,000 articles in more than 250 languages. Wikipedia. 2008. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About

Learning and innovation skills are those needed to solve complex problems. They include critical thinking and problem-solving skills, creativity and innovation skills, and communication skills. These areas have a long history of research. Individual cognition and problem-solving research findings have highlighted the skills that experts use in critical thinking. In addition to an extensive knowledge base of organized factual information, a key finding is that experts monitor their own thinking: they define their learning and problem-solving goals and keep track of their progress toward achieving them. There is evidence that children can be taught these skills and enhance their problem-solving performance.

Creativity and innovation are the processes of developing new perspectives and applying them to specific problems. These skills are thought to arise as problem- solvers reinterpret problems and elaborate on these new interpretations. Research has recently begun to contrast “routine experts,” those who efficiently and accurately retrieve a solution for a problem, with “adaptive experts,” those who continually evolve new approaches to problem situations. Bransford, J., Barron, B., Pea, R., Meltzoff, A., Kuhl, P., Bell, P., Stevens, R., Schwartz, D., Vye, N., Reeves, B., Roschelle, J., & Sabelli, N.H. (2006). Foundations and opportunities for an interdisciplinary science of learning. In R.K. Sawyer, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 19-34). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Traditional assessments and schooling tend to emphasize routine efficiency, but in the 21st century, routine tasks will be done by machines or be outsourced to lower paid workers. Research suggests that if learners and teachers are aware of these two different kinds of expertise, and monitor and encourage their development, students can be both efficient and adaptive.

In the 1990s, researchers shifted their focus from studies of individual thinking and began to concentrate on how people solved problems in groups using books, tools, and machines. Instead of studying a single problem-solver in a laboratory or school, they began to study problem-solvers in informal settings and in the workplace. The focus was on how successful groups work together to solve problems using commonly available tools.

A 2006 survey revealed that more than 20 percent of employers felt that high school graduates were not prepared to use information technology applications. J. Casner-Lotto and M.W. Benner. Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. 2006.

Knowing how to participate in groups and use group tools is a critical aspect of learning and problem-solving in the 21st century. In fact, over 80 percent of employers rank collaboration and teamwork as a “very important” skill for those entering the workforce in the 21st century.

Basic subject knowledge and skills are necessary but not sufficient for successful performance in life and on the job. Many additional traits are needed, including taking initiative, being accountable, and being a leader. In recent surveys, more employers rated these applied skills as more important than basic subject knowledge. Casner-Lotto, J. & Benner, M.W. (2006). Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (1999). Skills and tasks for jobs: A SCANS report for America 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor. Downloaded from http://wdr.doleta.gov/opr/fulltext/document.cfm?docn=6140 on November 29, 2007.

They also found that most high school graduates and many graduates of two- and four-year schools are deficient in these skills. It is important that schools align their learning environments, requirements, and assessments to promote the acquisition of these skills prior to graduation.