What are 21st Century Skills, Anyway?

 

It’s one of those terms that’s on everyone’s lips, but isn’t really all that clear.  It seems like something that’s integral to a well-rounded education, but difficult to teach effectively.  It’s something that spans all subject areas, but doesn’t really belong to any one specific class.  What to do with this slippery bit of curriculum?

The confusion for me has always been the “21st Century” part.  I have a background in philosophy and literature, and as far as I’m concerned, most of the skills that make up this giant list are as old as the hills, like communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking.  Sure, there are technological nuances that weren’t there in the era of Plato and Aristotle (heck, some of these nuances weren’t there when I was a student).  However, it seems like technology is just a new tool for performing old tasks.

For whatever it’s worth, here’s my explanation of 21st Century Skills, using a very old teaching tool.  Remember learning about fiction in English class (think hard)?  Your teacher probably talked about the necessity of conflict in a story.  In order for a plot to move forward, and for characters to develop, there needed to be some type of issue to be resolved, or some question to be answered.  According to English teachers, these conflicts fall into three categories, and in my opinion, most 21st Century Skills do too.  They are:

Skills that allow us to know others.

These include things like global awareness, communication, media literacy, civic literacy, and leadership.

Skills that allow us to know our environment or our world.

Environmental awareness, scientific and technological literacy, and problem solving are just a few examples.

Skills that allow us to know ourselves.

Introspection, self-direction, and responsibility round out this list.

Call them soft-skills, personal skills or even survival skills, but I for one am awfully glad that these skills are making a comeback.  They're great on their own, but they also pair up beautifully with all kinds of subject areas, including STEM.  Perhaps classics like these never really go out of style.

Interested in learning more?  There are a lot of great resources out there that list and explain 21st Century skills.  My favourite so far is from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Happy World Thinking Day, everyone!

Amy Leask is VP of Enable Education.  Although as a child, she was forced to learn 21st Century Skills without the aid of the internet, she’s pretty psyched about combining old school learning with new technology.

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