Information Age Education Blog

The goal of IAE is to help improve education at all levels throughout the world. This work is done through the publication of the IAE Blog, the IAE-pedia, the IAE Newsletter, books, and other materials all available free on the Web. For more information, go to
7 minutes reading time (1401 words)

21st Century Skills

We each have our own opinions as to what schools are doing and/or should be doing to prepare students for their 21st century adult lives. My recent Web search of the expression 21st century skills returned more than 19 million hits.

The articles I browsed tended to present an author’s opinion of what constitutes the important 21st century knowledge and skills. Many articles talk about goals of precollege education, such as preparing students for careers and further education. Others recognize that education has broader goals than these practical one. See my list of educational goals at

In talking about precollege education, Arne Duncan, the current U.S. Secretary of Education, emphasizes college and career readiness. See  I consider these to be sound bites, and I would add to the list “preparation for lifelong responsible adulthood.” These types of sound bites capture important ideas, but do not provide the depth needed to analyze how well our educational system is doing. For additional insights into 21st century education, see ATC21S (n.d.).

What Are Important 21st Century Skills?
In brief summary, the articles I browsed tended to focus on topics such as lifelong learning, critical thinking, problem solving, various aspects of technology, communication, and collaboration.

The totality of human knowledge is huge and is growing quite rapidly, and the pace of technological progress continues its rapid increase. So there is considerable agreement that we need to prepare students for lifelong learning and adjusting to a rapid pace of change. There is also considerable agreement on the need for developing the types of human-to-human skills that are an important aspect of life in our societies. These include areas such as dealing with diversity, communication, tolerance and understanding of individual differences, and so on.

The current Common Core Initiative in the U.S. is focusing on English Language Arts, Math, Science, and History/Social Studies as key content areas. See This initiative focuses on content, teaching methodologies, and assessment. There is considerable emphasis on learning for understanding, improving higher-order knowledge and skills, and staff development. To me, this initiative appears to be quite weak in Information and Communication Technology, a key component of our futures.

Microsoft Partners in Learning
I recently read a 19-page report published by Microsoft Partners in Learning (5/28/2013).  It is strongly oriented toward preparation for careers. I found it interesting both because of its focus on potential job satisfaction and also on the issue of school learning versus on-the-job learning. Quoting from the report:

Twenty-first century skills are advanced skills that prepare and equip youth for the challenges and demands of work in the 21st century. These skills have been identified and defined by the Innovative Teaching and Learning Research project and include: collaboration, knowledge construction, problem solving and innovation, self-regulation, the use of technology for learning, and skilled communication. [Bold added for emphasis.]

In this project, “Pearson Foundation, Microsoft Partners in Learning, and Gallup collaborated to measure these skills alongside nationally validated measures of student aspiration across Americans aged 18-35 who are either students or employed.” The study was designed to provide better insight into roles of our schools in helping students to gain 21st century skills.
This study is important because it helps to explore the practicality, relevance, and applicability of the education students are currently receiving.

Some Findings from the Microsoft Partners in Learning Report
The study focused on responders’ self-reported quality of work life. Quoting from the report:

Developing 21st century skills in the last year of school is positively correlated with higher perceived work quality later in life. In fact, those who have high 21st century skill development are twice as likely to have higher work quality compared to those who had low 21st century skill development.

Respondents are nearly four times more likely to credit the skills they use for their work to outside activities rather than to the classroom. The majority of respondents (59%) agree or strongly agree that most of the skills used in their current job were developed outside of school. Only 15% disagree or strongly disagree, indicating they felt that these skills were developed in school.

Age plays a role in the discussion around 21st century skills. The data show younger respondents reporting slightly higher levels of development of 21st century skills. Respondents aged 18-22 are more likely than those aged 23-35 to say they often used 21st century skills in their last year of school, particularly in the areas of knowledge construction, self regulation, and skilled communication. This may be an indicator that teaching strategies in the U.S. are changing to include more 21st century skills.

In brief summary, the respondents indicate that their formal schooling played only a modest role in providing them with the knowledge and skills that help them to hold jobs that bring them higher work quality of life.

Transfer of Learning
Transfer of learning is a major educational problem. We want students to gain knowledge and skills that they will be able to effectively apply in their future lives. We recognize that the types of factual knowledge typically (historically) taught in schools tend to be forgotten relatively quickly. We also know that employers expect to have to do on the job training and education.

I find it interesting to pick various 21st century skills and analyze them from the point of view of transfer of learning from formal education to initial on-the-job training/education to longer-term self-training/education on the job.

For example, consider collaboration. Schools can place emphasis on teamwork, project-based learning by teams of students, peer tutoring, peer feedback, small group discussions, study groups, and so on. The communication involved in these activities can be face-to-face or electronic conversations and discussions in pairs, small groups, and larger groups. The habits and skills students develop in these types of activities tend to transfer to outside of school, to further schooling, and to the work place. Moreover, continued use of these skills throughout one’s life can maintain and improve the skills.

For another example, consider communication both with people and with machines. Today’s precollege students grow up in an environment that includes multiple daily communications via the Internet with people and with machines. In the latter category, we include searching the Web, online education, buying online, using GPS, and so on. Students gain and hone most of their knowledge and skills in these areas outside of the regular school curriculum. They develop habits of mind in these areas that will improve over time and will serve them throughout their lives.

What You Can Do
If your profession is teaching, think about what you teach and how you teach it in terms of providing your students with an appropriate 21st century education. What knowledge and skills are your students gaining that will transfer well to their futures? The same question is applicable in your interactions with your children, friends, and other people.

This is a good topic to discuss with your students. You and your students should be able to work out good answers to the question, “Why do I need to learn this?” You have a vision of the future and the ways that knowledge and skills in your areas of teaching will be applicable to the future you envision. You also have insights into the future visions of others. I believe the study of possible futures should be an important component of each school subject.

ATC21S (n.d.). “What are 21st-century skills?” Assessment and teaching of 21st century skills. Retrieved 6/5/2013 from

Microsoft Partners in Learning (5/28/2013). “21st century skills and the workplace.” Retrieved 6/5/2013 from Century Skills and the Workplace_Gallup-Microsoft-Pearson Report.pdf.


Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you:

Are we missing the point of effective assessment? See

Critical thinking. See

High school graduation rates are only one measure of educational success. See

Meeting IAE information needs. See

Moore’s Law and improving education. See
Project-based learning. See

Retention of knowledge and skills from education and training. See

Self assessment. See

Transfer of learning. See

What I learned from learning to play a new computer game. See

Testing Supercomputers and Testing Students
Keith Devlin’s Thoughts About MOOCs


David Moursund (website) on Tuesday, 11 June 2013 17:25
Getting students involved

We tend to think in terms of designing a 21st century education and implementing in in a top-down manner. We tend to not think in terms of empowering students and their teachers. Ask yourself: What do your students think about what would constitute a good education for their "generation" of students?

We tend to think in terms of designing a 21st century education and implementing in in a top-down manner. We tend to not think in terms of empowering students and their teachers. Ask yourself: What do your students think about what would constitute a good education for their "generation" of students?
Already Registered? Login Here
Friday, 18 June 2021

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to