21st Century Skills: If Not Now, When?

by Susan Brooks-Young

Schools must focus on helping students build 21st century skills in order to prepare them to live and work in today’s world. Discover ways to put your school on the right track.

If you were to choose one word to describe the last ten years, what would it be?

The Pew Research Center reports that most Americans they surveyed think of the 2000s as the “Downhill Decade,” ranking it as the worst in the last 50 years (bit.ly/5lzMJW). Although the
question wasn’t posed in this survey, it’s clear that the 2000s were also a difficult decade for education as well. Hopes for transforming education were high during the 1990s.


But that changed in the early 2000s. There was a call to hold education institutions more accountable—a worthy idea. Unfortunately, the path we’ve chosen has led us to focus on the achievement gap between lowest and highest performing students at the expense of preparing students to keep up with changes in the world around us. As a result, little has been accomplished in terms of restructuring education to meet the needs of today’s society.

As we close the 2009-10 school year and begin planning for the fall, this is an ideal time to take a look at 21st century learning skills and consider how things can be done differently during the 2010-11 school year. A publication that can be most helpful for this undertaking is a guide, recently released by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, that updates that organization’s work on 21st century skills in education, including tools and resources for schools.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Founded in 2002, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) is the result of collaboration among several entities including government agencies, business, and educators. Co-founder Ken Kay serves as president, and co-founder Diny Golder-Dardis acts as a special advisor. The mission of this organization is to “serve as a catalyst to position 21st century skills at the center of U.S. K-12 education by building collaborative partnerships among education, business, community and government leaders” (21stcenturyskills.org).

About six years ago, P21 released the Framework for 21st Century Learning. This framework recognizes the importance of teaching core academic skills, but also emphasizes the need to reframe curriculum and instruction to make these core skills relevant for today’s students. The framework is built on four skill areas: Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes; Life and Career Skills; Learning and Innovation Skills; and Information, Media, and Technology Skills. Supporting elements for this framework include: Standards and Assessment; Curriculum and Instruction; Professional Development; and Learning Environments.

In addition to the framework, the P21 website offers a variety of supporting publications and tools for educators such as downloadable pdf files of newsletters, white papers, reports, skills maps, ICT maps, and more. In addition to reading materials, site visitors may access an online self-assessment schools can use to measure current use of 21st century skills, and Route 21, an interactive guide that supports implementation of the framework.

Why Are 21st Century Skills Important?

The Industrial Age manufacturing-based economy has given way to an economy where more than 80% of our jobs are service-based. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that approximately 90% of new, high-growth service jobs will require at least some post-secondary education (bit.ly/8mnJSN). Our education system has not adjusted to meet these growing demands.

The current U.S. system of education has one of the highest drop-out rates for any industrialized nation—approximately 30%—leading many experts to declare this one of the most critical issues of this century. It’s easy to blame these figures on students who just can’t make the grade, but “The Silent Epidemic,” a report published in 2006 by Civic Enterprises (bit.ly/5HmapC), shows that nearly two-thirds of drop-outs interviewed had grade point averages of C or better when they left school. In addition, drop-outs with the highest grade point averages reported that they left because their classes were irrelevant. Students who remain in school echo this sentiment. The 2008 Speak Up report (bit.ly/8ihZyX) found that just one-third of participating high school students believed that their schools were doing a good job preparing them for jobs of the future.

One strategy for keeping students in school and engaged in their learning is to bridge the widening gap between their lives away from school and their classroom experiences. Students who believe that their coursework will help them in future endeavors are more likely to buckle down and do the work.

The Framework

The Framework for 21st Century Learning addresses the essential skills students must master to flourish in a global society. While core academic skills remain the foundation of a good education, the context in which these skills are taught must be updated to reflect today’s world. The framework addresses this mandate through 21st century themes interwoven throughout academic areas. The themes are: global awareness; financial, business, and economic literacy; civic literacy; health literacy; and environmental literacy.

Changing the curriculum is just the beginning. Students must master strategies for learning that encourage creativity, problem-solving, effective communication, and collaboration. They must also develop literacies in the areas of information, media, and technology. And finally, today’s social and work environments require more than academic basics and critical thinking skills. Students must learn life and career skills that will help them succeed in a global society. These skills include the ability to be flexible and adaptable; to take initiative and be self-directive; to show cultural awareness, take responsibility, and assume leadership.

The MILE Guide

To assist educators who are interested in incorporating 21st century skills in their schools, P21 released a document in November 2009. Called the Milestones for Improving Learning and Education (MILE) Guide, this document is an update of a guide originally released six years ago. A free download is available at bit.ly/1vK1tY. This updated guide emphasizes the continuing importance of core academics and provides a closer look at the critical role of the framework’s support systems: standards and assessments; curriculum and instruction; professional development; and learning environments.

One very useful feature of the new guide is an updated visual mapping and self-assessment tool that educators can use to assess current levels of 21st century skills implementation and to map plans for future implementation. Currently available only in print, an online version of the self-assessment will be posted soon. This tool encourages members of the school community to reflect on where they are and realistically identify where they would like to be in terms of 21st century skills.

The Implementation Guiding Recommendations section is meant to assist schools in developing an action plan for strengthening implementation of 21st century skills. This section takes a closer look at each framework support system and includes examples of promising practices. Readers will also find links to resources that provide further information in this section.

Getting Started

The Six Steps to Build Momentum section of the document provides specific suggestions for implementation of MILE Guide recommendations. There aren’t any surprises here, but it’s always helpful to have action steps laid out. At the top of the list is getting buy-in right at the start. The importance of this initial step cannot be overemphasized. Parents and students across the country are hungry for education reforms that will help our system do a better job of addressing today’s learning needs. But they may not understand exactly what change at this level will entail. Taking the time to develop a shared vision for what 21st century education means and enlisting support from parents, students, and other members of the school community will pay off throughout this process.

When launching a new initiative, it’s tempting to implement everything at once, but this isn’t a very practical approach. Step two suggests reviewing the P21 framework to identify the skills that must be taught and prioritizing their importance.

Once skills that will be taught within core academics are identified and prioritized, the third step focuses on taking time to think about the context in which these skills will be taught. The existing model of education relies heavily on memorization, but rote learning isn’t sufficient today. To achieve success in these new careers, students must be adept critical thinkers and problem solvers. What strategies can be used to ensure that students are challenged in these areas?

Based upon the preliminary work covered in the first three steps, the fourth step is to complete the self-assessment to determine accurately where a school currently falls in inclusion of 21st century skills. This rubric includes three stages—early, transitional, and 21st century. The results are used during the fifth step to develop an implementation plan to help a school move forward from wherever it is currently to where the school community would like it to be. Finally, the sixth step reminds educators that this work requires ongoing collaboration in order to be successful. If the implementation plan is shelved and forgotten, nothing will change.

Incorporation of 21st century skills requires a serious commitment of time and resources. The change won’t happen overnight, but it is time to get the ball rolling.

A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Her latest book is
 Teaching with the Tools Kids Really Use (Corwin Press, 2010). Susan invites your comments at SJBrooks@aol.com.


Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, April 2010

2 thoughts on “21st Century Skills: If Not Now, When?

  1. Have you found STREAM to be meeting the needs of 21st Century learners within a Catholic setting?

  2. With developments in mobile technologies and digital instructional materials in the eight years since this article was written, I have see shifts in the ways educators are working toward helping their students develop the skills they will need to be successful beyond their K-12 education experience. However, a lot of work remains to be done. Labeling programs STEM, STEAM, or STREAM is meaningless unless the underlying pedagogy and content are revised and technology is used to expand and enhance students’ learning opportunities as opposed to just automating activities they would have done anyway. We still need to grapple with the question John Dewey posed a very long time ago, “How do we prepare students for their future, not our past?”

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