21st Century Basic Skills

Living and working in the modern world is becoming increasingly complex. The basic skills of learning that have become part of the enculturation of our children and have enabled the general population to find and hold jobs, make a comfortable home, and follow individual interests, limit the horizons of those trying to make sense of this far more complex environment. Not only are new basics required, but new modes of delivery are needed to teach these skills to both the youth entering the system and to adults who need the skills but have not been adequately prepared. This article will focus on the new skills and on research that gives us clues as to what types of learning activities are most appropriate for learning these skills.

A number of futurists have taken a look at the emerging world of work and projected the type of skills workers will need to be successful in the coming economy. The North Central Educational Laboratory developed a list of skills based on eight nationally recognized skill sets as well as literature reviews and input from a wide variety of practitioners. The result is called the enGuage 21st Century Skills and is provided here.

1. Digital-Age Literacy includes basic, scientific, mathematical, and technological literacies. Visual, information, and cultural literacies are also implied along with global awareness.
2. Inventive Thinking is the name given to adaptability and the ability to manage complexity. It includes curiosity, creativity, and risk taking as well as higher order thinking and sound reasoning.
3. Effective Communication includes but goes beyond interactive communication to include teaming, collaboration, and interpersonal skills. Personal and social responsibility are also part of this skill set.
4. High Productivity refers to the ability to prioritize, plan, and manage for results. It includes the use of real-world tools and the production of relevant, high-quality products.

In his book, The New Basics, Education and the Future of Work in the Telematic Age, David Thornburg describes his analysis of the skills listed in more than 500 current job advertisements. The list he developed from this research is similar to that provided by enGuage and included technological fluency, communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, and creativity. Other groups and authors have weighed in on the subject by producing lists of skill requirements that contain many of these same elements.

Although these lists have been developed primarily to serve the needs of the work force, close examination reveals the utility of such a skill set in the broader world as well. A person competent in the identified skills would be in good shape to face most of life’s challenges.

Identifying skills is one thing but teaching and learning the skills is quite another. The typical school program is geared to teach layers of facts stacked one on the other in a sequential, lock-step arrangement. Standards-based reform has institutionalized this technique by requiring students to meet specific benchmarks at pre-ordained grade levels. This kind of instructional program is particularly inappropriate for the inventive thinking, effective communication, and high productivity skills identified by enGuage and only marginally productive for the digital literacy skill component. Even the so-called basic skills may be best learned contextually in real-world settings.

If traditional strategies are ineffective, what instructional approaches are available to develop 21st century skills? Fortunately, recent findings in the cognitive sciences help us identify instructional models that are appropriate for selected skills. Many of these models have been known and used for a number of years but it is now possible, given the skill sets identified above, to target individual skills with instruction that is compatible with the development of that particular competency. The remainder of this article will be devoted to discussion of some of the “best-fit” strategies for 21st Century skill development.

Digital-Age Literacy

Literacy, as the term is used here, does not mean knowing the names of things, definitions, or sets of facts to be memorized and recalled at test time. It implies understanding at a conceptual level with the ability to apply that understanding in the real world. Typical instructional strategies such as lecture, viewing films, or reading about the topic are generally not powerful enough to generate the necessary level of understanding. The brain appears to require many experiences over a period of time to make a solid connection between new information and previously held concepts. If a student has not developed the initial concept they have little chance of assimilating the new learning, even if it is presented in a meaningful way.

The teacher’s task is to find instructional strategies that help pinpoint current student understanding and then deliver the experiences that are mostly likely to connect with what is already known, a constructivist approach. Depending on the subject matter being learned and the developmental level of the students, promising strategies include
project-based learning: http://eduscapes.com/tap/topic43.htm
problem-based learning: http://www.imsa.edu/team/cpbl/cpbl.html
and science inquiry: http://valetc.com/nuke/search.php4?query=&topic=33
Each of these models is consistent with constructivism in that the learning of new material is contextual.

Inventive Thinking

Traditional school programs are woefully inadequate in providing the experiences necessary to build proficiency in the skills of inventive thinking. Robert Marzano and others have developed a model called Dimensions of Learning that contains many of the necessary elements. Dimension 5, Productive Habits of Mind, consists of critical thinking, creative thinking, and self-regulated thinking. Possible instructional techniques include helping students to identify and develop strategies related to the habits of mind. The teacher should also attempt to create a classroom culture that encourages the development and use of these habits. Many sources of information regarding Dimensions of Learning are available including some that describe the kinds of learning activities needed to develop this dimension.

Dimensions of Learning, Dimension 5:

The internet abounds with information on other creativity techniques that have application in the development of Inventive Thinking. The following source provides links to most of the better known models.

Creativity techniques:

Effective Communication

Communication, as it has been defined by the school programs designed to teach it, usually consists of reading, writing papers on school subjects, and perhaps a little public speaking. Letter writing, creative writing, and drama are often also included in traditional school programs. Although each of these contributes to the effective communication skills portrayed here, they usually lack the potent social component required. Fortunately, strategies are available to meet this need.

Cooperative learning and project-based learning are strategies that have been widely adopted, especially at the elementary school level. Both of these strategies place the student in learning teams where the communication skills embodied in this category can be practiced. The same is true for problem-based learning at the secondary level although it does not have the widespread base of the previous two strategies. Project-based and problem-based models are described in documents with links provided above.

Cooperative Learning:

Additional models of teaching that emphasize the social aspects of learning can be found in the book, Models of Teaching, by Bruce Joyce and Marsha Weil., particularly in the section called Social Family.

High Productivity

The school setting is not ideal for the development of the competencies included in the high productivity skills set. At best, a simulation of real world activities can be provided in professional technical programs such as business, auto shop, or broadcasting. Introduction to the necessary skills can take place in these classrooms and laboratories, but crucial skill development can only take place in the world outside school. Service and experiential learning programs that provide experience in the context of the world of work have developed across a wide array of careers and appear to meet the need for high productivity skill development. Our firm, VALIANT, etc., hosts the ASCD Service and Experiential Learning Network (SELNET) website and has numerous links to other resources.

Service and Experiential Learning

An interesting trend in the design of schools can also contribute in this skill area. In a number of metropolitan areas new high schools are being developed in conjunction with health care facilities, museums, and zoos. Students spend part of each day in the academic program, then apply the skills in the workplace.

Zoo School

Henry Ford Academy


It is hard to imagine that the new programs outlined here will be widely implemented in the public schools of the United States any time in the near future. Each of the innovations requires staff training at an unprecedented level, changes in learning materials and facilities, and especially a major shift in attitude on the part of teachers, administrators, school boards, and the general public. In the long run, we must work to find ways to make these changes. If we are to remain competitive in the short run, other options must be explored

Businesses and unions can take steps to develop and implement the needed training based on instructional models such as those described above. Entrepreneurs should begin to offer training as well. It will be up to individual members of the adult work force, young adults, and parents of teenagers to seek out such training to ensure their employability in the future.


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