A Social Imperative

Building a 21st century education system

11/20/2009  |  KEN KAY
21st century learning

The world has changed dramatically and will continue to do so exponentially. The industrial economy of the last century has been supplanted by a service economy driven by information, knowledge and innovation. In this environment, manual labor and routine tasks have given way to collaborative, non-routine and thinking tasks.

Knowledge, while a corner-stone of success, is no longer enough — 21st century skills — which ensure people can adapt to circumstances, work in teams, innovate, and com-municate — are a requisite of a successful life.

Today’s global economy, with its emerging industries and occupations, offers tremendous opportunities, but only for those who possess the knowledge and skills to take advantage of them. Quite simply, advanced societies and economies, innovative industries and firms, and high-growth jobs increasingly reward people who can lead and navigate new landscapes — not just follow the person in front of them.

This blinding rate of change has, largely, pushed aside the 20th century social contract, under which possessing a great understanding of core subjects guaranteed ascent on the economic ladder. Now, the 21st century social contract states, in addition to deep content knowledge, all citizens need a broad range of skills to be productive and prosperous. Knowledge, while a cornerstone of success, is no longer enough — 21st century skills — which ensure people can adapt to circumstances, work in teams, innovate, and communicate — are a requisite of a successful life.

Unfortunately, U.S. education policies and practices have not kept up with the changing global dynamics. Of the 70 percent of students who graduate high school, a large portion require remedial classes if they enter college. Further, a large portion of our students have not learned the skills and knowledge required to secure a job and advance. This disconnect has forged two achievement gaps — one national and one international.

Nationally, Black, Hispanic, and disadvantaged students perform worse than their peers on national assessments and post graduation rates, as low as 50 percent. In-ternationally,American students score lower than the average on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the benchmark assessments in reading, mathematics and science. PISA results are telling because the tests measure the applied skills — what we call 21st century skills of critical thinking and problem solving. Furthermore, even top-performing U.S. students are falling behind their international peers on PISA.

Building a Framework for 21st Century Learning

For the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the beginning of this framework focused on the end result: the outcomes — in terms of mastery of core academic subjects, 21st century themes, and 21st century skills — that should be expected of students once they leave school. By knowing what is required of students and citizens, we can build a world-class education system and the requisite infrastructure that supports achieving these results. Consequently,

all support systems — standards and assessments, curriculum and instruction, professional development and learning environments — should be focused on achieving the results that will bring about the outcomes required for success in today’s world.

In 2003, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills concluded a two-year, broadly collaborative project to determine a vision for learning in today’s world, to reach consensus with hundreds of educators, academics, and civic, community and business leaders on the definition of 21st century skills, and to develop tools that aid communities in implementing an engaging learning model. The result is the Framework for 21st Century Learning, which describes the skills, knowledge and expertise that are key for students to succeed in life and work. Through discussions with stakeholders, the Partnership — which has nearly 40 members that represent all sectors of American society, including public school educators — found that:

  • Civic and community groups outlined a set of 21st century skills and knowledge that citizens must possess in a participatory democracy;
  • Business leaders identified these same skills and knowledge as essential for success in the workplace; and
  • Educators recommended a combination of rigorous courses imparting both core content knowledge and skills in order to engage students and typically increase achievement.

Independently, each stakeholder group — educators and community, civic and business leaders — identified and confirmed the skills and knowledge that comprise the framework, showing their overwhelming support for the need to ensure students develop deep content knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge across disciplines. Because educators will always be some of the busiest professionals in our country, the framework was designed to adjust, not add to instructional strategies.

Integrating 21st century skills deliberately and systematically into the teaching of core subjects will empower educators to make learning relevant. Twenty-first century skills include the intelligent reasoning, positive attitudes, and practical skills that motivate and engage students and build their confidence as learners.

While aligning every aspect of the education system — including core subjects and support systems — with 21st century skills might seem to be a massive undertaking, the work already done by districts and states shows that practitioners across the country are not only prepared, but very willing, to take on this work. Currently, 13 states (Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin) have committed to revamping their standards and assessments, curriculum and instruction, professional development, and learning environments to support 21st century skills. The states and districts that are making real progress are those that take a holistic and systemic approach by articulating the skills and knowledge they value.

Each teacher, administrator and policy maker is urged to reach out to their colleagues in early-adopting schools, districts and states to cull from them best practices. A tremendous amount of resources, including best practices for curriculum and instruction and professional development is available at Route 21 (http://21stcenturyskills.org/route21/). Those interested in learning more are encouraged to visit the site, read articles and post their own thoughts on how best to combine 21st century skills and core subjects. 

Redefining Rigor and Relevancy

Parents, educators, policy makers and business and community leaders agree that it is vital to build a more rigorous education system that prepares students for college and work. A rigorous education in today’s world lies in the nexus of core subjects, 21st century themes, and 21st century skills — this combination redefines what a rigorous education must be.

In discussions with John Bransford, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Washington and co-author of How People Learn and How Students Learn, he mentions that: in the United States, we tell students the same thing 100 times. On the 101st time, we ask them if they remember what we told them the first 100 times. This simply doesn’t build the knowledge and skills and forge the connections that are necessary for today’s rapidly changing environments. Now, a rigorous education trains students to be able to look at material they’ve never seen before and know what to do with it.

As noted by Bransford, rote memorization places a low level of cognitive demand on students, while being required to demonstrate a deep understanding of a subject through planning, using evidence, and abstract reasoning, is more demanding. Consequently, combining 21st century skills with core subjects ratchets up rigor and the requirements of students, and, therein, prepares them for a challenging and rapidly evolving world.


The Partnership has crafted the only all-encompassing vision for a 21st century education system. This is not to say that re-focusing our education system on the combination of 21st century skills and core content will instantly solve all our problems. We don’t have, or pretend to have, all the answers. There are many more wonderful ideas that will strengthen our education system when they are combined with 21st century skills.

The American people have a long history of being able to reinvent themselves and encourage progress. However, today, every citizen must be equipped with knowledge and skills to compete, thrive and drive innovation and change.

The most important next step is to agree on results, in terms of what a community defines as necessary for success in life and work. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to want these outcomes — it’s essential to plan the entire education system intentionally and transparently around them.

The broad public support for the framework for 21st Century Learning suggests the strong potential for building 21st century education systems in every school, district and state. The support is there, best practices from practitioners have been created. The world is not waiting for us to catch up. We must create 21st century education systems for every student today.

What Are 21st Century Skills?

Learning and Innovation Skills

These skills ensure students are better prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments. In the 21st century, it has become essential for citizens to be:

  • Creative and innovative;
  • Critical thinkers and problem solvers; and
  • Good communicators and collaborators.
Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes

Schools must move beyond focusing solely on basic competency in core subjects (reading, mathematics, English, world languages, arts, economics, science, geography, history, government and civics) to promote the understanding of this content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes into teaching and learning. Vital themes include:

  • Global awareness;
  • Financial, cconomic, business and entrepreneurial literacy;
  • Civic literacy; and
  • Health literacy.
Information, Media and Technology Skills

People live in a technology-and media-driven world that affords extensive access to an abundance of information. It has become easy for people to collaborate and make individual contributions on an unprecedented global scale. To effectively take advantage of these opportunities, citizens and workers must be able to exhibit a range of functional and critical thinking capabilities such as:

  • Information literacy;
  • Media literacy; and
  • Information, communications and technology (ICT) literacy.

Life and Career Skills

In today’s rapidly changing life and work environments, citizens and workers must be able to go beyond thinking skills and content knowledge to knowledge to succeed. Navigating these complex environments requires students to develop adequate life and career capabilities such as:

  • Flexibility and adaptability;
  • Initiative and self-direction;
  • Social and cross-cultural skills;
  • Productivity and accountability; and
  • Leadership and responsibility.
Ken Kay is the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. For more information, visit www.21stcenturyskills.org.
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