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Volume X Issue III

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Making 21st Century Skills Come Alive!

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

Educators in some states and districts are moving forward at a fast clip in integrating 21st century skills, widely associated with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and others have only a passing knowledge of the importance of integrating such skills into teaching and learning. In a recent conversation about 21st century skills, several patterns emerged. Some people indicated that while there had been references in meetings and district documents to the importance of the skills, little change in practice had occurred. Others admitted that they were unsure as to what the skills were or their origin. A few noted that they were aware of the skills, but there had been so much attention paid to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards that the skills had been “lost in the shuffle.” And finally, several teachers volunteered that they were including some of the skills in their lessons but mostly by accident rather than by design.

It appears that many professionals feel that their plates are so full that trying to include all of the important and powerful ideas that are being promoted and that should be a part of our students’ learning opportunities is more than a little overwhelming. When the discussion moved around to what was keeping teachers from including the 21st century skills in their lessons, they noted that limited time, district requirements, curriculum changes, individual and school goals, emphasis on test preparation, and revised teacher evaluation systems were consuming much of their time, attention, and energy.

It appears that several questions need to be addressed. Those questions include:

  • Why are educators being overwhelmed by the presumed magnitude of the inclusion of the skills in their work?
  • Is the implementation of the Common Core State Standards compatible with the inclusion of the 21st century skills in lessons and units?
  • Are educators teaching their curriculum in a strict academic context instead of linking their content to the world beyond the classroom?
  • Are there ways to make the inclusion of 21st century skills in lesson design that will make them more palpable and doable for today’s teachers?
  • Isn’t it time to give the term “21st century skills” more deliberate and purposeful attention?

It seems important to shed more light on the skills as well as provide background knowledge about the skills’ origin. The skills were the work of a coalition known as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) which included members of the business community, education leaders, and policymakers. Formed in 2002, the organization concluded that there was a “profound gap” in the knowledge and skills students were learning in schools and the knowledge and skills they would need in their communities and workplaces in the 21st century. Because today’s students face rigorous academic challenges at the collegiate level and career challenges in their post-education life, the coalition leaders felt it was prudent to fuse the current academic world of schools with important skills that transcended the strictly academic experience. As a result, coalition members advocated for four categories of life skills to be integrated into the daily life of teachers and their students. The major categories of 21st century skills are the 4 Cs:

  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • creativity and innovation

None of the areas identified by the group are particularly new. The topics have been discussed in some form for decades as important components of students’ educational experience. And yet there still seems to be a paucity of deep thinking about how to make these skills an integral part of the day-to-day life in schools. Over the past decade, P21 has grown from an organization with less than 10 founders to a membership of 30 plus businesses and organizations associated with and connected to the field of education. Since its formation, the partnership has developed a “unified, collective vision for learning known as the Framework for 21st Century Learning.” The framework includes both student outcomes and support systems to help educators build on the base of core academic subjects while simultaneously weaving in 21st century skills. The proposed outcome for this work is for students will be more engaged in the learning process, use skills and knowledge in a more real-world context, and thus be more prepared to succeed in today’s global economy.

The original Framework for 21st Century Learning has been expanded to include more specific categories and details about the 21st century skills. From the initial four categories, the coalition has added more specific details about the challenge to educators which is to promote an understanding of core academic subjects (including English, reading and language arts, mathematics, economics, world languages, science, geography, history, civics and government) at much higher levels of understanding by incorporating additional knowledges into their lessons including:

  • global awareness
  • financial and economic literacy
  • information literacy
  • health and environmental literacy
  • skill development in the areas of
    • creativity and innovation
    • flexibility and adaptablility
    • initiative and self-direction
    • social and cross-cultural skills

At first glance, the task of incorporating 21st century skills into lessons can seem daunting. However, when taken in small doses, the possibilities and options become possible and even achievable. Here are a few thoughts that may provide clarity and implementation guidance on doing just that.

Instead of…
planning lessons and units by returning to old files or last year’s approach, teachers can take the leap by investigating the 21st century skills in more depth to determine how and when they might fit into the implementation of the Common Core. There is strong compatibility between the skills and the standards; the inclusion of 21st century skills should not be seen as an obstacle but as an opportunity to make better and more appropriate plans. There are multiple resources available on the Internet to support planning efforts. Teachers can become more acquainted with the skills by consulting websites such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website. (See the Internet Resources section.)

Instead of…
saying that the 21st century skills are not a good match for selected students and giving only a cursory glance to new ideas because they feel that their students cannot handle group work or learning experiences that will be challenging and even rigorous, take a chance! Whereas some teachers are always up for the challenge, others may enumerate all the reasons why new ideas will not work including the potential for chaos, the problem of some students doing all the work while others sit idly by, or the dilemma of determining what and how much learning occurred as a result of the activity. Part of implementing a successful learning experience for students is to arm them with the right tools to make the lesson work. Perhaps teachers can plan a learning activity using Cooperative Learning during which all the components of cooperative learning including individual accountability are a part of the learning opportunity. What is important is to plan carefully, explain thoroughly, and even model just how a group can work together. A second approach is to use the Six-Step Problem-Solving Process which adds structure to the group’s task. When small children are taken to a restaurant and they misbehave, it does not mean that the parent abandons the practice forever. Children may require guidance and clear expectations in order for the dining experience to work. The same can be said for children working together in the classroom. (See the Internet Resources section.)

Instead of…
relying on in-school curriculum resources for lesson content, teachers can move outside the classroom to discover new avenues for learning. One high school history gave her students the assignment to see the film “Lincoln” during winter break. To make the assignment less complicated, she asked her students to prepare for a discussion of the movie with a specific focus on how President Lincoln was able to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. She let students know that when they returned to class in January, they would work in heterogeneous groups in which they would summarize the plot and address the following questions:

  • What strategies did Lincoln employ to get the 13th Amendment passed?
  • Were the approaches used legal, ethical, and morally right?
  • Does the end justify the means in order to “do the right thing?”
  • Are there other historical situations we have studied where the end might have justified the means?

As a follow-up, she planned to ask her students to flash ahead 100 years to the 1960’s when President Lyndon Johnson masterminded the passage of civil rights legislation. The students were to investigate how Johnson achieved his goal and compare his actions with those of Lincoln. Further, she planned to conduct a class discussion about modern-day legislation such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act under President Obama. Skills included in the lessons included critical thinking, civic literacy, information literacy, and communication and collaboration.

Instead of…
struggling with the misconceptions and frustrations related to the Common Core expectation that students should read more non-fiction sources, teachers can explore the methods used by English teacher Kelly Gallagher and his “Article of the Week” approach. Kelly assigns his students an article to read in class on Monday morning that relates to events or situation that are occurring in today’s world. To support student learning, he supplies background knowledge to help students understand the content as well as the complexities of what they are reading. His articles come from current publications such as newspapers, periodicals or the Internet. As Kelly has stated, “It is not enough to simply teach my students to recognize theme in a given novel; if my students are to become literate, they must broaden their reading experiences into real-world text.” For a complete list of articles and resources Kelly has used since 2008, go to Kelly Gallagher’s website. (See the Internet Resources section.)

Instead of…
randomly planning learning experiences for students, teachers start with the Common Core (or other state standards) and the district curriculum and use the Standards-Based (SBE) Planning Process to determine what it will look like when students have mastered the standards. After deciding how learning will be assessed, the next step is to plan lessons that will help students learn the required skills and knowledge required by the standards. In order to plan properly, it is important for teachers to carefully examine the verbs contained in the standards. When teachers fail to take this step, they can unknowingly plan activities at a lower level than required by the standard. Verbs such as list, recall, measure, calculate, estimate or categorize may require a learning activity at a lower level of complexity; however, when the standard contains verbs such as critique, analyze, revise, hypothesize or create, a more sophisticated learning experience may be required in order to match the standard’s requirement. Tools that can help teachers plan lessons at the right degree of complexity include the Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and Bloom’s Taxonomy Question and Task Design Wheel. Once the appropriate level of rigor is determined, the natural next step is the inclusion of 21st century skills which will challenge students to perform at higher levels of involvement and rigor. (See the Internet Resources section and the attached PDF.)

Instead of…
adhering to teacher-centered direct instruction as a predominant form of student learning, teachers can investigate the opportunities Project-Based Learning (PBL) offers. According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) website, when educators employ the PBL approach, “students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge.” The process requires students to learn academic content while incorporating 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. At the heart of PBL is a much deeper understanding of content and standards. Whereas some instructors add a project as part of a unit plan, when project-based learning is implemented, the project becomes the basis of the learning that will occur. As the BIE website emphasizes, the project is “the main course and not the dessert.” Resources that will help teachers get started with the approach include a PBL Essential Elements Checklist and a Project Overview form to help plan projects. (See the Internet Resources section.)

The intent of this issue of Just for the ASKing! is to provide motivation, inspiration and direction for teachers to put ideas in place that will make a stronger connection to the world outside the school environment, motivate students to want to learn more, and to bring some excitement and relevance to the classroom. Hopefully the suggestions offered here will provide the impetus for all of us to explore new and untried options and resources.

Download the Bloom’s Taxonomy Question and Task Design Wheel


Internet Resources

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills website provides tools and information to help educators implement the 4Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation).

The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College provides information and resources on cooperative learning.

Global Institute for Corporate Education explains the Six-Step Problem-Solving Model.

Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week archives provide a list of real-world texts to use in promoting student literacy and global awareness.

Sibley, Bret and Elizabeth Marconi of the Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program write about Depth of Knowledge (DOK).

The PBL Essential Elements Checklist template from the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) helps teachers design projects that are at the core of the learning.

This two-page Project Overview template from the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) helps educators include 21st century skills, formative and summative assessments, and reflections in the projects they design.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Making 21st Century Skills Come Alive!.” Just for the ASKing! March 2013. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2013 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

Free Top Ten Tips to Ask Myself as I Design Lessons

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