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21st Century Skills: Everything You Need to Know (2023)

A comprehensive guide to understanding 21st-century skills and how to implement them in today's classroom.
SpacesEDU Team
Last Updated
January 5, 2023
Estimated Reading Time
10 minutes

Understanding 21st Century Skills

Our 21st-century world is vastly different. In the past two decades— even just the past two years— so much has changed. And that’s usually a problem in education, an institution rooted in tradition and historically struggling to keep up with the times. Our technology has changed everything. Covid-19 has hijacked our timelines, propelling change and calling for adaptability at an incredible rate and scale.

In education and in our world in general, the stakes are higher and time is of the essence. Not understanding the sciences and humanities can have farther-reaching effects than ever before. What we do, learn, think, say, post, and tweet on one side of the world does now affect people on the other side, too. Our education needs to reflect this new world and prepare our children with the skills needed to succeed within it.

What are 21st Century Skills?

The term “21st century skills” is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world. In a broader sense, however, the idea of what learning in the 21st century should look like is open to interpretation—and controversy. (Richard Allington, Professor of Education, University of Tennessee; Early-Reading Expert)

What future-ready skills do our children need in this ever-shrinking, post-pandemic society? Working backwards from the objective, what is the end goal of a 21st-century education? What should it mean to be a high school graduate in the US education system? Although there are a variety of perspectives that span global and US societies, The Brookings Institution has found that, across these many cultures, “there is a common drive for individuals who are literate and numerate, with knowledge of global societies, who understand the scientific principles that underlie how the physical world operates, and who have the competencies and skills to function adaptively and effectively within their immediate environments, globally, and virtually” (2018). This latest, pervasively common 21st-century view favours a globally conscious and more diverse and inclusive scope of learning.

The Shift to 21st Century Skills

The Brookings Institution, known for its nonpartisan, in-depth research, has been following closely and speculating the best ways for educators to handle this shift to 21st Century Skills (21CS), which are based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (2016). They derive their definition of 21CS from Binkley et. al. and Scoular and Care: “21st-century skills are tools that can be universally applied to enhance ways of thinking, learning, working and living in the world. The skills include critical thinking/reasoning, creativity/creative thinking, problem-solving, metacognition, collaboration, communication and global citizenship.” These 21st Century Skills also include the many literacies such as reading, writing, numeracy, information, technology, etc., but these are not severe shifts from previous models.

As Brookings Institution’s Esther Care, Helyn Kim, Alvin Vista, and Kate Anderson present in their paper (2018) on “Education System Alignment for 21st Century Skills,” there are a few big challenges in the implementation of these future-ready skills in an education system— requiring a clear understanding of the nature of 21CS, a strong perception of different competency levels, and a solid grasp on how to design appropriate and authentic assessments. “[I]t may be that countries have difficulty in imagining how to move from rhetoric to reality.”

What 21st Century Skills Are Employers Looking for?

In the 21st century, the way students learn, interact and prepare themselves for the world outside the classroom has changed. Teachers have kept up with these changes, and have readied themselves to understand what skills students need to know - however; they may not know how to teach those skills.

During the first season of the Competencies without a Classroom podcast, we interviewed business leaders, decision-makers, hiring managers and executives on what competencies they're looking for from their young employees, teammates and co-workers in order to succeed in today's competitive landscape.

What we heard from these leaders was that 'soft' skills like resilience, problem-solving, critical thinking and resourcefulness are among the most high-demand traits for young people making the shift from the classroom to the workplace. These were the skills that set apart applicants from other applicants, individual contributors from other contributors, and the good leaders from the great leaders.

Teachers and educators know this. Educators know that these skills, among others, are the traits that their students will require to thrive in the digital era.

The challenge?

Educators may not know how to instill these skills into their students in the classroom setting.

#21For21 was created to equip teachers with the tools, tactics, and resources they need to empower their students to develop the skills to succeed in our 21st century world.

We conducted 21 interviews with 21 teachers to hear how they implement 21st century skills in their classrooms.

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about the education system as we know it today, what would you change? This is how some of our guests from season 2 of the Competencies without a Classroom podcast answered that question.

"As a teacher, you have tried to explain how the concepts you are teaching in the classroom will help to carry your students forward as they enter the "real world." The Competencies without a Classroom podcast provides classroom teachers with access to brilliant minds and hearts in the "real world" bringing alive the skills and competencies required to be successful in the 21st century." (Tanya Clift, District Career Facilitator)

21st Century Skills to Pay Attention To

  1. Critical Thinking/Reasoning
  2. Creativity/Creative Thinking
  3. Problem Solving
  4. Metacognition
  5. Collaboration
  6. Communication
  7. Global Citizenship

Let’s join the conversation and move this talk “to reality.” Each of the seven 21st Century Skills, derived from The Brookings Institution’s chosen definition, and ideas for implementation in the classroom are listed below:

Critical Thinking/Reasoning

We hear about critical thinking skills often anymore, but what are they exactly? One single answer isn’t easy to nail down. “After a careful review of the mountainous body of literature,” the University of Louisville, decided to go with Michael Scriven and Richard Paul (2003) for the best, most comprehensive and concise definition: “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” In other words, critical thinking is following a trail of internal questioning and deep thinking that leads to one's beliefs. A child who questions the existence of Santa Claus is building those critical thinking skills. An adult who refrains from opening a conspicuous email is practicing critical thinking skills and probably saving themself from hacking. Scriven and Paul continue to provide clarity in writing that it is based on “universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions,” meaning that all content areas can implement and practice this 21st Century Skill.

Rasmussen University conveniently boiled critical thinking down to the following 6 types, each of which can be a step in the process of a student-led research assignment across content areas and throughout K-12 education:

  • Identification: Students can choose or be given a topic based on the unit of study. They then need to identify, based on the clearly outlined goal of the lesson, the problem or central question and the steps to achieve the goal.
  • Research: students can choose or be given their resource materials and evaluate the sources of information for their assigned topic.
  • Identifying Biases: During the research portion of the assignment, students can identify, verbally or in writing, the biases of their sources and any potential biases of their own.
  • Inference: Giving the best guess, students can bridge gaps in information or even apply the newfound information to the central text. A possible question to build inference skills is “knowing what I know now, what can I best guess about this particular character or event in the text?”
  • Determining Relevance: students decide what is relevant information to include on the assignment based on the unit as a whole and the explicit objective of the lesson.
  • Curiosity: Students can create open-ended questions for their topic and answer those questions themselves or open it up to the class for discussion.

Creativity/Creative Thinking

Paul Torrance, the “Father of Creativity” and creator of the widely used Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, described the four elements of creativity: Fluency (number of ideas), Flexibility (variety of ideas), Originality (uniqueness of ideas), and Elaboration (details of ideas). Using this approach, competency levels can be assessed relative to peers and progressively paced through the age groups.

Continuing with the research assignment example, this divergent-thinking skill set could be developed through an artistic activity in which students can create a visual, possibly within clearly defined parameters of time and/or materials. Each of the four elements can reveal different competency levels. Teaching the research behind creativity, such as that caffeine can hurt creative thinking and that the colour blue can help, can also be methods and processes that students can engage in during the creative portion of the research assignment.

Problem Solving

According to MIT, “Problem-solving is the process of identifying a problem, developing possible solution paths, and taking the appropriate course of action,” and it is something we all do every day; there isn’t necessarily always a right or wrong answer, but there are many possible answers and some are better or worse than others. These skills are essential not only in our daily lives but also in our careers. If a student misbehaves in class, there are a myriad of ways that the teacher can respond, displaying their own problem-solving skills.

One way to improve students’ problem-solving skills is to lead them to the tools they need to strategize and solve problems. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) created a review of problem-solving strategies that can work in math, such as looking for a pattern, guessing and checking, drawing a diagram, or working backwards. These same skills can be transferred into other content areas and for different age groups. Sticking with the research assignment model, students can use many of these skills after the identification portion of the assignment: so they have identified the problem or situation, and now they need to approach the assignment (deciding which resource to use and why), divide the labour (using a chart), and plan how to complete it on time (working backwards from the due date).


Metacognition, a term credited to developmental psychologist John Flavell (1979), is thinking about your own thinking. Sounds simple enough, but it is a high-level skill that helps improve every other skill. Paul R. Pintrich from The Ohio State University’s College of Education (2002) claims that “students who know about the different kinds of strategies for learning, thinking, and problem-solving will be more likely to use them.” This “level of awareness above the subject matter,” as Vanderbilt University’s Nancy Chick wrote in her essay on metacognition in teaching and learning, shows that this 21st Century Skill can, again, cross-content areas. But can we implement metacognition skills in all grade levels? In “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School,” Bransford, Brown, and Cocking from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2000) assert that “children differ from adult learners in many ways, but there are also surprising commonalities across learners of all ages.”

Chick clues us in on the particulars of metacognition: “a key element is recognizing the limitations of one’s knowledge or ability and then figuring out how to expand that knowledge or extend the ability.” This skill is at the crux of being critically self-aware or suffering from the cognitively biased Dunning-Kruger effect (2013). Pintrich defends that these skills need to be taught explicitly: “We are continually surprised at the number of students who come to college having very little metacognitive knowledge; knowledge about different strategies, different cognitive tasks, and particularly, accurate knowledge about themselves.”  We, teachers, can help with that. Reflection is our game.

Reflective journals, pre-assessments, post-assessments, and everything in between should continue as part of good pedagogy, but explicitly teaching students the different strategies is crucial for metacognition. The Iris Center at the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University advises teachers to share with students the questions involved in planning, monitoring, and modifying their work, teaching students “how to consider the appropriateness of the problem-solving approach, make sure that all procedural steps are implemented, and check for accuracy or to confirm that their answers make sense.” This process of planning, self-monitoring and modifying and then reflecting can be implemented easily with unlimited types of activities, especially the aforementioned example of a research assignment. Modelling good questions and scaffolding student learning will be key in teaching metacognition.


“Collaboration occurs when meeting a goal requires more than what any one individual is able to manage alone and needs to pool resources with others” (E. Care, H. Kim, A.Vista, and K.Anderson, 2018). In the workforce and in education, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, virtual collaboration has been crucial. The authors give examples of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for collaboration that could be shown through successful group work, such as knowing when it is appropriate to listen or to speak, introducing new ideas, compromising, sharing resources and responsibility, having meaningful conversations, and valuing others’ contributions. Modelling these skills explicitly for the students and then practicing them often will instill this highly important future-ready skill.


Often referred to as one of the “4 C’s of learning” in 21st century US education (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication), this skill is more than just writing or speaking. Verbal, nonverbal, and technological communication is broad and ever-evolving, but the skills behind them all still involve one common element: empathy. Being able to understand how the audience will respond is a timeless skill with ever-increasing importance. Teachers can directly teach these communication skills for group work and presentations, but they also can teach the concept of empathy, especially through global literature with common themes.

Global Citizenship

Sometime this century, it is likely that being able to communicate in more than one language will be a necessity for success. Time Magazine reported that 21st-century education “is a story about … whether an entire generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad, or speak a language other than [their own]” (2006). UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon advised us to “be a global citizen. Act with passion and compassion. Help us make this world safer and more sustainable today and for the generations that will follow us. That is our moral responsibility.” Students can learn this skill of how to be a global citizens by collaborating on projects with students from around the world. Today’s technology has made this possible. Let’s make the most of its potential for global education.

Next Steps

The Brookings Institution claims that “any major reform in an educational philosophy shift must ensure alignment across the areas of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment” and that “learning progression models are key to ensuring alignment through the education delivery system” (E. Care, H. Kim, A.Vista, and K.Anderson, 2019). Now that we know the 21st Century Skills, we must next design learning progression models and aligned assessments. It is time for action.

UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon looks forward with dark optimism, acknowledging our potential, but helping us feel the urgency: “Ours can be the first generation to end poverty- and the last generation to address climate change before it is too late.” Becoming a global citizen with these 21st Century Skills in this smaller, digital world isn’t much of an option anymore, it’s our vital necessity and responsibility.

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