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3 Ways to Target 21st-Century Skill Development in the Classroom

Educators Share their Framework for 21st-Century Skill Development
Colleen Potter
May 12, 2021

What 21st-Century Skills are Educators Focusing on with their Students?

We recently interviewed a group of educators across all different subject areas and grade levels to learn how they encourage 21st-century skill development in their students. While the activities and strategies they used varied, there were a few common themes, including:

  • Student self-assessment and reflection
  • Project-based learning
  • Classroom discussions

The result? Students developing multiple 21st-century skills through one strategy or activity built into the teacher’s practice.

What Was the Most Common 21st-Century Skill?

Of the 22 ideas that educators shared with us, over 80% targeted more than one 21st-century skill and more than 40% targeted three or more skills.

By far, the most common skill that the activities and strategies targeted was critical thinking. Over 80% of the 22 ideas shared, focused on critical thinking skills as one of the skills targeted.

What is Critical Thinking as a 21st-Century Skill?

Critical thinking refers to one’s ability to identify a situation, issue, or problem and analyze it, in order to make an informed decision or judgement about that thing. It often involves gathering information through reflection, observation, and communicating with others, and analyzing this information and knowledge in a thoughtful and unbiased way.

In the classroom, critical thinking might take the form of students working to solve a problem they’ve been given. Students can reflect on their previous experiences and analyze what they know and don’t know about a topic by considering the following:

  • The information they’ve been given
  • The information they’re missing and what questions they need to ask in order to gain this information
  • Reflecting on previous, similar problems and what they’ve learned from those
  • Understanding their own viewpoint and biases on the topic as well as different points of view

Through reflecting on and analyzing this information and knowledge, students are able to evaluate potential solutions to the problem and make an informed decision, explaining why they came to that conclusion.

Critical Thinking as a 21st-Century Skill for Students

Critical thinking is a skill that’s being valued more and more in the workforce and is growing in demand amongst companies. In fact, it made the Top 10 Skills of 2025 list in The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020.

By incorporating 21st-century skill development into your teaching practice, and focusing on helping students improve their critical thinking skills, in particular, they will become more independent, better at communication, and better problem-solvers, all of which will help ensure success in their professional and personal lives beyond high school graduation.

How to Teach Critical Thinking as a 21st-Century Skill in the Classroom

Though there are many different ways to incorporate critical thinking into your classroom teaching practice, we’ve included three different ways to do so based on common themes that emerged in the ideas and strategies shared by the educators we interviewed.

1. Promote self-assessment and feedback

There are many ways self-assessment can be incorporated into the classroom. This can be done by having students self-assess a project they recently completed or are working on, taking part in co-constructing assessment criteria, and even going gradeless.

By having students take part in co-constructing a rubric and identify what a learner looks like, sounds like, and feels like, they are then able to better self-assess throughout the assignment and afterwards. Throughout the assignment, students can think critically and evaluate the behaviors they are demonstrating and whether those match the criteria they helped come up with, making adjustments to their behaviors where needed. After the assignment, students can reflect on their experiences and information available to them, analyzing what they did well and areas for improvement, and evaluating how to approach a task the next time, thus developing their critical thinking throughout the process.

To promote self-assessment and feedback on SpacesEDU, check out our Empowering Students with Feedback Guide!

Another way to promote the development of critical thinking skills through self-assessment and feedback in the classroom is to try going gradeless.

By removing the grading piece of a course, there is more room for descriptive feedback and self-assessment. Students won’t be focused on a point value or mark, and they’ll be free to reflect on this feedback, determine ways to apply it moving forward, all while developing their critical thinking.

Considering going gradeless? Check out our three-part series (part 1, 2, 3) to learn from other educators who’ve tried it out.

2. Project-based learning (PBL)

Project-based learning begins by having students determine a problem they want to solve and something they want to learn more about related to your curriculum area. It emphasizes authentic learning experiences and is something that lends itself well to a cross-curricular approach and the incorporation of technology. PBL can be done regardless of grade level and subject area. Not only does it allow students to develop their critical thinking skills through analyzing the problem and evaluating different solutions, but also their problem-solving skills, creativity, communication skills, and collaboration skills among others.

Want to learn more about project-based learning? Read: How to implement project-based learning with digital portfolios.

Curious about the difference between problem-based learning and project-based learning? Read: Project-based learning vs. problem-based learning.

3. Discussions

Making real-world connections to the learning that’s happening in the classroom and at school, and having students critically think and reflect on why they are learning the 21st-century skills they are, means that students will be more likely to do this on their own later on.

Utilize the Class Space and/or Group Spaces within SpacesEDU to facilitate these discussions! Educators can create posts to prompt students with the following discussion questions, and allow them to reflect and collaborate within the comments - what are some 21st century skills that you think are important for success in today's world? How can the study of (subject) help develop these skills? Can you think of any examples from literature where characters demonstrate 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and/or communication?

Through incorporating these discussions around 21st-century skills into your classroom and having students consider why they are learning a particular skill, where they would use it outside of the class and after graduation, and determining examples of when they have seen adults display this skill and in what contexts, students are actively developing their critical thinking abilities about what they’re learning in school and the outside world.

Colleen Potter

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