What are the 21st Century Skills?

by Evelyn McCulloch, Google Certified Trainer




The 4 C’s

When the 21st Century emerged, schools began to see the paramount value in teaching transferrable higher-order skills to their students. This shift began to take place in the early 1980’s when the US Secretary of Education conducted thorough research on the quality of education in the United States and the National Commission on Excellence in Education was created.


The National Commission concluded that, “educational reform should focus on the goal of creating a Learning Society*” Stronger communication began to occur between the National Commission, educational institutions, Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and employers in various fields and sectors. Companies began to see the imperative need to hire employees with not only academic knowledge in their field but also strong skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, later to be deemed the 21st Century Skills or the 4 C’s for short.


The growing prevalence of 21st century skills

The rise of computer science, fine arts, and vocational trade programs in the traditional school setting also came forth around the same time as the 21st Century Skills. The US economy was becoming more service oriented adapting from the previous generation that was centered around industrial work. When millennials entered the workforce, they were likely to switch jobs more often and needed well developed 21st Century Skills to adapt to expectations and quickly integrate into collaborative teams. As well, technology’s scope of influence widened at the millennium and companies sought a workforce that could use the 21st Century Skills digitally to advance their connectivity and expand their brand’s reach via social media, blogging, coding, and website development.

To form a more unified approach following the National Commission on Excellence in Education, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills was created in 2002 (now called P21). The strategic group included innovative companies in the private and public sectors, the major computer and software companies at that time, Apple, Dell, Microsoft , Cisco, AOL Time Warner,  educational leaders from the National Education Association, and the United States Department of Education. Their objective was to formalize and articulate their vision to the country on “the importance of 21st century skills for all students**” and “position 21st century readiness at the center of US K-12 education***“. The founding of P21 sent the discussion on the significance of teaching the 21st Century Skills into mainstream education.

Since 2002, the 21st Century Skills are now taught widely in schools and in workplaces in the US,  Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and many forward thinking countries. It is crucial that the 21st Century Skills are introduced beginning in early childhood education and strengthened through practice all the way into higher education and the workforce.


Can you measure the 21st Century Skills?

The 21st Century Skills can be assessed through teacher and student reflection, as well as peer and group critique based on the performance of the skill. Using common language around the skill and its competencies is important. (See table below for the specific competencies.) When students are told to “go collaborate” on a project or “come up with a creative idea” they are often left with little explicit guidance or direction in how to demonstrate and perform  the skill. They need modeling from their teacher, they need specific criteria to intentionally focus on through goal setting, and they need time to reflect both during and after the task to measure their movement along a continuum. The skills displayed are really an outward expression of a student’s ability to make their thinking visible. The goal is not mastery but the encouragement to seek honest and personal growth in the skill from every task and project. Teachers can also more intentionally create projects for students driven by the 21st Century Skills rather than by content. Content and knowledge are easily taught and easily forgotten (not to mention highly searchable in the year 2017!) but the 21st Century Skills are transferrable, invaluable, and prepare our students to be future ready contributors to the workforce and world.




* “Archived: A Nation at Risk.” 26 Apr. 1983, http://www.csus.edu/indiv/l/langd/nation_at_risk.pdf. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.

**”P21.” http://www.p21.org/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.

***”Our Vision and Mission – P21.” http://www.p21.org/about-us/our-mission. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017


Evelyn McCulloch, Google Certified Trainer

Evelyn McCulloch is an Innovation Coach and Grades 5-6 Educator in a Maker Space at Park Maitland School. She is also a Digital Learning Strategist for i-Tech Support, Inc., with expertise implementing G Suite in schools as a Google for Education Certified Trainer. In addition to being a Certified Trainer, Evelyn is also a Google for Education Level 1 and Level 2 Certified Educator. She brings eight years experience as an educator and teacher leader in local and global classrooms. Evelyn is passionate about utilizing innovation and technology in teaching and learning to help students make thinking visible, give students a voice, and provide them with a wider audience to share their work.

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