21st Century Skills In The Classroom


How learning has changed in the 21st century

Technology with its applications in everyday life has changed the way we do many of our daily tasks. We are literally surrounded by apps that make our lives easier. Case in point, all photos in this blog article were edited with the help of photo editing layers app.

21st century learners are required to have a very different skillset compared to learners of the past. In traditional learning, students learned not to ask too many questions. Instead, they were required to listen and repeat the expected answers.

Most schools still focus on teaching a set of basic skills that do not serve the needs of modern society. Although students must acquire knowledge, learning content is not enough. Today the meaning of knowing has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to locate, evaluate, and use information effectively.

Today’s students need to be fully prepared for successful learning in the information age. They are heading into a busy and competitive world full of uncertainties, joining a workforce that is more mobile and better qualified than ever before, and building careers that span multiple jobs, positions, and skill sets, some of which haven’t been invented yet.

In response, schools need to make changes in their approach to adequately prepare students with the required 21st century skills. Technology is transforming the ways that people work and relate to each other. This means that learning and schools needs to change to adequately prepare students. Education should be much more about ways of thinking which involve creative and critical approaches to problem-solving and decision-making.

Education should also introduce ways of working through communicating and collaborating as well as refining the necessary tools for working. These tools include information literacy and ICT literacy

And last but not least, students need to develop the skills for living in a multi-faceted world as active and engaged citizens with personal and social responsibility. A 21st century learner is able to apply their skills to numerous situations and experiences, gain new competencies, build relationships, and assume new roles that are capable of constantly adapting learning and growing in a fast- changing world influenced by technology.

To meet the challenge of preparing students for a life of constant change and constant learning, teachers need to be innovative in their approach. The skills needed for the 21st century must be central to what students are doing in schools. With a student-centered approach and real-world applications, we must prepare students for an uncertain future by providing an education that supports them to actively engage in their learning, to think critically, to communicate in various ways, to collaborate, and to process information.


What are 21st century skills?

21st century skills are twelve abilities that students need in order to succeed in the modern age. In order to improve effectiveness in English language teaching, both the teacher and the learner need to be equipped with the knowledge on 21st century literacies. These twelve abilities are grouped into three different categories.

Learning Skills

The first 21st century skills category is called ‘Learning Skills’. They are also called the four Cs. These skills include:

  • critical thinking
  • creativity
  • collaboration
  • communication

The four Cs are the mental processes required to adapt and improve upon a modern work environment. Critical thinking is one of the most important qualities one should have. It is the mechanism that weeds out problems and replaces them with fruitful endeavors.

Creativity is the ability to widen the mind and see concepts in a different light that can lead to innovations. It is a means of adaptation. Something is better than the past, so something has to change.

Collaboration means working with others to achieve the best results, considered to be the most difficult concept. In 4 Cs the key element is the willingness of all participants in understanding differences for the greater good.

Having a good communication skill will help in bringing all of the qualities together. It is also about conveying ideas among different types of people.

All of them are skills that students can use later in life to adapt to any situation they encounter.

Literacy Skills

The second 21st century skills category is called ‘Literacy Skills’. These are sometimes also called IMT skills and they all deal with students reading and understanding information, especially the information that they find online. These are:

  • information literacy
  • media literacy
  • technology literacy

These focus on discerning facts, media outlets, and the technology behind them. It is determining factual information to avoid misinformation.

Information literacy means that when a student reads something online, they can understand what that is actually saying, being a newspaper article or a blog. Information literacy is a foundation skill that can help in understanding online facts, data, and statistics.

Media literacy means understanding the sources that publish that information, and also whether those sources are reliable. Media literacy is a skill in identifying and distinguishing relevant information published in credible sources and outlets.

Finally, technology literacy revolves around students understanding the equipment that publishes that kind of information online. That mostly revolves around servers and computers. Technology literacy is having the information and knowledge to understand what technological innovations perform, what tests, and why.

These three skills help students become savvy information consumers. Combined with our last category, it also helps them become challenging independent thinkers.

Life Skills

The third category of 21st century skills is called ‘Life Skills’. These skills are the ones that students can use as they go through their lives. These skills include:

  • flexibility
  • leadership
  • initiative
  • productivity
  • social skills

These are elements that focus on both personal and professional qualities in life. Flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Flexibility requires showing humility and accepting that a lot still has to be learned.

Leadership is setting goals, walking a team through the steps required and achieving those goals collaboratively. Motivating a team to accomplish a goal is a crucial task to grow and reach a success.

Having initiative is an indication of someone’s character in terms of work ethic and professional progress. Initiative only comes naturally to a handful of people. As a result, it needs to be learned to fully succeed.

Productivity is the ability to complete work in an appropriate amount of time. It is simply what we call a person’s efficiency.

Social skill is the concept of networking with others for mutual benefit. Etiquette, manners, and politeness still play major roles in today’s socialization.

Students are bound to use all these skills in their personal lives and their professional lives. When you combine them all together, you get a well-rounded student who is able to discern accurate information in an age when there is so much data out there available.

These are the 21st century skills to improve teaching and learning, considering also that learners have different goals, needs, strengths, and motivations. We are a part of preparing them to learn how to use the technology available to their advantage, especially in this digital age that can contribute to their future prospects in life.


Applying 21st century skills in the classroom

Today we still do a lot of things in our classrooms that really come from how we were taught yesterday. Very little has changed in our classrooms in how we teach. However, the learning needs of our students are profoundly different. So, if we’re teaching the same way as we taught a hundred years ago and our students are different, then we need to really look at what’s available to us in this 21st century.

The speed of technology is moving at an exponential pace. 80 percent of the jobs that exist today didn’t exist in twenty years ago. If something takes place at 9 o’clock in the morning, by about 9:30 most of the people who are logged on will know about it, and by the end of the day almost everybody will know about that.

We need to question ourselves: is everything that we’re teaching applicable for the students’ life skills? Do we level up the instruction according to our students’ ability? Do we allow for the students to make decisions? Are they motivated to learn? Do they connect emotionally?

Students go to school where they’re required to sit and listen and take notes, read the textbook, answer some recall questions, write some responses, use a rubric, wait for others to catch up, watch the clock and do what they are told. Not all students want to be told what to do, and we also want our future leaders of the world to be able to think about what they’re being asked to do.

We are putting so much emphasis on our multiple-choice tests. We ask our students to apply one strategy, do their own work, and not borrow other people’s work. But their future is going to actually ask them to take information that is already out there and apply it to new situations. We need to teach them that at a young age.

Our students communicate through instant messaging or chatting or email or blogs or texting. As you’re reading this, there is probably a new way for them to communicate. They share information on the computer, they exchange music and videos, they meet through chat rooms and wikis, they coordinate projects, they work in groups. That doesn’t mean that they get to learn whatever they want, because there are certain standards we want them to learn.

We need to give them work that is more challenging, that it will absorb their attention and allow them to be creative. Work that requires a thought process, and demands that they analyze and synthesize and conjecture. The teacher must not just provide information, but be the facilitator. The teacher must be there and able to respond when the learning is ready. This is called ‘just-in-time learning’.

The tasks and activities must be relevant so that the students understand the purpose of learning. Students today will not do something just because their teacher wants them to do it or because the test asks them for this information. They’re doing things because they want to gain the knowledge they will be applying in different situations.

We process things in a linear way, one after the other. Our students access things randomly, they are parallel processing, and multitasking. They’re pulling in information and they’re actually using this information. When we go first for the text, they go first for the graphics. That means they’re looking at the images and they also prefer bright colored backgrounds. This is the way that their brain is connecting information. We study manuals for directions, whereas our students prefer watching how-to videos. We like working alone, dividing the workload among members of the team in separate parts. Our students are connected and work in groups.

Technology helps our students develop confidence, keeps them engaged, and helps them to look for higher levels of achievement. We should aim to provide them with the resources, even if we’re not completely sure how to do it, the students will actually figure it out. We should also prepare for scholarly learners; this basically means that if we wait until everybody understands and gets it right, not everybody will be engaged.


Extra skills for students in the 21st century

Being a student in the 21st century is so much more than just being good at what you study. The pressure and expectations are far higher than ever.

Here are some extra skills you need to be a successful student in the 21st century:

  1. High EQ levels. Before even opening a textbook, you need to have a high EQ level. Artificial intelligence gets more advanced, leading to fewer job opportunities and more people applying for the same post. You’ll need to outshine your competition when you all have the same qualifications. To do that you need to work on your EQ, which is your ability to understand other people and yourself. Many people believe there’s far more value in having higher EQ levels than higher IQ levels. You get self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. All of these form part of your EQ.
  2. Being able to access and analyze information. There’s no point in being able to use all of these digital platforms and not be able to make any sense of the information they provide. These days, students need to be able to look at the information and analyze it constructively. With this skill you would be able to provide a business or company with facts and figures that are easy to understand and will help the company make better decisions.
  3. Entrepreneurial spirit. Even if it’s just yourself, having an entrepreneurial mindset is extremely important. Being innovative and taking calculated risks are all part of the skill set needed to succeed. Taking risks and dealing with failures are all a part of business, but they’re a part of real life too. It will help you keep survive when things are tough in business and your personal life.
  4. Being adaptable. Change happens overnight. In the old days, our parents or grandparents would find a job in their early 20s and celebrate a lifetime with the same company. These days it’s not uncommon for people to move jobs frequently, to job hop in search of something that has purpose and where employees are valued. Being open to change is integral of the student of the 21st century.
  5. Curiosity. When curiosity is alive, we’re attracted to many things. We discover many worlds. Curiosity is such an important factor for success. It leads you to ask questions, learn from others and find ways to do the job better. Curious people want to understand things. They make an effort to know everything about what they’re doing and why and how their role fits into the bigger picture. When a curious person has a setback, they tend to analyze the reasons for it and do better when they try again.
  6. Inter and intra personal skills. Inter-personal skills refer to your personality and social skills. Intra-personal skills is your character and how you manage yourself. In the 21st century there’s no place for big egos. People don’t like them and those that continually display them are soon left behind. To avoid getting a big ego, students need to continuously work on their inter and intra personal skills. Being a good communicator means you’ll find it easier to make friends, have meaningful work relationships and even find a job.
  7. Great work ethic. Having a great work ethic means you show integrity, you take your work seriously and produce great quality results, you take responsibility, work as a team and show endurance.
  8. Accepting responsibility. Accepting responsibility when things go wrong makes people trust you. If you accept the repercussions, you’ll probably not make that mistake ever again, but sadly we’d rather listen to our egos and have someone else take the fall.
  9. Being efficiently productive. Workaholics are truly not getting any more work done than you are. What they’re doing is fussing over the minor details and completely stressing themselves out unnecessarily. It’s crucial to unlearn the rhetoric that being a workaholic is a good thing. It isn’t, and the sooner students learn this skill, the better.  
  10. Being globally and culturally aware and sensitive. Knowing what’s going on around you and around the world is imperative. Being culturally sensitive is non-negotiable. As our world is getting more and more connected we are becoming more aware of cultural differences and how we respond to them can make or break us.

To hold information-age jobs, though, students also need to think deeply about issues, solve problems creatively, work in teams, communicate clearly in many media, learn ever-changing technologies, and deal with a flood of information. The rapid changes in our world require students to be flexible, to take the initiative and lead when necessary, and to produce something new and useful.

Today’s classrooms are focusing not only on content knowledge—but also on ensuring that students develop innovative solutions, critically think through complex problems, and the ability to work and communicate across diverse teams. In the process, we can ensure that all of our learners are empowered to succeed with the skills for today.

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Anita Lindquist is the Head of Curriculum in a Secondary School in Stockholm. She is an advocate for excellence in public education and passionate about learning and teaching methodologies.


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