21st Century Skills

Recently—actually, for a long time—I have been thinking about the necessary skills for economic survival and well being in the 21st century. I have also thought, on more than one occasion, whether business interests should dictate the curriculum in schools. (More on that later.) Defining the skills depends on who is doing the defining, of course, whether it is a business, a school board in Alaska, or a parent group tired of standardized tests. In general, the skills have been separated from the curriculum; they receive attention after the fact, that is, after the curriculum has been established. Perhaps we should build the curriculum around the skills? That could make a lot of sense.
Writing in Educational Leadership in 2008, Tony Wagner mentioned seven skills. These skills seem to be a summary of what are needed in the 21st century economy, for participants in the American economy to be successful AFTER school. They are relevant to the overall economy, not to a specific area. I believe that if students really learn these skills America can remain competitive with the rest of the world. The skills, arranged in seven complementary pairs, are valuable whether someone wants to go to college, join the military, or pursue a different career path:
1) Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
2) Collaboration and Leadership
3) Agility and Adaptability
4) Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
5) Effective Oral and Written Communication
6) Accessing and Analyzing Information, and
7) Curiosity and Imagination.
I would add two additional skills:
8) Effective Communication in a Foreign Language and
9) Environmental and Personal Awareness.

Providing students with the material and wherewithal to develop these skills is not easy. I have long pondered the first set of skills, critical thinking and problem solving, both of which have been discussed, but rarely executed. In fact, my experience tells me that the more critical thinking is talked about, the less it is enacted. This is probably not surprising since critical thinking is opposite to today’s poisoned discussion atmosphere. Critical thinking is the opposite of a sound bite and requires thought, reflection and proof. It is the corollary to problem solving.
Most can understand the six other skill sets without much thought. I would like to elaborate on the last two: foreign language and awareness. Despite the widespread use of ‘world language,’ I continue to say foreign language, since my experience speaking other languages tells me that the term is restricted to English. To be quite honest, I am still not sure what a ‘world language’ is. I believe its use is a negative reflection of the idea of ‘foreign,’ which somehow has a negative connotation, though I fail to see how.
Notice that I wrote “Effective Communication” and not “Study of.” Traditionally, foreign language success has been measured by final grades that are connected to seat time. Seat time of course refers to the amount of time a student has occupied a space in a classroom, which may or my not reflect what has been learned. Effective communication means that the student has the ability to understand and interact with native speakers without any difficulty. The inability of many Americans to meaningfully communicate and interact with non-natives has caused a lot of difficulties in the not so distant past. It has meant a lack of understanding of people and places in many parts of the world, including, but not restricted to, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia. In this century we must refocus our efforts in this area.
The last skill set combines two types of awareness: personal and environmental. Both of these types of are necessary if we are to continue to prosper. Personal awareness is increasingly necessary as collaboration becomes more important in the 21st century workplace; environmental awareness is becoming increasingly important if we want to enjoy the outdoors and not pollute the air we breathe.
In future blogs I would like to discuss the way in which our courses encourage these skills.