Advancing technology, globalization, and a demand for higher-skilled jobs mean the modern workplace requires far more challenging skills than it did two decades ago. Responding to these heightened expectations, educators are increasingly finding ways to instill a set of abilities that will prepare kids for the world ahead, commonly referred to as “21st century skills.”
But when you hear the term “21st century skills,” keep two things in mind: People have more of them than they realize, and with focus and learning you can develop many others.
Generally speaking, 21st century skills refers to the demands and expectations placed on students, teachers, employees, innovators, and others as they strive to succeed and prosper and in a competitive, multidisciplinary, and technology-driven world.
While the term is widely used, it is not always defined consistently, which can lead to confusion and differing interpretations. Every classroom and workplace is unique, and no one can have every skill needed to succeed in every situation. What they can have, specialists say, are work habits and knowledge foundations that will help them learn how to learn and adapt to new situations quickly and creatively.
Here is a compilation of the wide variety of skills that often fall under this “21st century” umbrella:
- Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, and the ability to synthesize information.
- Research skills and the ability to ask sharp questions.
- Creativity, curiosity, imagination, innovation.
- Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, and initiative.
- Oral and written communication, public speaking and presentation, and the ability to listen.
- Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, and the adaptability to be productive in virtual workspaces.
- Digital literacy.
Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners, wrote several years ago in U.S. News & World Report that none of these skills alone are suddenly important to success in the digital age. People have always needed to collaborate and think critically in order to get anything done. What is new, though, is the level at which our economy demands these skills.
“What’s new today is the degree to which economic competitiveness and educational equity mean these skills can no longer be the province of the few,” he wrote. “This distinction is not a mere debating point. It has important implications for how schools approach teaching, curriculum, and content.”
Even with the increased emphasis on these skills, many employers say they are having trouble finding people with the essentials. For at least a decade they have been calling for “higher standards of workforce excellence consistent with the demands of the 21st century.”
In Pittsburgh we’re working to build an education ecosystem to help our students build these critical skills—one in which libraries, makerspaces, and after-school spaces have the flexibility to let kids follow their own interests, make mistakes, and problem-solve for hours on end.
Many of Pittsburgh’s schools are leading the way in providing kids with the experiences that instill these types of skills. Pittsburgh kids are flexing their problem-solving smarts in new ways, and embarking on the path to 21st century thinking.
For example, last winter a small team of students at South Fayette High School designed and built an app that would text parents when their elementary school students hopped on and off a bus. The process was filled with problem solving the bumps in the road that students had to solve, working as a team and researching what was important to their potential users.
If humans make it to the 22nd century, we’ll still need collaboration, communication, and problem solving—just as the scientists and engineers who cured smallpox and built the hoover dam did in the 19th century. But fostering these skills in kids today doesn’t just heighten chances for their success. Today, these skills are critical, and Pittsburgh is proving a prime place to grow them.
Kathleen Costanza and Tom Mashberg contributed to this story.