21st Century Skills


On June 11th & 12th in Washington DC, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (aka “P21”) held its annual summit.  Attendees ranged from US Department of Education Staff to the NEA to corporate leaders.  The presentations, panels and ad hoc discussions focused on “21st century skills” -  a buzzword, an organization, and a movement to make education more meaningful and effective to better prepare students for their future in a global economy.  (For full disclosure, I serve on the board)  P21’s stated mission is to facilitate the development of the following skills:

  • Information and communication skills
  • Thinking and problem-solving
  • Interpersonal and self-direction skills
  • Global awareness
  • Financial, economic and business literacy
  • Civic literacy

P21 has received a lot of attention lately, most of which is positive.  However, some scholars and education activists have labeled 21st Century Skills as “soft skills” which are not critical to a core curriculum.  To that, Ken Kay, President of the Partnership, has responded that they are setting up a “false dichotomy.”  21st Century Skills are not about replacing core curricula, but rather to enhance and contextualize them.  To quote Paige Johnson, “you can’t think critically about nothing.”  I agree.  The “drill and kill” method of memorization so prevalent in our schools must give way to the development of higher order thinking skills.  Because of the pace of innovation and the market, students need to become versatile thinkers and communicators, not narrow experts on specific topics.  Students graduating high school today will have between 10 and 12 jobs during their career.  Adaptation, collaboration, problem solving, self-direction and ICT literacy will be the keys to their personal success and the collective success of countries whose economies depend on skilled workers and innovation. /end rant


I’m happy to welcome Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, to the blog to answer some questions on the past, present and future of P21.

SCHMEDLEN: Ken, congratulations on a very successful summit.  What were the highlights from your point of view?

KAY: I think the attendance was overwhelming. We had four state chiefs in attendance, while seven states received the 21st Century Skills Practice of the Year Award. There was phenomenal state participation which really demonstrates all the nation-leading work our partner states are doing and accomplishing. I think all the participants were impressed by the level of success and breadth of reform states have taken on. In that same vein, Gene Wilhoit lead a thoughtful discussion on how the 21st century skills movement fits in with the voluntary national standards initiative lead by CCSSO and NGA. Hopefully, the standards will be rigorous and call for 21st century skills to be embedded in deep content requirements. Throughout the summit, there was incredible participation from leading policymakers – including James Shelton, Roberto Rodriguez and Barbara Pryor. In addition, Cyber Summit afforded thousands of education, policy, civic, community and business leaders the opportunity to interact with one another, discuss important education reform initiatives and follow the National Summit. We hoped to secure 2,000 participants and ended up with nearly 3,000.

SCHMEDLEN: Is the Partnership meeting its stated goals?  Are things progressing as the P21 executive board originally intended?

KAY: This is a thought-provoking question. I believe P21 has exceeded original expectations and has branched off in directions that weren’t part of the original plan. Our measurements of success have changed dramatically. For example, we didn’t set out to start a State Leadership Initiative, but now we have 13 states. So we’ve changed the way we measure success.

SCHMEDLEN: Let’s get into this whole “false dichotomy” business.  Why are some skeptical about 21st century skills?

KAY:There are a couple of things we hear. The first is that we can’t call them 21st century skills if they predate January 1, 2000. I don’t think this works as criteria. We never said or wanted to “invent” skills. We wanted to create a national dialogue about which skills were critical for success in today’s world and whether our education system ensures that students graduate with the skills and knowledge required to be full participants in society. While some skills are new, many are timeless. Critical thinking, problem solving, communications skills, and global awareness will be around 92 years from now, yet our nation is not currently on a concerted track to find the best ways to teach and assess these skills. In addition, some groups believe by incorporating 21st century skills into instruction it somehow limits the rigor of courses. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has never advocated for skills to replace knowledge – that would get us nowhere. In fact, 21st century skills strengthen the teaching and learning of core subjects and keep students engaged. We wholeheartedly believe students must have a set of core knowledge; however that isn’t enough in today’s world. Decades ago, possessing a great understanding of subjects (math, English, history, and other core subjects) was the ticket up the economic ladder. Now, in addition to this deep knowledge, people need a broad range of skills – such as creativity, innovation, oral and written communication, problem solving and critical thinking – to prosper.

SCHMEDLEN: I’ve noticed growing support from a number of diverse states within the US.  Will there be national standards in the US anytime soon?

KAY: The CCSSO/NGA initiative is salutary in its goal. If this leads to rigorous, internationally benchmarked standards, then it will be a success. If we end up with a set of least common denominator standards, then it will set the country back decades. Still, to craft national standards that raise the bar for student achievement, the Partnership believes that the standards must: 1.    Be internationally benchmarked; and 2.    Include deep core subject matter and 21st century skills – such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and communication. At this moment, over a quarter of the states, which educate nearly 25 percent of our nation’s public school students, have formally embraced 21st century skills initiatives. In addition, there are many districts, schools and educators across the country that have effectively combined core courses with 21st century skills to create demanding standards. The CCSSO/NGA project can utilize these existing efforts as exemplars.

SCHMEDLEN: OK, back to P21.  What resources are available for schools in the US and abroad?  What does P21 offer?

KAY: There are a lot of helpful resources out there from a number of groups. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has created a self-assessment tool – the Milestones for Improving Learning and Education (MILE) Guide for 21st Century Skills. A revamped guide will be available in the fall and will assist educators and administrators in measuring the progress of their schools in defining, teaching and assessing 21st century skills. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has also collaborated with the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Science Teachers Association, the National Council for Geographic Education, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (map coming this year) to build detailed maps that include teacher-created models of how 21st century skills can be infused into core classes. In addition, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has created Route 21, an online, one-stop shop for 21st century skills-related information, resources and tools. Route 21 showcases how 21st century skills can be supported through standards, assessments, professional development, curriculum and instruction and learning environments. The site is a comprehensive, go-to online resource for high-quality content, best practices, relevant reports, articles and research to assist practitioners in implementing 21st century teaching practices and learning outcomes.

SCHMEDLEN:“21st Century Skills” is a fairly new concept.  How can schools help tenured faculty start infusing their lessons to help students develop these skills?

KAY: There is nothing more important than professional development. If we don’t support teachers as they learn how to integrate these skills into the teaching of core subjects than the teaching and acquisition of these skills and deep content won’t happen.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills founded the Professional Development Affiliate program, which equips participants with the knowledge and tools necessary for aligning existing professional development offerings with the Partnership’s Framework for 21st Learning. The program is designed for national and regional organizations that provide training and professional development programs to school administrators and instructional leaders. Upon completion of the program, participants join a national community committed to infusing 21st century skills into K-12 instructional practices and sharing their work with colleagues. We will have trained about 100 professional development practitioners at over 60 organizations by the end of this year. In addition, West Virginia, along with the state’s teachers, has developed Teach21“to assist colleagues in planning and delivering effective 21st century instruction in West Virginia Classrooms. It enables educators to quickly access 21st Century Content Standards, Learning Skills and Technology Tools for WV Schools, as well as other resources that exemplify rigorous and relevant instructional design and delivery.” Within the Maine Department of Education and across organizations in the state, there is a sharing of information and cooperation to maximize professional development resources. Currently school districts receive professional development funds based on the number of pupils ($51 per pupil) in addition to federal funds provided to schools. Under the new Governor’s proposal, more than $21 million is available through federal, state and local funds. A plan for statewide cooperation has been drafted and will serve as a commitment for all entities to work together. The Iowa Professional Development Model (IPDM) provides a structure for professional development that is focused, collaborative, and that directly supports the attainment of district and school student achievement goals. Each school district is required to submit a district professional development plan that articulates how the IPDM will be incorporated into professional development for all teachers. As 21st century teaching and learning expectations are articulated, their implementation into classroom practice will be supported through professional development for all instructional staff.

SCHMEDLEN: Do you have any examples of 21st Century Skills in action?  Have there been any formal assessments done to monitor the efficacy of a redesigned curriculum?

KAY: I could go on and on about the examples we have of 21st century skills being integrated into classroom practices. I’ll give a few short examples. Instead of a traditional lecture format class structure, teachers in the Catalina Foothills school district in Tucson, Ariz., require students to lead their own discussions about topics they are studying. Students are then graded on their presentation skills, not simply on memorizing rote facts. This exercise builds critical thinking, flexibility, oral and written communication skills and collaboration, all of which fit within the Partnership’s Framework for 21st Century Learning. Good marks go to those who build on, clarify or challenge others’ comments while referencing the material, their own experiences or other current events. Sixth-grade science teacher Wayne Naylor has found a way to weave 21st century skills into lessons on longitude and latitude that is in line with Indiana state standards. In his class at Craig Middle School, students work in groups to identify natural areas in surrounding Lawrence Township that need improvement. One such example was restoring and renovating the city’s Fall Creek Park. The students performed research into plants native to the area, conducted surveys of their community, used GPS and Google Earth to mark locations of their projects and created visual displays and scale models. Some groups went further by producing a videotape and implementing their plans. This unit has something to engage everyone – kids that once struggled in math had no problem translating proportions from a model picnic table to build the real thing. In Darlington, Wisconsin, high school teacher Dick Anderson sized on the opportunity to use local rough-sawn timber to impart 21st century skills, including real-world entrepreneurship. For the past two years, students in his class have managed nearly every aspect of planning, budgeting, modeling, building and sitting a full-size rustic covered bridge. Students even worked 60 hours outside of class to complete the last project. In a real lesson of creativity and adaptability, the original site plan had to be scrapped due to environmental issues, which necessitated scaling down the original diagrams so the bridge could fit in a city park. The project taught technical skills, but also presentation skills (students spoke to school board members, the city council, business groups and even the local media). If you go to the “In the Classroom” section of the Cyber Summit, you will find a myriad of videos that display how teachers teach 21st century skills alongside content. The 21st century skills movement is just beginning to discuss how we meaningfully assess 21st century skills. Some states are starting to build the assessment of 21st century skills right alongside current assessments. We are also working with federal and state governments on how best they should evaluate 21st century skills on a broader scale.

SCHMEDLEN: Any comments on P21’s plans for the future?

KAY: We will continue to work with our state partners to build 21st century skills education systems. We have 13 states today and hope to be at 20 by the close of 2010.  In addition, we are collaborating with the White House, the Department of Education and Congress to work on the next generation of public policy, including ESEA, to ensure that 21st century skills are built into our accountability, pedagogical and professional development strategies.

SCHMEDLEN: Thank you, Ken.  DLTBGYD.

KAY: Thank you for the time, Michael. For more information on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills http://www.21stcenturyskills.org