Teaching 21st Century Skills
Core Subjects Embed 21st Century Themes
A central component of preparation for life in the 21st century is a comprehensive understanding of the core content areas that have replaced the 3 R’s of reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. P21 has identified these key subjects as:
As a first step in creating a curriculum that teaches 21st century skills, identify the desired outcomes of units of study in these key subject areas. Do the work of prioritizing content standards and articulating the concepts that are essential for students to understand. This work of content area experts can be completed by individual classroom teachers, PLC or department teams, or by curriculum designers at an administrative level. There is no one prescriptive method that will meet the needs of every school or school network, but only once this work is done can you begin to integrate 21st century skills into the outcomes of these courses.
Embedded in this step is the chance to distribute leadership and to engage the content area experts among your teaching staff.
Whether curriculum in your school is designed by individual teachers or by a core team, use the opportunity to review your curriculum with your teams (or map it out for the first time).
Not only will this be a key first step to creating a curriculum that teaches 21st Century Skills, but it will serve as an opportunity to align your curriculum to your most updated standards.
Use this opportunity to reflect and refine your curriculum for the upcoming year. Review your subject area standards and make any necessary updates to your unit plans across your courses.
If this is your first time mapping out your curriculum, start slow. Consider using a UbD strategy for mapping out your individual units, and set a goal for completing Stage 1: establishing desired outcomes. Once you have completed this stage, you should have the information about standards, content, skills, enduring understandings, essential questions (or any other unique components of unit plans your district includes) to be able to move on to integrating other 21st Century Skills into your maps as you gradually revise them.
Once the curriculum maps for these core subjects are completed enough to begin integrating 21st century themes, open the floor for a cross curricular conversation about where they fit the most organically in your curriculum. 21st century themes are the multiple literacies that help deepen the understanding of the core subjects and draw connections between them. Each core subject area (and courses that may not have made this list) has unique opportunities to address these individual themes. How exactly each theme is addressed within each subject, course, and unit of study is subject to the expertise, resources, and creativity of the individual curriculum writer (which may or may not be the teacher of the course).
While it may be tempting for each curriculum writer or teacher of each course to integrate these things individually in their courses, without any coordination with the writers of other courses. But to support the building of transfer skills and to help the creation of connections across subject areas and into the real lives of our students, consider working together across subject areas and as well as across grade levels to create cross curricular and scaffolded opportunities to tackle these themes. This does not mean that teachers must create lock-step units and lessons with teachers of other subjects, but it does present an opportunity for common essential questions, enduring understandings, or common assessments, which when utilized across these teams, can deepen student learning.
Lastly, do not exclude teams in subject areas not defined as core subjects in the discussion. A key component of teaching 21st century skills is practice with real life application of knowledge and skills learned within subject areas, which is not limited to core subject areas. Many students will make careers from the knowledge and skills that they learn in elective courses. Even if they do not pursue a career that taps into those concepts, part of teaching 21st century skills is an openness to the unknown possibilities of how knowledge will create opportunities for students long after their time in our classrooms. Weaving 21st century skills throughout more niche courses is a future-ready strategy that will help students develop a well-rounded education.
Learning and Innovation Skills
The 4 C’s of Learning and Innovation are skills that will prepare students with the adaptability to be successful in the real world and in the workforce. To integrate these into your curriculum, P21 has generated these elaborations and tasks to practice with students.
Creativity and Innovation
- Use a wide range of idea-creation techniques (such as brainstorming)
- Create new and worthwhile ideas (both incremental and radical concepts)
- Elaborate, refine, analyze, and evaluate their own ideas in order to improve and maximize creative efforts
Work Collaboratively with Others
- Develop, implement, and communicate new ideas to others effectively
- Be open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives; incorporate group input and feedback into the work
- Demonstrate originality and inventiveness in work and understand the real-world limits to adopting new ideas
- View failure as an opportunity to learn; understand that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes
- Act on creative ideas to make a tangible and useful contribution to the field in which the innovation will occur
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
- Use various types of reasoning (inductive, deductive, etc.) as appropriate to the situation
- Use systems thinking
- Analyze how parts of a whole interact with each other to produce overall outcomes in complex systems
- Make judgments and decisions
- Effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims, and beliefs
- Analyze and evaluate major alternative points of view
- Synthesize and make connections between information and arguments
- Interpret information and draw conclusions based on the best analysis
- Reflect critically on learning experiences and processes
- Solve different kinds of non-familiar problems in both conventional and innovative ways
- Identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions
- Articulate thoughts and ideas effectively using oral, written, and nonverbal communication skills in a variety of forms and contexts
- Listen effectively to decipher meaning, including knowledge, values, attitudes, and intentions
- Use communication for a range of purposes (e.g. to inform, instruct, motivate, and persuade)
- Utilize multiple media and technologies, and know how to judge their effectiveness a priority as well as assess their impact
- Communicate effectively in diverse environments (including multi-lingual)
- Demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams
- Exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal
- Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member
Information, Media and Technology Skills
Across all of your integration of media and technology, model the practice of a SAMR framework. Push students to utilize the technology available to them to discover and present information in ways that would otherwise be unattainable. Do this by using the technology available to you to create learning experiences and scaffold tasks and assessments for students that, without the technology, would not be possible.
Model for students and provide them opportunities to access and evaluate information critically.
In addition to teaching students to access and evaluate information, they must also know how to use and manage the information. Support students in this practice by constructing projects and tasks that scaffold the access, evaluation, and application of information across multiple steps.
Create opportunities for students to be able to analyze media in your content area. Scaffold into this analysis practice in developing understanding of how and why media messages are constructed, how individuals interpret these messages and change their behavior, as well as any applicable legal or ethical issues surrounding the access and use of media.
Design units that include opportunities for students to create media products. Students should be able to apply a SAMR framework (not necessarily to the letter) to understanding and utilizing the most appropriate creation tools and creation strategies.
Give students practice applying technology effectively. They should be presented with different technology tools and contexts, and supported in the process of utilizing these tools to research, organize, evaluate, communicate, and more.
Life and Career Skills
Flexibility and Adaptability
Provide students with different roles and responsibilities in a variety of contexts to practice being able to adapt to change and be flexible. These can be directly included in the curriculum, but also embedded into the systems and procedures of the classroom. Ensure that students are given practice working effectively in a variety of roles and even some that might be ambiguous or contain fluctuating priorities.
Initiative and Self-Direction
Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
Similarly to the skill of collaboration, students require direct instructions and practice interacting effectively with others. Facilitate activities that allow students to work with others and provide clear success criteria and opportunity for reflection and self-assessment of their success. Additionally, make sure that students have the chance to work effectively in diverse teams. It can be tempting to allow students to segregate themselves, but intentionally creating opportunities for students to learn to respect cultural differences and practice being open-minded in the face of different ideas and values is a key component of functioning in the adult world.
Productivity and Accountability
Productivity and accountability is likely already integrated into your curriculum through your systems and procedures and classroom management plan. As a 21st century skill, intentionally teaching students the components of managing projects includes guiding students to set and meet goals, as well as to prioritize, plan, and manage their work.
Leadership and Responsibility
Part of the rationale for integrating 21st century skills into curriculum is to support the development of well-rounded members of society, capable of exercising leadership and responsibility for themselves and others. Address this by providing opportunities for students to guide and lead others through the use of interpersonal and problem-solving skills, inspiring and leveraging the strengths of others, and demonstrating integrity. Students should also have chances to be responsible to others. This means providing situations in which students have to act with the interests of the community. For this and all Life and Career Skills, students should also be given the opportunity and the support to reflect on their success and set intentions and goals for the future.
Assessing 21st Century Skills
Assessing core subjects and 21st century themes is likely a skill that content area experts have much training and experience executing. However, there aren’t widely accepted methods of assessing the other 21st Century Skills in the same way that there are other, more subject-specific skills. There are, however, a handful of broad recommendations that echo quality assessment criteria across teaching philosophies and strategies that can be applied to assessing 21st century skills.
Blending in technology-enhanced formative and summative assessments into traditional instruction and assessment frameworks supports the P21 goal of creating learning experiences for students that mirror the type of tasks that they will encounter in the postsecondary world and workforce. As with the strategies for teaching information, media and technology skills, using technology that opens up the possibilities for assessment beyond paper and pencil to assess student learning is a teaching practice that is in itself, an application of 21st Century Skills. Even the simple substitution of a shared word processing document for paper and pencil or the sharing of a link to an online resource for a paper handout more closely mirrors how students will be expected to express their ideas and share information in the workforce.
While substituting can be an effective place to start when using technology to assess students, the further along the SAMR spectrum toward redefinition that your assessment tools can take the task, the better. When considering how to best use technology to assess students in ways that are modifying or redefining an assessment that you’ve used in the past, it can be helpful to investigate authentic assessment resources or to think about assessments, particularly summative, as performance tasks.
Utilizing more long-term or scaffolded assessment strategies, such as portfolios, is another option that may be more effective for assessing 21st Century Skills. This is another type of assessment that mirrors the types of products that students will have to produce to demonstrate their understanding and share their work after they exit the school system.
The use of a portfolio is an incredibly flexible option that could be executed with the simplicity of a paper folder or a more technologically focused strategy, such as the creation of a website that includes all of the tasks leading up to this site as a culminating product. In addition to being a viable assessment option for the harder-to-assess concepts of learning and innovation or life and career skills, portfolios can be excellent options for final products of PBL units, which are strong examples of units of study that integrate 21st Century Skills development. What the portfolio physically looks like is subject to a variety of variables (grade level, technology use, targeted outcomes of the unit, etc.), but should always be composed of scaffolded tasks that build up to a final product, with demonstration of 21st Century Skills a necessary component of success.
Rubrics are a traditionally helpful tool in the assessment of a variety of different skills and subjects. There are specific strategies that teachers should utilize when sharing rubrics with students as a component of an assessment that can increase student performance. Rubrics can also be helpful in the practice of assessment design, serving as a resource for identifying success criteria for both assessment and tasks that students will complete during lessons.
These rubrics have been adapted from those published by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Use these rubrics to inform your assessment design and integrate the assessment of 21st Century Skills. You do not need to create new and additional assessments for these skills. Ideally, assessments of the content and skills of your subject area should include organically embedded assessments of these skills. Consider modifying these analytic rubrics into holistic or single-point rubrics to meet your needs, or simply review them as a resource to support the first step in the process of establishing success criteria for your assessments.
View the Rubric.
Alismail, H. A., & McGuire, P. (2015). 21st Century Standards and Curriculum: Current Research and Practice. Journal of Education and Practice, 6(6), 150–154. https://doi.org/ISSN-2222-1735
OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Instruction). (n.d.). 21st Century Skills Standards Rubrics. Olympia, WA.
Partnership for 21st Century Learning: A Network of Battelle for Kids. (2019). Framework for 21st Century Learning.
Partnership for 21st Century Learning: A Network of Battle for Kids. (2019). Framework for 21st Century Learning Definitions.