• Issue 102 / November - December 2014

    21st Century Skills for Students

    Alpaslan Sahin

    Economic projections for the next fifty years indicate that, both within the US and world economies, there will be an explicit shift in the Qualifications needed from the adult workforce; these reports urge citizens to take action to keep up with new demands (National Research Council, 2010). As in all reforms, education will play the major role in preparing the next generation of workers. However, the Quality of today's education is falling short in providing students the necessary skills, because education systems are mostly focused on closing achievement gaps and preparing students for standardized testing. Therefore, students are not developing the necessary skills to thrive in the 21st century economy.

    Educators have identified some skills that are necessary for students to succeed in their lives - these are called 21st century skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008). In the age of innovation and information, certain skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, innovation, and technological proficiency are vital for succeeding in the new workforce, yet many countries have not yet utilized their resources to teach and assess these skills. It is believed that if countries fully understood the link between students developing these skills and the future of their economies, these countries would invest and develop ways to foster the aforementioned skills in their students.

    Due to this, educational researchers have proposed that it is an economic and social imperative for everybody to work towards ensuring the next generation will be eQuipped with 21st century skills (Triling - Fadel, 2009; National Research Council, 2010). In this article, I will discuss some of the 21st century skills, their importance, and whether these skills are enough for today's students to succeed in the workforce and be happy in their social lives.

    21st century Skills

    Due to increased globalization and access to technology, new skills are needed to succeed in the workforce. Educators, government officials, and business people were asked about what these 21st century skills" entailed. I'm going to address some of their most common answers.

    Jerald (2009) justified and explained what skills our students need in this age - and why they need them. He believes we need a generation with newer skills due to changes in automation, globalization, workplace, demographics, and personal risk and responsibility. Computer technology in manufacturing has led to the automation of many jobs that humans once performed better, faster, and cheaper than machines. Technological and political changes as well as competitive forces have caused economies to be globalized. Together, these factors have changed how businesses operate. There is less hierarchy and supervision, and greater autonomy and personal responsibility for workers. Also, the global economy and ever-changing technology create a mobile population; thus, the population demographics of many countries are changing. As a result, individual risk and responsibility have increased. The skills defined as imperative for the 21st century have some commonalities, and they include reading literacy, mathematical literacy, scientific literacy, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, and creativity (Jerald, 2009; Pacific Policy Research Center, 2010). I want to look at each of these skills in detail.

    Reading literacy: Reading literacy is more about reading to learn rather than learning to read (Jerald, 2009). It is expected that employees are able to decipher many kinds of documents to carry out all kinds of tasks. This task may change from getting a driver's license to voting in an election to learning how to run new eQuipment. There are a number of national and international assessments that examine teenage and adult literacy. For example, the PISA reading literacy assessment measures students with reading charts, graphs, tables, maps, diagrams, forms, information sheets, advertisements, political flyers, vouchers, and myriad different certificates. Research supports the importance of strong literacy. Adults with stronger literacy skills are more likely to be employed, paid higher, and to have better jobs. Therefore, both individual and organizational success is highly dependent upon a high level of literacy.

    Mathematical literacy: Mathematical literacy is sometimes called Quantitative literacy or numeracy." This implies something other than what students do in a classroom, like answering a multiple-choice Question or solving a test Question. Jerald (2009) says it's possible that even highly educated people cannot be successful in understanding real life Quantitative information, such as understanding credit card offers or comparing the cost per ounce of food.

    Lynn Steen, a professor of mathematics at St Olaf Collage, points out that the roles played by numbers and data in contemporary society are virtually endless" (in Jerald, 2009, p.39). Professor Steen summarizes why mathematics literacy is so important by saying:

    Virtually every major public issue-from health care to social security, from international economics to welfare reform-depends on data, projections, inferences, and the kind of systematic thinking that is at the heart of Quantitative literacy (In Jerald, 2009, p.39).

    Scientific literacy: Science is known as one of the least favorite or most difficult subjects for most students, but experts say that all adults need to understand and apply science in daily life. There are several types of knowledge necessary for scientific literacy. The first is to be familiar with important scientific topics. OECD's PISA science literacy assessment measures 15 year old students' knowledge of physical systems, living systems, earth and space, and technology. The second necessary knowledge is how science works and how to apply scientific methods such as observation and testing. The third piece of necessary knowledge is an understanding of how science and technology impact our society and physical world, for good or ill. Therefore, scientific literacy is one of the critical skills that people have to possess in the 21st century.

    Financial literacy: This skill is particularly important for each and every citizen to make healthy economic decisions. Educational research points out that there are considerable weaknesses in financial literacy among students and adults in the United States. For instance, the Jump$tart Coalition's 2002 biennial financial literacy test results showed that American high school seniors answered only 50 percent of the Questions correctly. Likewise, the Institute of Certified Financial Planners conducted a survey and found that making individual financial decisions is one of the major problems for participants.

    Communication and collaboration: Learning is a social activity that happens either in a formal school setting or other environments. Communication and collaboration skills entail students' ability to communicate clearly by using oral, written, and non-verbal means, and to collaborate effectively and responsibly with the people around them (Pacific Policy Research Center, 2010). The world is shrinking and becoming like a small village thanks to the Internet and new technologies. This creates new communication challenges. Although education has reQuired good communication skills, including speech, writing, and reading, the increasing diversity of the global economy demands a much more complicated and advanced set of skills for communication and collaboration (Trilling - Fadel, 2009). For example, it is expected that students and workers are able to listen effectively to superiors to decipher deeper meanings within the speaker's speech and attitudes. An effective communicator shouldn't just be able to listen well, but should be able to speak with diverse groups about different topics - and oftentimes in different languages. For collaboration skills, each individual has to demonstrate the ability to work productively and respectfully with diverse groups. Being flexible and helpful, and making necessary compromises are essential components of effective collaboration skills. Researchers suggest that using active learning methods, including project-based learning, problem-based learning, and game-based learning may help students develop the aforementioned skills.

    Critical thinking and problem solving: Employers value critical thinking and problem solving skills the most (Jerald, 2009) because research indicates that workplace tasks demand employees doing things without having to be told or directed to do so (Levy - Mrunane, 2007). For instance, almost 60 percent of companies rate critical thinking and problem solving as very important skills which they expect high school graduates to possess. Unfortunately, 70 percent of employers report that students are mostly lacking in these areas. Mark Maddox, of Unilever Foods North America, explains why critical thinking and problem solving skills are so important and necessary in the workplace, saying, For our production and crafts staff, the hourly workers, we need self-directed people who either have problem-solving skills or can easily be trained to think on their feet and find creative solutions to some very tough, challenging problems" (In Jerald, 2009, p. 51). His company has such high expectations because they no longer employ supervisors who take control or explain things. Students or employees with such skills are good not only for the workplace, but also for their participation in solving local, national, and global problems that pose threats to everybody.

    Creativity and innovation: The new Skills Commission (2007) did extensive research on the workforce and global economic indicators; they concluded that in addition to all the important abovementioned skills, the U.S. needs a crucial new skill that will maintain its competitiveness in the global economy - a skill called creativity and innovation. Creativity is an essential skill that incorporates communication, problem solving, risk taking, curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, and Questioning (Conference Board, 2008). The type of creativity adults need in today's workplace is the one that enables workers to solve problems not encountered before. It also helps them cope with ill-structured tasks or problems that have no single right solution - or even any good solution.

    Global awareness: This theme emphasizes the importance of working collaboratively with diverse people from different cultures, lifestyles, religions, ideologies, and backgrounds; this work must be done with an attitude of mutual respect. Also, promoting the study of other languages is very meaningful and necessary for understanding different nations and cultures. Doing this will enable students to feel closer to global issues and diverse learning communities; thus, they will create a new world where everybody respects each other, accepts others in their positions, and seeks ways to solve problems rather than fighting and killing innocent people and destroying valuable land.


    I believe that these are all important skills for an individual's success in life and countries' success in the global economy. But today, it is not only the economy that reQuires a different set of skills. Rapidly changing technology and the internet have changed both personal and international affairs, from relationships to trade. The only meaningful way to make each and every country's future bright and promising is to develop a generation of citizens who are aware of their responsibilities to preserve and strengthen diversity and democracy. This will ensure our world is a better place. Thus, we want our schools, regardless of culture and location, to prepare students eQuipped with the aforementioned skills to face a changing world.

    Sahin, PhD, is a Research Scientist at Aggie STEM.


    Jerald, C. D. (2009). Defining a 21st century education. Retrieved from

    Levy, F. - Murnane, R. J. (2007). How computerized work and globalization shape human skill demands. In Suarez-Orozco, M. M. (Ed.), Learning in the global era: International perspectives on globalization and education (pp. 158-176). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Nelson, C. (2005). Fethullah Gulen: A vision of transcendent education. Retrieved from

    National Center on Education and the Economy. (2007). Tough choices or tough times: The report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American workforce. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (p. 19)

    National Research Council. (2010). Exploring the intersection of science education and 21st century skills: A workshop summary. Margaret Hilton, Rapporteur. Board on Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    NCREL - Metiri Group. (2003). enGauge 21st century skills: literacy in the digital age.Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2008). 21st century skills, education - competitiveness: A resource and policy guide. Retrieved from

    Pacific Policy Research Center. (2010). 21st century skills for students and teachers. Retrieved from

    Trilling, B. - Fadel, C. (2009). Q - A on 21st century skills. Retrieved from


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