New Report Puts in Perspective “21st Century Skills” and Other Education Terms You May Have Heard


7.11.12 | According to the educational buzz, students need to be experiencing “next-generation learning” or “deeper learning” and acquiring “new basic skills” or “21st-century skills”—and that’s just not happening on any type of consistent, systematic basis in K-12 classrooms.


But what do those terms actually mean? What is the proof that focusing on these supposedly new skill sets will actually lead to success in life? And, if these terms are important, how do we transform our schools, from top to bottom, to focus more closely on turning them into something substantive and applicable to higher education or future work places?

At the request of a number of key educational foundations, the National Research Council (NRC) appointed a committee of experts in education, psychology and economics to unpack the meaning of these terms and determine where education reform should target efforts to better prepare students for success in education and work. The result is a 300-page publication: “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.” The report can be purchased online or downloaded for free. The National Academies Board on Testing and Assessment prepared this report brief (pdf).

The NRC committee suggests that while leading a more critical, thoughtful and collaborative life is worth pursuing, everyone needs to take a step back. These supposedly “new” skills might not be so new, after all.

While it would be nice to give students a checklist of universal skills that would lead to success in whatever vocation a student pursues, many of these skills are, in fact, still content-specific and apply to performance within a particular subject area (although the “21st century” student should be able to “transfer” them, to some degree, between disciplines).

And, finally, creating an atmosphere for “deeper learning” is impeded by the emphasis on “facts, concepts and procedures” in state assessments, although some recent, more enlightened sets of educational standards might be a starting point for change.

The report establishes its nuanced approach from the start:

The committee views the various sets of terms associated with the “21st century skills” label as reflecting important dimensions of human competence that have been valuable for many centuries, rather than skills that are suddenly new, unique and valuable today. The important difference across time may lie in society’s desire that all students attain levels of mastery—across multiple areas of skill and knowledge—that were previously unnecessary for individual success in education and the workplace. At the same time, the pervasive spread of digital technologies has increased the pace at which individuals communicate and exchange information, requiring competence in processing multiple forms of information to accomplish tasks that may be distributed across contexts that include home, school, the workplace, and social networks.

The committee identified three broad categories of 21st-century competencies: the cognitive domain, which includes thinking and reasoning skills; the intrapersonal domain, which involves managing one’s behavior and emotions; and the interpersonal domain, which involves expressing ideas and communicating appropriately with others.

It’s helpful to know from the outset that the committee does not attempt to provide precise, scientifically credible definitions for terms that fall under the headings of “deeper learning” and “21st century skills.” And the group also makes it very clear that the research connecting these “competencies” to a successful adult life is thin, and it spends a good amount of the report pointing out where more research needs to be done. But the report does take the first steps toward clarifying what “deeper learning” truly means in our present educational landscape:

While other types of learning may allow an individual to recall facts, concepts, or procedures, deeper learning allows the individual to transfer what was learned to solve new problems.

The report also outlines some of the obstacles school systems face in transforming the way they teach:

Current educational policies and associated accountability systems rely on assessments that focus primarily on recall of facts and procedures, posing a challenge to wider teaching and learning of transferable 21st century competencies.

The report, however, sees new, comprehensive sets of standards, such as the Common Core State Standards and the NRC’s own Framework for K-12 Science Education, as valuing deeper learning. But until school systems start assessing their students on these more critical grounds—and valuing their “intrapersonal” and “interpersonal” development as much as their “cognitive”—these 21st-century ideas will continue to be just words.

The report was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Science Foundation, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Pearson Foundation, Raikes Foundation, SCE, and the Stupski Foundation.


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Jac (Seattle, WA)


Thanks for the resource.

Curriculum designers and Web 2.0 companies are using these buzzwords in their marketing to teachers, families and students. As words such as “collaborative”, “creative” and “innovative” find their way into more and more written materials – from iPad apps to book lists – teachers should not lose sight of the day-to-day actions required on the path to these abstract descriptors.

More thoughts at


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