A Comprehensive Guide to 21st Century Skills (2023)

The concept of "21st century skills" isn't new—skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving have been taught in classrooms for decades.

Yet, as the demands of our changing economy rise, many school districts are now including 21st century skills in strategic plans to better prepare students for college, career, and life.

What are 21st century skills, why do they matter, and how can your district implement 21st century learning strategies into curriculum, assessment, and instruction? This guide shares information, research, and examples to bring you up to speed.

Build organizational structures to improve students' life skills with Panorama's Guide to Graduating College, Career, and Life-Ready Students

1. What Are 21st Century Skills?

2. The Importance of 21st Century Skills

3. Frameworks and Examples of 21st Century Skills

4. 21st Century Learning Strategies and Implementation

5. Additional Resources

(Video) A Comprehensive To Guide 21st Century Skills

What Are 21st Century Skills?

21st century skills refer to the knowledge, life skills, career skills, habits, and traits that are critically important to student success in today’s world, particularly as students move on to college, the workforce, and adult life.

Districts, schools, and organizations prioritize different 21st century skills depending on what is most important to their respective communities. Generally, however, educators agree that schools must weave these skills into learning experiences and common core instruction. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the most commonly cited 21st century skills.

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication skills
  • Creativity
  • Problem solving
  • Perseverance
  • Collaboration
  • Information literacy
  • Technology skills and digital literacy
  • Media literacy
  • Global awareness
  • Self-direction
  • Social skills
  • Literacy skills
  • Civic literacy
  • Social responsibility
  • Innovation skills
  • Thinking skills

The Importance of 21st Century Skills

While the bar used to be high school graduation, the bar for today's students is now college, career, and real-world success. Let’s take a look at why 21st century skills matter.

  • Higher-education and business leaders cite soft skills as being the most important driver of success in higher-level courses and in the workplace.
  • In today’s world, our schools are preparing students for jobs that might not yet exist. Career readiness means equipping students with a nuanced set of skills that can prepare them for the unknown.
  • Social media has changed human interaction and created new challenges in navigating social situations.
  • The age of the Internet has dramatically increased access to knowledge. Students need to learn how to process and analyze large amounts of information.
  • Content knowledge from core subjects can only go so far; students need to be taught how to apply facts and ideas towards complex problems.

We've reviewed the definition of 21st century skills and why they're important in a changing world. Now, let's review a few frameworks and how school districts are putting 21st century learning into practice.

Frameworks for 21st Century Skills

The Framework for 21st Century Learning

This popular framework was designed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). Describing the skills, knowledge, and expertise students must master to succeed in work and life, the framework combines content knowledge, specific skills, expertise, and literacies. P21 believes that the "base" of 21st century learning is the acquisition of key academic subject knowledge, and that schools must build on that base with additional skills including Learning Skills, Life Skills, and Literacy Skills.

  • Learning Skills: Also known as the "four Cs" of 21st century learning, these include critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
  • Life Skills: Flexibility, initiative, social skills, productivity, leadership
  • Literacy Skills: Information literacy, media literacy, technology literacy

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies the fundamental life skills as decision-making and problem solving, creative thinking and critical thinking, communication and interpersonal skills, self-awareness and empathy, and coping with emotions and stress. The WHO focuses on broad psychosocial skills that can be improved over time with conscious effort.

Redefining Ready! Initiative

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Redefining Ready! initiative offers a framework that many districts use to define college, career, and life readiness. AASA provides readiness indicators to capture the educational landscape of the 21st century. Metrics include Advanced Placement courses, standardized testing, college credits, industry credentials, attendance, community service, and more.

On the topic of life readiness, AASA argues:

(Video) Session 1: An introduction to 21st Century skills - Teaching and learning 21st Century Skills

"Being life ready means students leave high school with the grit and perseverance to tackle and achieve their goals by demonstrating personal actualization skills of self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. Students who are life ready possess the growth mindset that empowers them to approach their future with confidence, to dream big and to achieve big."

School District Frameworks

21st century skills take hold in various ways for school districts. A "Portrait of a Graduate" is one common strategy for communicating what it means for students to be college, career, and future ready.

To develop a profile of a graduate, districts often adapt existing 21st century skill frameworks to fit their needs. Input from stakeholders—such as the district board, teachers, parents, partner organizations, and students—ensures that the final "portrait" is authentic to their community. Here are some Portrait of a Graduate examples.

A Comprehensive Guide to 21st Century Skills (1)via Everett Public Schools

Everett Public Schools in Everett, Washington defines 21st century skills as citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and growth mindset. The district believes that graduates are college, career, and life ready when they have the academic knowledge, attitudes, and skills to transition to college level coursework, workforce training, and/or employment.

A Comprehensive Guide to 21st Century Skills (2)via Gresham-Barlow School District

Gresham-Barlow School District (GBSD) in Gresham, Oregon has a mission to develop culturally responsive graduates who will thrive in an ever-changing global community. The district’s Portrait of a Graduate represents the GBSD community's collective vision of what their graduates should look like. The portrait consists of six learner profiles: Independent Lifelong Learner, Adaptable Collaborator, Compassionate Communicator, Responsible Creator, Open-Minded Critical Thinker, and Globally Aware Community Member.

(Video) Andy Cowle: English for Life: 21st Century Skills through reading

A Comprehensive Guide to 21st Century Skills (3)via Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD

Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District (SCUC ISD) in Schertz, Texas has a strategic goal around graduating college and/or career and/or military ready students. Within this vision, SCUC ISD has outlined five Traits of a Graduate: Dynamic Leader, Self-Motivated, Skilled Communicator, Service Oriented, and Future Ready.

A Comprehensive Guide to 21st Century Skills (4)via Council Bluffs Community School District

Council Bluffs Community School District in Council Bluffs, Iowa, developed a Profile of a FutureReady Graduate that encompasses both academic and social-emotional indicators of success. The district’s social-emotional indicators—aligned to the CASEL framework—include Self-Management, Self Awareness, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making.

A Comprehensive Guide to 21st Century Skills (5)

North Kansas City Schools just north of Kansas City, Missouri, identified seven competencies that span time, space, jobs, and occupations, ensuring that students' life skills are highly transferable. The district's competencies—developed with input from students, community and business leaders, teachers, and administrators—include Adaptability, Communication, Collaboration, Empathy, Integrity, Learner's Mindset, and Problem Solving.

Download our guide to developing your district's own vision for college, career, and life readiness.

21st Century Learning Strategies & Implementation

Having a strong vision for 21st century learning is just the first step. Without an intentionally designed plan for implementation, it's unlikely that your students will acquire the skills outlined in your district's vision. Here are some best practices from Panorama's partner districts to set you up for success.

(Video) Part 1 21st Century Skills

1. Build staff capacity to demonstrate 21st century skills in support of student learning.

It all starts with the adults in your building. Teachers and staff need to deeply understand and model the skills that you want your students to develop. Integrate 21st century skills into staff professional development as a precursor to growing these competencies in students.

Download our Adult SEL Toolkit for ideas, worksheets, and activities to build adult SEL.

2. Develop strategies to support teachers with implementation of 21st century skills.

It can be helpful to create a playbook of recommended strategies and approaches that span across content areas. For instance, you might encourage teachers to add comments to report cards about students' 21st century skills.

3. Assess students’ 21st century learning skills.

What gets measured matters. Regularly collect data on how students are progressing in this area, whether the data is anecdotal, qualitative, or quantitative. For example, you might administer a biannual survey in which students reflect on their development of 21st century, social-emotional skills. Keep in mind that the data you gather should be formative rather than evaluative. Be transparent about the purpose.

4. Equip educators with data to proactively identify and support students who are off track.

Once you have data on students' 21st century skills, you'll want to ensure that the data is actionable for educators. Many districts opt to implement an early warning system with indicators across academics, attendance, behavior, and social-emotional learning/21st century skills. This helps educators make data-driven decisions about the best way to keep each student on track.

Additional Resources

Looking for more information on 21st century skills? Here are some other articles and resources to explore:


Honing in on 21st century skills is essential to ensuring that students are prepared for college, career, and civic life. While there is no one "right" way to approach this work, we hope that the information in this guide inspires you to explore what 21st century learning could look like in your district!

Develop students' 21st century skills with Panorama's Guide to Graduating College, Career, and Life-Ready Students


What are the 21st century skills PDF? ›

adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility.

What is the most important skill according to the 21st century skills Why? ›

1. Critical Thinking. One of the most important 21st century skills to teach our learners is how to think critically. With so much information available online, it's crucial that young people analyze, question and challenge what they are being told.

What are the 4 main skills is for the 21st century skills? ›

Learning Skills: Also known as the "four Cs" of 21st century learning, these include critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

What is 21st century skills all about? ›

The term “21st-century skills” is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today's world.

How can I improve my 21st century skills? ›

Communication Creativity Critical Thinking Collaboration
  1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning. Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. ...
  2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment. ...
  3. Encourage Collaboration. ...
  4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills. ...
  5. Encourage Creativity.
9 Oct 2013

What is the importance of 21st century skills and how can you apply it in a 21st century education? ›

“21st century skills are tools that can be universally applied to enhance ways of thinking, learning, working and living in the world. The skills include critical thinking/reasoning, creativity/creative thinking, problem solving, metacognition, collaboration, communication and global citizenship.

Why is it important to learn the skills of 21st century learners? ›

As students develop skills such as critical thinking and perspective taking, they will be more flexible and adaptable in our constantly changing workforce, increase their ability to work cross-culturally, and be able to take on positions of leadership.

What are the most important skills needed to succeed in the 21st century workplace? ›

21st-century skills are based primarily on “deeper learning” skills (like critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork) and are comprised of a combination of soft-skills (such as interaction, collaboration, processing information, and managing people) and hard-skills (with a mainly IT focus.

How can you improve your learning skills? ›

Top 10 Strategies for Learning New Skills
  1. Ditch Your Learning Style. Are you a visual learner? ...
  2. Make It More Meaningful for Yourself. ...
  3. Learn by Doing. ...
  4. Study the Greats, and Then Practice. ...
  5. Teach What You Learn. ...
  6. Spend More Time Practicing Things You Find Difficult. ...
  7. Take Frequent Breaks. ...
  8. Test Yourself.
11 Jul 2017

Which component is the most important in 21st century learning? ›

Some of the most prominent components of 21st century education—problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, authentic learning, appropriate use of technologies, and cross-disciplinary teaching—are the focus in “Integrating the Curriculum to Engage and Challenge Children.” Geared toward practice in kindergarten ...

Why are learning skills important? ›

It helps you get new and knowledge-based perspectives on the world around you. It helps you gain new experiences, trains your brain to handle a wide range of challenges, and keeps your neural pathways active. All these factors combine to keep you healthy. Take, for example, a cooking class.

What are the 21st century skills needed to the learners of today? ›

Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, facility in using virtual workspaces. Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, media and internet literacy, data interpretation and analysis, computer programming. Civic, ethical, and social-justice literacy.

What do 21st century skills look like in your future classroom? ›

The 21st-century skills classroom focuses on asking questions to encourage critical thinking, inquiry, and reasoning. In all courses, students evaluate, synthesize, and translate ideas to solve problems and complete projects. Teachers also encourage students to hone their reasoning and inquiry skills.

What are the benefits of learning skills in the modern world? ›

Reasons to learn a new skill
  • It gives you motivation. ...
  • It helps beat boredom. ...
  • It boosts confidence. ...
  • It keeps you healthy. ...
  • It helps you be flexible. ...
  • It can benefit others. ...
  • It can boost your happiness. ...
  • Consider your “why.” It doesn't matter if a new skill is for work or play – you'll get benefits either way.

Why are 21st century skills important in the workplace? ›

Selected 21st century skills, previously known as soft skills, have been deemed critical to modern workplaces. These are the skills that today's graduates need in order to succeed in their careers during the Information Age, remaining competitive in the ever changing job market.

What strategies work best in the 21st century setting? ›

Strategies That Promote 21st Century Skills
  • critical thinking.
  • problem solving.
  • creativity and innovation.
  • adaptability.
  • collaboration.
  • communication (both written and oral)
  • self-direction and self-assessment.
  • application of technology to work flow.

How do you describe yourself as a 21st century learner? ›

A digital learner, as I define myself in the twenty-first century, is someone who is always interested in trying out new and innovative technologies. When it comes to technology, I am at ease and am not intimidated by new technology.

How do I equip myself with the 21st century skills in order to cope? ›

Here are five things to consider to get started.
  1. Use Modern Technology. The smart way to combat 21st-century challenge is to use a 21st-century solution. ...
  2. Build a Solid Foundation by Starting Early. ...
  3. Weave Real-World Skills into Every Subject. ...
  4. Encourage a Collaborative Learning Environment. ...
  5. Make Learning Real-World Relevant.
15 Oct 2020

What is the most important skill a person should have in order to be successful in life? ›

1. Effective Communication. No matter who you are, where you work, or what line of work you're in, communication will be a critical factor in your ultimate success.

What are the most important skills to be a successful person today? ›

While trends come and go, and the economy and culture can change, there are some skills that every person will need to have to get ahead.
  • Critical thinking. ...
  • Adaptability. ...
  • Excellent communication skills. ...
  • Cultural understanding. ...
  • Initiative and drive.

What do you think are the most important skills you must possess in order to become a successful? ›

10 essential skills you'll need for career success
  • Communication. Communication includes listening, writing and speaking. ...
  • Problem solving. Challenges will arise in every job you have. ...
  • Teamwork. ...
  • Initiative. ...
  • Analytical, quantitative. ...
  • Professionalism, work ethic. ...
  • Leadership. ...
  • Detail oriented.
17 Apr 2019

Why is it important to develop basic skills in a development way? ›

Low skills perpetuate poverty and inequality. When done right, skills development can reduce un- and underemployment, increase productivity, and improve standards of living. Helping people develop and update their skills makes economic sense.

How can we best prepare all learners for the 21st century? ›

Critical thinking and problem solving

Arming students with strong critical thinking skills can help prepare them for success in higher education and the workforce alike. Critical thinking includes the ability to reason effectively, use systems thinking, make judgments and decisions, and solve problems.

What is the best characteristic of a 21st century learner? ›

Characteristics of a 21st Century Learner
  • Creativity and Innovation. “Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” – ...
  • Collaboration and Communication. ...
  • Critical Thinking & Problem Solving. ...
  • Global Citizens. ...
  • Technology Literacy. ...
  • Lifelong Learners.

How will I apply all the knowledge and skills that I learned in teaching my field of specialization? ›

To make sure that students show they can apply what they learn, consider the following suggestions:
  • Be explicit about application. ...
  • Focus on core concepts. ...
  • Identify sub skills. ...
  • Provide students with practice. ...
  • Make it social and collaborative. ...
  • Involve students in the process.

Why life skills are important in our life? ›

Life skills can include the ability to manage your emotions, your health, your finances, your relationships, your school performance, etc. – and your ability to master these things has a direct impact on how you feel about yourself, your emotional balance, your physical health and your independence.

What is the most important learning skill? ›

Reading is the most important skill that a child must acquire at school because one must learn to read to be able to read to learn. A child who is a poor reader will usually also be a poor academic learner. Unfortunately, millions of children battle to learn to read, and many never succeed.

What is the best way to learning? ›

The most effective practice is to work a short time on each class every day. The total amount of time spent studying will be the same (or less) than one or two marathon library sessions, but you will learn the information more deeply and retain much more for the long term—which will help get you an A on the final.

What skills and abilities do you think one should have to be successful in the twenty first century give specific reasons and examples to support your response? ›

Skills for the 21st-century workplace
  • Imagination. In the age of technology that we are living in now, it is no longer enough to keep on making the same products. ...
  • Problem solving. ...
  • Communication skills. ...
  • Critical analysis. ...
  • Decision making.

Why is it important to build and enhance 21st century literacies? ›

A solid literacy foundation would play a vital part in the successful composition and presentation of such materials. Effective use of digital literacy skills also play a major role in nonverbal communication.

How many 21st century skills are there? ›

21st Century skills are 12 abilities that today's students need to succeed in their careers during the Information Age.

What are the seven 21st century skills? ›

The seven skills are: • Collaboration • Communication • Creativity • Critical Thinking • Character • Citizenship • Computational Thinking If we believe our work as teachers is mainly to prepare students for successful futures, then we should give opportunities for students to strengthen these skills.

What are 21st century skills Wikipedia? ›

The skills have been grouped into three main areas: Learning and innovation skills: critical thinking and problem solving, communications and collaboration, creativity and innovation. Digital literacy skills: information literacy, media literacy, Information and communication technologies (ICT) literacy.

Why students should learn to develop and enhance their 21st century skills? ›

As students develop skills such as critical thinking and perspective taking, they will be more flexible and adaptable in our constantly changing workforce, increase their ability to work cross-culturally, and be able to take on positions of leadership.

What are the 21st century skills do students must develop? ›

Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesizing information. Research skills and practices, interrogative questioning. Creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, personal expression. Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, initiative.

What is the main purpose function of 4Cs of communication skills? ›

The 21st century learning skills are often called the 4 C's: critical thinking, creative thinking, communicating, and collaborating. These skills help students learn, and so they are vital to success in school and beyond. Critical thinking is focused, careful analysis of something to better understand it.

Why is this called the 21st century? ›

We live in the 21st Century, that is, the 2000s. Similarly when we say "20th Century," we are referring to the 1900s. All this because, according to the calendar we use, the 1st Century included the years 1-100 (there was no year zero), and the 2nd Century, the years 101-200.

What is critical thinking in 21st century skills? ›

Critical thinking refers to a form of mental discipline in which a person can conceptualize, analyze and reflect upon various input and other information and then apply it in a constructive fashion.


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