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Four-step Process to develop 21st century skills in your students

There are few buzz words more popular in education right now than "21st Century Skills." A quick visit over to Twitter, and you will find out just how embedded 21st Century Skills have become in the educator’s psyche.

“Empowering students to be creators, not just consumers.” #21stcenturyskills

“Imagine building a website in third grade.” #21stcenturyskills

“Ms. Mukai’s PBL group using google slides to create their recipe book.” #21stcenturyskills

It’s clear educators are eager to jump on board to promote the kind of skills most predictive of success. They know that their student’s ability to communicate and express ideas clearly will be more advantageous to future employers than their performance on standardized tests.

But as eager as educators have been to teach and espouse 21st Century Skills, there is equal confusion as to what exactly these 21st Century skills are. Some teachers identify creativity and innovation as being the core 21st Century Skills, while others contend they are the "life skills" of resourcefulness and grit.

According to P21, an independent think tank out of Washington D.C. both interpretations are right. This group defines 21st Century Skills as the "skills, knowledge and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century.” That’s a pretty big umbrella under which several skills can fall.

The visual below depicts these skills:

But creating an exhaustive list of the 21st Century Skills in only a start. For teachers barely struggling to wrap their heads around the new Common Core Standards, they need a blueprint for how to instill these 21st Century Skills in their students.

Imagine if teachers were able to speak about each 21st Century Skill with specificity. Instead of saying, little Johnny is a “creative thinker,” they could say, “Johnny was able to make appropriate modifications to his original design based on failed prototypes and feedback from his peers.” Imagine the growth these teachers would see in their students given this level of specificity.


I have created a four step guide to get you started with developing 21st Century Skills. While the list below is hardly exhaustive, I think it will help provide concrete action steps for you as a teacher to begin promoting and assessing 21st Century Skills in your students.

1. Create an authentic project/ assignment: Ask students to solve a local issue facing the school or provide them a chance to propose alternative routes to ease traffic congestion. Choosing an authentic issue will make the integration of 21st Century Skills seamless. Students will need to master these skill in order to fulfill the project task.

2. Identify 21st Century Skills: Identify the 21st Century Skills students will need to be successful in the project or assignment task. I suggest a maximum of three skills for each project/ task. Limiting the skills you will teach will allow you to provide for more depth. Finally, make sure to scaffold the introduction of these skills according to where they make the most sense in the project.

3. Assess the skills multiple times: If we deem 21st Century Skills as important, we have to assess them. Design assessments around these skills and the needs of the project. If students were asked to design solutions to ease traffic congestion, assess them on their critical thinking- specifically how effective they were in collecting data. Next, you might ask them to draft a proposal and assess their problem solving ability to consider alternative solutions. Finally, you might ask them to take action and assess them on their ability to lead others.

4. Allow for student reflection: To ensure growth in your students through the 21st Century Skills, provide time for them to reflect and set goals for areas in which they need to improve. Personally, I like to use digital portfolios to capture these reflections. These help create a digital archive and visual journey of student progress towards 21st century skills. Start with an easy portfolio creator like Seesaw or Wordpress (linked here).


On December 3rd Google is hosting its annual conference on innovations in education. I will be hosting a google hangout on air at 12 pm PST on how to assess 21st century skills in a project- based environment. This one hour presentation will take you through concrete examples of how I have taught and assessed 21st century skills at Futures Academy.

Be sure to register for the conference here and tune in during my slot!

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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