21st Century Skills

Putting the spotlight right back on what people do

Introduction: The two-minute version

The image below presents five broad skills that are necessary for success in the 21st Century. They are very broad, but I am confident that any specific work skill that you can identify will fit into one of the five categories below.

If you need to dig deeper into this topic, just read on.

Big image


We need to stop looking at things like culture, globalization, technology, and innovation as inevitable, naturally occurring phenomena. They are not. They are nothing more than the sum of individual behaviours. And only exist because people do stuff. To treat these as otherwise, as if they happen on their own, is nominalization. And it removes you from the equation.

Also, there is no future. But futures - possible ones. The outcome of a mass of people's actions.

Globalization came into our vocabulary because traders wanted to sell their goods to people in far-away lands. And people bought. We traded the output of cultures and differences in geography.

Innovation emerged because self-confident men and women woke up and did things that had not been done previously. They tinkered. And we searched for a term for this. The result: innovation.

" Innovation is an economic and social term. Its criterion is not science or technology, but a change in the economic and social environment, a change in the behaviour of people, as consumer or producer." - Peter Drucker

We need to start putting the person right back into the center of the conversation. Without the you, agency, there is nothing.

Technology - people using a quill over a finger. A pen over a quill. A typewriter over a pen. An iPad over a typewriter. So what? Looking back, history's new technology at any given time - feared and worshipped on its arrival - gets laughed at today. Technology has, and always will be, present.

Economy - my handing over a money for twenty carrots from you or my giving you a haircut in exchange (barter). My rewards as a mechanic transferred for a haircut.

Despite the fantasies of technological determinists, the human condition remains relatively unchanged. It takes guts and it takes fortitude to get back to the self. It is towards this we need to divert our attention and energy.

"Technology is the enactment of the human imagination." - Robert Romanyshyn (1989)

The Four "C"s

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) states that in addition to the 3Rs (content mastery), there are an additional 4Cs necessary for success in the 21st Century. These are broadly:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creativity and innovation

The purpose of this presentation is to help you understand what these concepts are by providing concrete examples that are embedded in a short story.

These skills, listed above, should be viewed as the floor not the ceiling. That is, they are necessary but not necessarily sufficient for survival in today's modern society. In other words, more is needed to go "Above and Beyond" (The title of the short movie below).

GLOBAL BY DEFAULT: We are competing not with our immediate classmates or colleagues, but with people in other, geographically distant locations. A UAE-based restaurant is competing with Subway and KFC. A student in the United States needs to learn math to a level that is the same as a student in Finland or Singapore.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW? From your own experience, consider what these skills are. How do they play out in the workplace?

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration
  3. Communication
  4. Creativity and innovation

TASK: Look at the following "Above and Beyond" video and see if you can identify the moments at which each of the skills are illustrated. Write down the minutes at which they start. For example, at which point do we see an example of "Critical Thinking"? What is the girl or boy doing exactly? Is he or she doing this alone or with other people?

Above And Beyond

"The great aim of education is not knowledge but action." - Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903)

Me, my home, my peers.

The learner is embedded in a home learning environment and a broader community. Who, then, in addition to the learner, has influence on the learning process?

  • The teacher/trainer (a teacher's/trainer's primary role can be defined as one that facilitates learning).
  • The parents or immediate caregiver.
  • The learner's peers.
  • The local community.
  • The broader national and international community.


For more on 21st Century skills, check out the following resources:

Dr. Tony Wager presents his views on 7 skills that students need for their future.

  1. Critical thinking and problem-solving *
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence *
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral and written communication *
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination *

Note: The * indicates a skill that is common with those presented by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

The Conference Board of Canada takes a broader, top-down approach:

+ Fundamental Skills **

The skills needed as a basis for further development

+ Personal Management Skills

The personal skills, attitudes, and behaviours that drive one’s potential for growth

+ Teamwork Skills

The skills and attributes needed to contribute productively

Note that the (**) equates to the 3Rs (content/core curriculum) and the ability to find - and analyze - information. The other two, personal management and teamwork, are fairly self evident.

Bliip, an employability consultancy, offers a model of employability skills that includes five areas or "clusters":

  1. Personal Attributes
  2. Working with Others
  3. Achieving at Work
  4. Future Skills
  5. Learning

My own take on this is that the following areas are a good starting point.

  1. Teamwork
  2. Independent, lifelong learning
  3. Digital Literacy - using and critiquing tools and information
  4. Physical, Mental and Attitudinal health
  5. Awareness of self and one's role in the world

Look at any discrete skill, for example, "Finding the projected population of Nigeria in 2030 from a Web site and being able to judge whether the source is authoritative or reliable" would fit into area 3.

There is an ongoing discussion on these skills and attributes on LinkedIn. The consistent theme with all these views is that knowledge alone, especially that which is easily codified and shared, is not enough.

I hope you got something from this short learning resource and I thank you for looking at it. Part of my work here is to demonstrate how I can add simple and effective learning resources to your organization. Here, links to asynchronous discussion forums can be added, Podcasts (audio files) can be added etc.

Sincerely, Gordon Graham


Gordon Graham

Abu Dhabi in the UAE