Study: What skills are needed for ’21st-century learning?’

11 Jul

Two reports and one article by Diane Ravitch in the Washington Post, which is a reply to the report by the Center for American Progress regarding whether children are learning the skills which are necessary in the 21st-century. These papers highlight the questions of what skills are necessary for children to be successful and whether they are learning these skills in school. Moi discusses the report, Do Schools Challenge our Students? What Student Surveys Tell Us About the State of Education in the U.S. from the Center for American Progress in Report from Center for American Progress report: Kids say school is too easy. In response to the report, Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” wrote Are U.S. schools too easy? Ravitch argues:

Let me address a few of the many, many problems with this report.

First, the authors missed multiple opportunities to analyze the data and chose to rely on simple cross-tabulations and frequency counts. Anyone who has taken a Research 101 course can tell you, one of the first important rules is to not make conclusions based on frequency counts. More on the missed opportunities later in this post.

Second, the authors’ conclusion that students are not being challenged in school is based on the results from one question posed to students that asked, “How often do you feel the math work in your math class is too easy?” At the 4th grade level, the authors bemoan the fact that 37% of students thought the math work was “often” or “always or almost always” too easy. At the 8th grade level, the comparable percentage was 29%. The authors continue by arguing that this unchallenging work results in far too few students — 40% at 4th grade and 35% at 8th grade —meeting the NAEP proficiency standard.

This is problematic because (a) the NAEP proficiency standards are an arbitrary score with little or no correlation with any student outcomes (Gerald Bracey and many others have mentioned the flaw in using NAEP proficiency scores to argue low student performance); and, (b) the authors fail to point out that 46% of the 4th grade students reported that math class work was too easy “almost always or always” achieved proficiency as compared to only 33% meeting proficiency who responded that math work was “never or hardly ever too easy.” According to the logic used by the authors, we would increase the percentage of students meeting proficiency by making math work easier….

the greater the percentage of students reporting that math class was interesting and engaging, the greater the percentage of students reporting that math work was easy;

the greater the percentage of students reporting that math work was easy, the greater the percentage students reported that they were learning in class.

The second report asks the question of what skills are need for students to be successful in the 21st-Century.

Sarah D. Sparks has written a good synopsis of the report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century in the Education Week article, Study: ’21st-Century Learning’ Demands Mix of Abilities:

The committee found these skills generally fall into three categories:

  • Cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and analytic reasoning;
  • Interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and complex communication; and
  • Intrapersonal skills, such as resiliency and conscientiousness (the latter of which has also been strongly associated with good career earnings and healthy lifestyles).

Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was not part of the report committee, said developing common definitions of 21st-century skills is critical to current education policy discussions, such as around Common Core State Standards.

“Unless we want to have just a lot of hand-waving on 21st-century skills,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said, “we need to get focused and purposeful on how to learn to teach and measure these skills, both in terms of research investments and in terms of the policies and practice that would allow us to develop and measure these skills.”

The National Research Council has published the report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century

Here is the press release for Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century:


Transferable Knowledge and Skills Key to Success in Education and Work; Report Calls for Efforts to Incorporate ‘Deeper Learning’ Into Curriculum

WASHINGTON — Educational and business leaders want today’s students both to master school subjects and to excel in areas such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication — abilities often referred to by such labels as “deeper learning” and “21st-century skills.”  In contrast to the view that these are general skills that can be applied across a range of tasks in academic, workplace, or family settings, a new report from the National Research Council found that 21st-century skills are specific to content knowledge and performance within a particular subject area.  The report describes how this set of key skills relates to learning mathematics, English, and science as well as to succeeding in education, work, and other areas of life.

Deeper learning is the process through which a person develops the ability to take what was learned in one situation and apply it to new situations, says the report.  Through deeper learning, the person develops transferable knowledge, which includes both expertise in a particular subject area and procedural knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to solve unique problems in that subject.  The report refers to this blend of transferable content knowledge and skills as “21st-century competencies.”

The committee that wrote the report 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.  Supporting deeper learning and developing the full range of 21st-century competencies within mathematics, English, and science will require systematic instruction and sustained practice, which calls for instructional time and resources beyond what is currently spent on content learning, the report says.

Research has identified features of instruction that support the process of deeper learning and therefore the development of transferable knowledge and skills in a given subject area.  Curricula and instructional programs should be designed with a focus on clear learning goals along with assessments to measure students’ progress toward and attainment of the goals, the report says.  These programs should feature research-based teaching methods such as using multiple and varied representations of concepts, encouraging elaboration and questioning, engaging learners in challenging tasks while also providing guidance and feedback, teaching with examples and cases, connecting topics to students’ lives and interests, and using assessments that monitor students’ progress and provide feedback for adjusting teaching and learning strategies.

Goals for deeper learning and 21st-century competencies are found in the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics and English language arts and the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education.  All three disciplines emphasize the development of cognitive competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, and argumentation, but differ in their interpretation of these competencies.  For example, the rules for constructing an argument and what counts as supporting evidence are different for physics than they are for history or essay writing.  Research and development is needed to create and evaluate new curricula for 21st-century competencies and to more clearly define and develop assessments of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies, says the report.

Because 21st-century competencies contribute to learning of school subjects, widespread development of those competencies in the K-12 curriculum could potentially reduce disparities in educational attainment and other outcomes, the report suggests.  But the committee found that research to date linking 21st-century competencies to desirable education, career, and health outcomes is limited and primarily correlational and does not show causal effects.

Cognitive competencies, however, show consistent, positive correlations with desirable educational and career outcomes, the committee found.  Among intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, conscientiousness — being organized, responsible, and hard-working — shows the strongest correlation, while antisocial behavior is negatively correlated with these desirable outcomes.  The committee also found that the total number of years a person spends in school strongly predicts adult earnings, health, and civic engagement, suggesting that schooling develops a poorly understood mix of valuable 21st-century competencies.

The report recommends that state and federal policies and programs support deeper learning and acquisition of 21st-century competencies, including efforts to help teachers and administrators understand the role of these competencies in learning core academic content and create environments that support students’ learning of these skills.

The study was sponsored by 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.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.


Lauren Rugani, Media Relations Officer

Luwam Yeibio, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail

Additional resources:

Report in Brief

Pre-publication copies of Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Centuryare available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

In moi’s opinion, the most relevant of the papers is Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century because the question of whether there is a skill-set which will help most students be successful. Is an important question. For a contra opinion, see Jay Mathews’ 2009 Washington Post article, The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills.

Schools have to prepare students to think critically and communicate clearly, the label for the skill set is less important than the fact that students must acquire relevant knowledge.


Partnership for 21st Century Schools                                           

21st Century Workplace: Skills for Success                   

Contemporary Literacy: Essential Skills for the 21st Century

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

19 Responses to “Study: What skills are needed for ’21st-century learning?’”


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