21st Century Skills: What Are They?

Teacher collaborating with students

I argued recently that 21st century skills, or 21CS, are one educational trend worth paying attention to. So what are these skills? Several organizations (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, National Research Council, and the ATC21) have developed their own frameworks for 21CS. Although these frameworks don’t necessarily use the same terms to describe the skills, there appears to be a great deal of overlap in the types of broad skill categories included.

For example, the P21’s “learning and innovation skills,” the NRC’s “cognitive skills,” and the ATC 21’s “ways of thinking” all appear to be roughly equivalent categories. Similarly, NRC’s “intrapersonal skills” appear to be the counterpart to P21’s “life and career skills” and also somewhat comparable to ATC 21’s “ways of living in the world.” P21’s “information, media, and technology skills” are directly comparable to ATC 21’s “tools for working.” Finally, the NRC’s “interpersonal skills are roughly equivalent to ATC21’s “ways of working.” Although the P21 doesn’t have a separate category to capture communication and collaboration, these skills are considered “learning and innovation skills.”


Cross-Mapping of Broad 21CS Categories

P21 Framework Categories NRC Framework Categories ATC21 Framework Categories
Learning and innovation skills Cognitive skills Ways of thinking
Life and career skills Intrapersonal skills Ways of living in the world
Information, media and technology skills NA Tools for working
Learning and innovation skills Interpersonal skills Ways of working


The individual skills included in each of these broad categories are also quite similar across frameworks. For example, critical thinking and collaboration are explicitly identified in all three frameworks. Creativity is specifically identified within the P21 and the ATC 21 frameworks, and is also evident in the NRC’s emphasis on non-routine problem solving. Metacognition is specifically called out in the ATC 21 framework as a “way of thinking.” It is also identified as a life and career skill within the P21 framework in the form of initiative and self-direction, whereas it is evident within the NRC framework as the intrapersonal skills of self-management and self-regulation. Social and cultural skills are explicitly called out in both the P21 and the NRC frameworks, and are echoed in the ATC21’s “ways of living in the world”—particularly, citizenship, life and career skills, and personal and social responsibility. Flexibility and adaptability appear in both the P21 and NRC frameworks, but not the ATC21 framework. Finally, information and technological literacy appear in both the P21 and the ATC21 frameworks, although they are left out of the NRC’s.

Research suggests that many of these skills are related to one another. For example, metacognition supports critical thinking to the extent that monitoring the quality of one’s thought makes it more likely that one will engage in high-quality (critical) thinking. In turn, the ability to critically evaluate one’s own arguments and reasoning is necessary for self-regulated learning (Scraw et al., 2006).


Cross-Mapping of Individual 21st Century Skills

21CS P21 FrameworkSub-skills NRC FrameworkSub-skills ATC21Framework Sub-skills
Critical thinking Critical thinking Critical thinking Critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision- making
Communication and collaboration Communication and collaboration Complex communication, teamwork Communication and collaboration
Creativity and innovation Creativity and innovation Non-routine problem solving Creativity and innovation
Self-regulation and metacognition Initiative, self-direction Self-management, self- regulation Metacognition, learning to learn
Social and cultural competence Social and cross-cultural skills Social skills, cultural sensitivity, and dealing with diversity Local and global citizenship, personal and social responsibility
Flexibility/adaptability Flexibility and adaptability Adaptability NA
Information and technological literacy Information literacy, media literacy, and information and communications technology literacy NA Information literacy and information and communications technology literacy


Although this is not an exhaustive list of 21CS, these seven skill clusters do appear to be important to the work of many influential 21CS organizations. Critical thinking, creativity, and to some extent communication and collaboration have been part of American educator conversations for quite some time. However, other skills, such as metacognition, social and cultural competence, flexibility and ICT literacy are much more recent additions.

So how can we ensure that students are getting the instruction, practice opportunities, and support for developing these skills, particularly if these skills are relatively new to the curriculum and not yet well understood?

More research is needed into the types of teaching and learning activities and resources that best support development of 21CS. In addition, organizations like EdLeader21 can provide resources within a virtual professional learning community to support districts as they attempt to incorporate 21CS across the curriculum. At a minimum, it seems clear that educators will need professional development and training to better understand what these skills are, what they look like at various ages and stages, and what existing research says about how to help people acquire them.


About the Author
Emily Lai, Ph.D.

Emily Lai, Ph.D.

Emily Lai is the Director of the Center for Product Design Research & Efficacy. Previously, Emily was a Research Scientist in Pearson’s Center for NextGen Learning & Assessment. In that capacity, she oversaw design and development of curriculum-embedded performance tasks for Pearson Forward, a K-5 digital learning solution. She also led development of Pearson’s Framework of Approaches to Performance Assessment. Emily is an expert in principled assessment design approaches, including Pearson’s Principled Design for Efficacy (PDE). In addition, she conducts research and presents on assessment of 21st Century competencies. Her most recent research includes leading Baltimore County Public School educators in applying PDE to design performance tasks for formative use and co-developing a learning progression and associated performance assessments for geometric measurement of area. Previously, Emily was a program evaluator for five years at the University of Iowa’s Center for Evaluation and Assessment. Emily holds a Ph.D. in Educational Measurement & Statistics from the University of Iowa, a Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Iowa, and a Masters in Political Science from Emory University.
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