“21st Century Skills,” Powerful Learning & Educational Reform

I am a “21st century learning and innovation specialist. “ I am asked over and over again about my job title – and I understand that a lot of people are tired of the worn out phrase “21st century learning” or “21st century skills.”  I, too, think that a decade into this thing, we would really be better off defining 21st century learning and perhaps replacing this term with what we really mean.  So what would you call it?  That’s where I get stuck.  It is just so hard to put a label on it.  To me “21st century learning” is huge – and represents something much, much bigger than what might enter most people’s consciousness when they hear the term. To me, it embodies the educational reform that we all seek.  

Here is how I like to explain it when I have a little time at a workshop or presentation for parents or community members – even teachers, I ask them to think about one of their most powerful learning experiences. Typically, in a workshop, I’ll give individuals time to reflect, and then ask them to form small groups and share their powerful learning experiences with each other.  Following this, their task is to create a list of the common elements of their experiences.  Then we share the results with the whole group. Guess what? The list is always the same.  What’s on it?  

  • Hands-on, active learning
  • Real-world problem solving/connections to community
  • Collaborative
  • Challenging
  • Built-in time for reflection
  • Feel safe to “fail”
  • Ability to build a relationship with the teacher

The next thing I like to do is point out that there is a fortunate connection between what produces powerful learning – enduring understandings, if you will, and 21st century learning .  All of the things listed above detail environmental aspects of learning. They aren’t what the teacher teaches, per say, but how he/she designs the learning activities to allow room for these things to occur. 

21st Century Learning is much the same.  Here are some typical 21st century skills identified by any number of educational think tanks:

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking/Reasoning
  • Innovation
  • Self Direction

Do you see where I’m going with this? 


I think that it is pretty amazing that the things that we consider powerful about our own learning, that we might even call motivational factors of learning, are so similar to the skills that we need to address according to the various 21st century learning think tank and workforce studies.  Could this mean…we know what to do? We know how to motivate kids? We know how to ensure that they acquire both skills and understandings?  So what is standing in our way? Oh. Yeah. Educational reform. Standardized testing.  Lack of time. (see standardized testing).

I just learned about a new film being developed by Laurie Gabriel called Hear our Teachers.  I am very excited about this new film and the hope of finding some balance between what teachers know about how students learn and the sentiments being expressed by the Waiting for Superman and Education Nation crowds.

I think as we move forward, we need to keep the focus on students and how they learn.  Let’s set the political agendas aside and stop pointing fingers  for awhile and find some common ground in our discussions about educational reform. I think that powerful learning – “21st century learning” – is our common ground. Can this be our starting point for productive conversations about how to improve student learning?

Author: Nancy White

Learner, Curator, Innovator, Teacher, Librarian, and Collaborator. Passionate about designing learning that is engaging, relevant & sticks. 20+ years in education.

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