21st Century Skills Don’t Exist. So Why Do We Need Them?

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

If you Google “21st century skills”, you’ll get about 425,000 hits. Impressive, but: What are those 21st century skills? What’s so “21st century” about them? And why do education and business people shout from the rooftops that we need these so-called 21st century skills?

What are 21st century skills?

The glossary of education reform defines 21st century skills as “a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that are believed … to be critically important to success in today’s world, particularly in collegiate programs and contemporary careers and workplaces.”

Andreas Schleicher, from the OECD Education Directorate, states in a blog on 21st century skills:

Education today is much more about ways of thinking which involve creative and critical approaches to problem-solving and decision-making. It is also about ways of working, including communication and collaboration, as well as the tools they require, such as the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies, or indeed, to avert their risks.

So, in summary problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and collaboration are examples of 21st century skills. This list is confirmed by several others (Hodge & Lear, 2011, Voogt & Roblin, 2010, and Robles, 2012). Top of the list are communication and collaboration/teamwork. Critical thinking and problem-solving score high as well, and then there’s a bunch of other ones, such as creativity, innovation, integrity, ICT literacy, leadership, entrepreneurship, and so the list goes on and on and…. The image below[1] paints the picture.


OK. We now know what they are (just about everything), but are these skills really new?

What is so “21st century” about 21st century skills?

Rotherham and Willingham state that there’s nothing new about 21st century skills (also see Paul’s blog). This is a very good point and even if you don’t agree at first, we encourage you to chew, swallow, and then slowly digest it. Listen up (confession: all examples here are stolen from Rotherham and Willingham). Do you really think that in the ‘old days’ – whenever they were – we didn’t need to think critically and solve problems? What about the development of tools, agricultural advancements, discovery of vaccines, or land and sea explorations? And don’t you think the lads and gals back in the old days would have to communicate and collaborate to progress?

However, many business leaders, politicians, and educators alike seem to agree that we’re dealing with a “21st century skills” shortage as a barrier to economic growth and business success. So why is this? Why do we all seem to believe that these skills are suddenly so critical that we need to discuss them explicitly?

Why are 21st century skills needed?

First, those advocating the necessity of 21st century skills point to a gap between the skills that new graduates have and the skills that employers need (see for example this article in Forbes). This is not new. Government policy and education have always lagged behind business. Institutions confirm society as it stands; they aren’t game-changers. They don’t start trends, they might or might not follow them.

Another stated reason is that the meaning of knowledge has changed. For example, this blog claims that in pre-industrial times most people only needed “know-how”, in the 20th century (the “industrial age”) people mostly needed “know-what” and now, in the 21st century we not only need to know-what”, but we also (sit tight now as you might fall of your chair) need “to be able to do things with this knowledge, to use it to create new knowledge”. Seriously? Are we living in an ultra-revolutionary era? Didn’t people in previous times need knowledge to think with? That is an absolutely ridiculous thing to believe. How in heavens name can you think without knowledge? The need for mastery of different kinds of knowledge, ranging from facts to complex analysis is not new at all. Plato already wrote about four distinct levels of intellect. Rotherham and Willingham joke: “Perhaps at the time, these were considered “3rd century BCE skills?” (p 17).

Schleicher’s argument for the need of 21st century skills is also a popular one:

We live in a fast-changing world, and producing more of the same knowledge and skills will not suffice to address the challenges of the future. A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last their students a lifetime. Today, because of rapid economic and social change, schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.

Patti Shank is way more nuanced. She explains in her blog from August 2016 that “The problem is that conventional middle-class jobs are declining and what is left are the two ends: highly technical jobs and low-paid, low-skilled jobs. So while employment numbers may look OK, the middle is being hollowed out” and “What is different in [the current industrial revolution]…, is that only those with the right skills appear to be benefiting. In past industrial revolutions, benefits eventually spread to all, or at least most. Today, it appears that those with the niche skill sets that match growing needs are benefiting.” According to Rotherham and Willingham “What’s actually new is the extent to which changes in our economy and the world mean that collective and individual success depends on having such [21st century] skills.” (p 17).

So these skills are not new yet important and we need to find ways to teach them more explicitly and intentionally. But how?

Now what?

Back to the term “21st century skills”. The definition is awkward. We call something a skill and then define it as skills + knowledge + work habits + character traits.

A skill is the ability to do something well, such as a certain task. It’s something quite specific and narrow. While, if we look at what we consider to be 21st century skills, they seem to be far from that. These “skills” aren’t applicable to one specific task, they’re broader, like competencies. In general, a competency is the combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes and, as such, consists of expertise and behavioural elements. Expertise refers to someone’s knowledge, skills, experience, and insight given the fixed characteristics of a problem or task. The behavioural repertoire is about the individual’s types of behaviour that are necessary given the changing circumstances in which a task must be performed (Hoekstra and Van Sluijs, 2003). This is influenced by for example personality, intelligence, and motivation.

It’s important to make this distinction because it influences how we look at this type of competencies from an instructional and assessment perspective. Some, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, are more knowledge-based while communication and collaboration depend more on behavioural aspects. Rotherham and Willingham give some excellent examples to show that it makes no sense whatsoever to divide knowledge and skills. We would like to add that it also doesn’t make sense to ignore the behavioural aspects of a competency.

For example, we need domain knowledge to help us recognise a problem or to come up with a possible solution, in other words, to think critically and solve problems. We also need a behavioural repertoire to be able to adapt our behaviour to a specific context. Let’s say we need to collaborate with other people to solve a problem. Collaboration might require some knowledge on “how to collaborate effectively”, however behavioural repertoire plays a much bigger role. For example, personality and motivation come into play as well as the ability to self-, co- and socially share the regulation of our behaviours. A personality trait such as agreeableness correlates positively with collaboration (Bartram, 2005) and how motivated you are to solve a complex problem might influence your willingness to collaborate as well (also see F. Kirschner, Paas, and P.A. Kirschner on task complexity as a driver for collaborative learning efficiency).

Rotherham and Willingham identify three things that need to happen so that we can support learners in developing this type of competencies. First, the instructional program needs to be all-inclusive, (not just for the elite), complete and content should not be skimmed because of the incorrect idea that we no longer need to acquire knowledge. Second, teachers need to be properly trained, for example to understand how knowledge and skills are intertwined and how to design more complex learning tasks that allow learners to practice with knowledge and skills in an integrated fashion. Third, we need assessments that can accurately measure more complex learning tasks. We would like to add that we need a better understanding on the building blocks for each competency and ideally we would also be able to identify how they influence each other. Because in all fairness, just to give one example, who can effectively collaborate without proper communication?

It goes without saying that everyone wants learners to think and work better, and for them to be able to deal with today’s information overload (also see our blog on Lost in the Information Jungle). But the worst thing that we can do is to think that we should skip the knowledge and focus on the skills and that we’re bridging the gap that way. Just remember past education reform failures and put your critical thinking hats on. There is a gigantic challenge ahead.


Bartram, D., (2005). The great eight competencies: A criterion-centric approach to validation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 1185-1203

Hodge, K.A., & Lear, J.L. (2011). Employment skills for 21st century workplace: The gap between faculty and student perceptions. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 26, 1-9

Hoekstra, H.A. & Van Sluijs, E. (2003). Managing competencies: Implementing human resource management. Assen: Koninklijke Van Gorcum

Kirschner, F., Paas, F., and Kirschner, P.A., (2011). Task complexity as a drive for collaborative learning efficiency: The collective working-memory effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 615-624. Retrieved from http://dspace.ou.nl/bitstream/1820/2879/1/Task%20Complexity%20as%20a%20Driver%20for%20Collaborative%20Learning%20Efficiency.pdf

Robles, M.M. (2012). Executive perceptions of the top 10 soft skills needed in today’s workplace. Business Communication Quarterly, 75, 453-465

Rotherham, A.J., & Willingham, D.T., (2010). “21st-Century” skillls. Not new, but a worthy challenge. American Educator, 17-20. Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/RotherhamWillingham.pdf

Schleicher, A., (2016, October 9). The case for 21st century learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/general/thecasefor21st-centurylearning.htm

Voogt, J., & Roblin, N. P. (2010). 21st century skills. Discussienota. Zoetermeer: The Netherlands: Kennisnet

[1] https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/c5/36/93/c536934184353bee036f3f18ea478d39.png


11 thoughts on “21st Century Skills Don’t Exist. So Why Do We Need Them?

  1. Lina says:

    Thank you for this interesting and valuable post. Your reflections about the role of knowledge and the need to understand those 21st century competencies much better resonate so much with what Peter Goodyear and I have been writing in our recent book on Epistemic Fluency and Professional Education (https://epistemicfluency.com/book-epistemic-fluency-in-professional-education/). Wet try to suggest some conceptual-analytical tools for unpacking those competences, but i agree, this is just a start. A lot of work still needs to be done.

  2. Leanne Wright says:

    From the article above: “Second, teachers need to be properly trained, for example to understand how knowledge and skills are intertwined and how to design more complex learning tasks that allow learners to practice with knowledge and skills in an integrated fashion.”

    This is very true and our own school is struggling to do this. We have adopted project-based learning in approximately 30% of our curriculum in an effort to respond to this need. I think I remember reading an article written by you that was critical of PBL as a result of minimal guidance and/or cognitive load issues. I would be grateful if you could suggest some alternative approaches or readings that would help us effectively integrate knowledge and skills for our students. Many thanks in advance.

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