The Critical 21st Century Skills Every Learner Needs and Why

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Preparing a child for the world that doesn’t yet exist is not an easy task for any teacher. Step back and look at that picture from a broad perspective. What are the critical 21st-century skills every learner needs to survive and succeed in our world? What abilities and traits will serve them in a time that’s changing and developing so rapidly?

They want to be challenged and inspired in their learning. They want to collaborate and work with their peers. They want to incorporate the technology they love into their classroom experiences as much as they can. In short, they have just as high a set of expectations of their educators as their educators have of them.

How Are Educators Responding?

The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, (ACARA), have identified the following as the General Capabilities they see as essential for learners:

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Personal and social capability
  • Ethical understanding
  • Intercultural understanding
  • Information and communication technology capability
  • Literacy
  • Numeracy

The New Zealand Ministry of Education defines five key competencies for living and lifelong learning listed below:

  • Thinking
  • Using language, symbols, and text
  • Managing self
  • Relating to others
  • Participating and contributing

The International Baccalaureate is a non-profit educational foundation created in 1968. It designs its programs to develop crucial intellectual, personal, emotional, and social skills. Their IB Learner Profile suggests that learners should be conditioned by their learning to be:

  • Inquirers
  • Knowledgeable
  • Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Principled
  • Open-minded
  • Caring
  • Risk-takers
  • Balanced
  • Reflective

The Common Core Standards Initiative also states primary areas of focus for their development. These are based on teaching our learners the same kinds of 21st-century skills. This excerpt is from their website:

The standards were drafted by experts and teachers from across the country and are designed to ensure learners are prepared for today’s entry-level careers, freshman-level college courses, and workforce training programs. The Common Core focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills learners will need to be successful.

Our Big List of Essential 21st Century Skills

The Global Digital Citizen Foundation has given hundreds of presentations to educators and administrators in several countries over the years. Each time we’ve spoken, we have asked them what they feel are the most important 21st-century skills learners need above all others. The answers that we’ve received most often are narrowed down below.

This list comes from our book Literacy is Not Enough (Crockett, Lee et. al.; 2011). You’ll be able to see it correlates rather well with both New Zealand’s list and the IB Learner Profile. They certainly cover the Common Core’s bases, too. It’s good to know we’re all on the same page, isn’t it? That’s great news for our learners!

So, according to the folks we’ve asked, the consensus is that learners need transparency-level skills in these areas:

  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Analytic thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Ethics, action, and accountability

This 21st-century skills list is purposefully embedded within the Essential Fluencies. In the meantime, let’s talk more about why these skills are important. We’ll go through each point separately and talk about it in detail.

Problem solving

Learners need the ability to solve complex problems in real time.

In the future, complex problems that we can’t even conceive right now will be everywhere. As society advances, so will the complexity of its manageable conflicts. The more we focus on learners’ ability to devise effective solutions to real-world problems, the more successful those learners will become. This is what Solution Fluency is all about. It means solving complex problems effectively in real time using unique and carefully designed solutions.

In addition to this, problem-solvers can work independently from higher supervision. They are initiative takers and enjoy risk, and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and make mistakes. They also learn from those mistakes, and habitually debrief their processes to create more efficient and economical solutions.

These are the kinds of people who will be successful in a global marketplace like ours. Such an individual is an asset to any workforce. It’s worth mentioning that in this future we’re talking about, workers who are unable to think proactively towards solving problems will have a hard time finding employment.


Learners need to be able to think and work creatively in both digital and nondigital environments to develop unique and useful solutions.

Our digital learners are in a constant state of stimulation and neural development with technology use. They are natural producers and consumers, or prosumers, of information. Problem-solving is a skill that comes naturally to them and this can be advanced profoundly with the proper engagement in their learning. This comes from doing rewarding projects and meaningful tasks that give them challenges to overcome in imaginative ways.

Ask any learner about what they like to create and you’ll get a myriad of different answers. They are constantly searching for ways to express themselves and their uniqueness. Through social media, they display this creative edge and are given constant and instantaneous feedback from their peers. This same level of creative power is used as they face interesting challenges and figure out how to meet them with ingenuity and vision. This is why Creativity Fluency is one of the Essential Fluency skills.

Creativity is a vital outlet that inspires learners to see who they are and what they can do, and to realize what they can accomplish. It is fundamental that this side of any learner is allowed to shine forth in their learning.

Analytic thinking

Learners need the ability to think analytically, which includes proficiency with comparing, contrasting, evaluating, synthesizing, and applying without instruction or supervision.

Analytic thinking means being able to use the higher end of Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy or higher-order thinking skills (HOTS). You can learn more about this taxonomy, devised by educator Andrew Churches, at his educational wiki Edorigami.

Tasks that require linear thinking and routine cognitive work are being outsourced more and more. So it’s essential to guide learners towards being able to perform analytic thinking. It is crucial to their ability to succeed in life after the classroom. Analytic thinking is a significant part of what makes up Information Fluency.

According to Palgrave Study Skills, the common piece of feedback that many first-year university students receive on early assignments is that they are “not analytical enough.” Palgrave goes on to profile an in-depth explanation of what critical and analytical thinking is.

Analytical thinkers see data and information in many different dimensions, and from multiple angles. They are adept at conceptualization, organization and classification, and knowledge synthesis. These types of skills are invaluable because they allow learners to deal practically with problems of a social, mathematical, and scientific nature. It empowers them to make effective and level-headed decisions in their lives and relationships. It’s easy to see why critical and analytical thinking skills are important to success beyond school.


Learners must possess the ability to collaborate seamlessly in both physical and virtual spaces, with real and virtual partners globally.

Learners of the digital age are social by nature. They text, post, update, share, chat, and constantly co-create in technological environments with each other. When they are unable to do this in school, they become disengaged and unattached to their learning. Connection and collaboration with others are essential not only to their learning but their mental and emotional health. It is a skill that educators must exercise with them regularly, and understanding Collaboration Fluency will assist with this.

The workforces of the future (and even our present day) are globalizing due to the Internet. It is now the norm to communicate and market for global demographics instantaneously and effectively. An organization’s business partners are now halfway across the world, and yet they meet and work with each other every day. The ability to collaborate and communicate in these situations is essential.

This kind of interaction goes hand-in-hand with the mindset of global awareness that is part of Global Digital Citizenship. Simply put, better collaborators make better learners — and better citizens.


Learners must be able to communicate not just with text or speech, but in multiple multimedia formats. They must be able to communicate visually through video and imagery as effectively as they do with text and speech.

Communication is a broad term that incorporates multi-faceted levels of interaction and sharing information. Learners love to communicate using technology. This is an essential part of Media Fluency. But it’s more than just being able to effectively use digital media. It’s about personal interactions as well.

We must remind our learners that responsible communication practice puts forth their best representation of who they are as individuals in every relationship and alliance they make in their lives. Whether talking face-to-face, blogging, texting, or creating a visual product, their values and beliefs are defined by how well they communicate with others. Encouraging them to develop and hone every aspect of their communication skills will serve them well in both their personal and professional lives.

Ethics, Action, and Accountability

This includes adaptability, fiscal responsibility, personal accountability, environmental awareness, empathy, tolerance, and global awareness.

These are among the many characteristics of the Global Digital Citizen. A well-rounded and responsible global digital citizen practices personal, global, and online responsibilities geared towards creating a better world for everyone. This is a selfless, helpful, and caring individual who is respectful of other cultures and belief systems, and diligent about being at their best with interactions of all sorts, both online and offline.

Teaching our kids about global awareness and Internet safety have become mainstream practices in education. It’s great to see such skills garnering the attention they deserve. The Global Digital Citizen Foundation continues to create resources to help educators all over the world incorporate these practices into their own teaching strategies.

Another Burning Question

The 21st-century skills that we’ve just gone through are considered the essentials for our learners’ future success. These all won by a landslide vote from the education professionals who have given their thoughts on why they feel these skills are most important.

When educators talk about these skills, another question they ask is What do these 21st-century skills look like in the classroom, and how do we measure them?

This is a fair question that every teacher and administrator should be asking, so we love hearing it! We have a special tool that will help you determine what these skills look like at the classroom level. It will also help you tell how well they’re being developed in your learners.

The Tool To Guide You

As we mentioned before, the 21st-century skills we’ve profiled are developed within the context of the Essential Fluencies. To help you understand and navigate them, we’ve developed the Fluency Snapshot Tool. It’s yours to download and use in your classroom.

There is a page for each one of the Fluencies, containing 10 points that define the essence of that fluency in a specific classroom skill or activity. It uses a four-column grading system that you’ll find very easy to use. Your learners can even use it for self- and peer-assessment!

Future-Focused Learning

Ideas and inspiration for your teaching practice

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