21st Century Skills Definition (2023)

The term 21st century skills refers to a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that are believed—by educators, school reformers, college professors, employers, and others—to be critically important to success in today’s world, particularly in collegiate programs and contemporary careers andworkplaces. Generally speaking, 21st century skills can be applied in all academic subject areas, and in all educational, career, and civic settings throughout a student’s life.

It should be noted that the “21st century skills” concept encompasses a wide-ranging and amorphous body of knowledge and skills that is not easy to define and that has not been officially codified or categorized. While the term is widely used in education, it is not always defined consistently, which can lead to confusion and divergent interpretations. In addition, a number of related terms—including applied skills, cross-curricular skills, cross-disciplinary skills, interdisciplinary skills, transferable skills, transversal skills, noncognitive skills, and soft skills, among others—are also widely used in reference to the general forms of knowledge and skill commonly associated with 21stcentury skills. While these different terms may not be strictly synonymous, and they may have divergent or specialized meanings in certain technical contexts, these diverse sets of skills are being addressed in this one entry for the purposes of practicality and usefulness.

While the specific skills deemed to be “21st century skills” may be defined, categorized, and determined differently from person to person, place to place, or school to school, the term does reflect a general—if somewhat loose and shifting—consensus. The following list provides a brief illustrative overview of the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits commonly associated with 21st century skills:

  • Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesizing information
  • Research skills and practices, interrogative questioning
  • Creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, personal expression
  • Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, initiative
  • Oral and written communication, public speaking and presenting, listening
  • Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, facility in using virtual workspaces
  • Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, media and internet literacy, data interpretation and analysis, computer programming
  • Civic, ethical, and social-justice literacy
  • Economic and financial literacy, entrepreneurialism
  • Global awareness, multicultural literacy, humanitarianism
  • Scientific literacy and reasoning, the scientific method
  • Environmental and conservation literacy, ecosystems understanding
  • Health and wellness literacy, including nutrition, diet, exercise, and public health and safety

While many individuals and organizations have proposed definitions of 21st century skills, and most states have adopted learning standards that include or address cross-disciplinary skills, the following are three popular models that can serve to illustrate the concept and its applications in education:

For related discussions, see content knowledge and learning standards.


Generally speaking, the 21st century skills concept is motivated by the belief that teaching students the most relevant, useful, in-demand, and universally applicable skills should be prioritized in today’s schools, and by the related belief that many schools may not sufficiently prioritize such skills or effectively teach them to students. The basic idea is that students, who will come of age in the 21st century, need to be taught different skills than those learned by students in the 20th century, and that the skills they learn should reflect the specific demands that will placed upon them in a complex, competitive, knowledge-based, information-age, technology-driven economy and society.

While 21st century skills are relevant to all areas of schooling and academic study, and the skills may be taught in a wide variety of in-school and outside-of-school settings, there are a few primary ways in which 21st century skills intersect with efforts to improve schools:

  • Teachers may be more intentional about teaching cross-disciplinary skills in subject-area courses. For example, in a science course students might be required to learn research methods that can also be applied in other disciplines; articulate technical scientific concepts in verbal, written, and graphic forms; present lab results to a panel of working scientists; or use sophisticated technologies, software programs, and multimedia applications as an extension of an assigned project.
  • States, accrediting organizations, and schools may require 21st century skills to be taught and assessed in courses. For example, states can adopt learning standards that explicitly describe cross-disciplinary skills, and assessments may be designed or modified to evaluate whether students have acquiredand mastered certain skills.
  • Schools and teachers may use educational approaches that inherently encourage or facilitate the acquisition of cross-disciplinary skills. For example, educational strategies such as authentic learning, demonstrations of learning, orproject-based learning tend to be cross-disciplinary in nature, and students—in the process of completing a research project, for example—may have to use a variety of applied skills, multiple technologies, and new ways of analyzing and processing information, while also taking initiative, thinking creatively, planning out the process, and working collaboratively in teams with other students.
  • Schools may allow students to pursue alternative learning pathways in which students earn academic credit and satisfy graduation requirements by completing an internship, apprenticeship, or volunteer experience, for example. In this case, students might acquire a variety of practical, job-related skills and work habits, while also completing academic coursework and meeting the same learning standards required of students in more traditional academic courses.


While there is broad agreement that today’s students need different skills than were perhaps taught to previous generations, and that cross-disciplinary skills such as writing, critical thinking, self-initiative, group collaboration, and technological literacy are essential to success in higher education, modern workplaces, and adult life, there is still a great deal of debate about 21st century skills—from what skills are most important to how such skills should be taught to their appropriate role in public education. Given that there is no clear consensus on what skills specifically constitute “21st century skills,” the concept tends to be interpreted and applied in different ways from state to state or school to school, which can lead to ambiguity, confusion, and inconsistency.

Calls for placing a greater emphasis on cross-disciplinary skills in public education are, generally speaking, a response to the perception that most public schools pay insufficient attention to the postsecondary preparation and success of students. In other words, the concept has become a touchstone in a larger debate about what public schools should be teaching and what the purpose of public education should be. For example: Is the purpose of public education to get students to pass a test and earn a high school diploma? Or is the purpose to prepare students for success in higher education and modern careers? The push to prioritize 21st century skills is typically motivated by the belief that all students should be equipped with the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits they will need to pursue continued education and challenging careers after graduation, and that a failure to adequately prepare students effectively denies them opportunities, with potentially significant consequences for our economy, democracy, and society.

A related debate centers on the distinction between “knowledge” and “skills,” and how schools and teachers may interpret—or misinterpret—the concepts. Some educators argue that it’s not possible to teach cross-disciplinary skills separately from knowledge and conceptual understanding—for example, students can’t learn to write well if they don’t have ideas, facts, principles, and philosophies to write about. The basic idea is that “21st century skills” is an artificial concept that can’t be separated out from subject-area knowledge and instruction. Other educators may argue that cross-disciplinary skills have historically been ignored or under-prioritized in schools, and the push to give more emphasis and attention to these skills is simply a commonsense response to a changing world.

The following list provides a few additional examples of representative arguments that may be made in support of teaching 21st century skills:

  • In today’s world, information and knowledge are increasing at such an astronomical rate that no one can learn everything about every subject, what may appear true today could be proven to be false tomorrow, and the jobs that students will get after they graduate may not yet exist. For this reason, students need to be taught how to process, parse, and use information, and they need adaptable skills they can apply in all areas of life—just teaching them ideas and facts, without teaching them how to use them in real-life settings, is no longer enough.
  • Schools need to adapt and develop new ways of teaching and learning that reflect a changing world. The purpose of school should be to prepare students for success after graduation, and therefore schools need to prioritize the knowledge and skills that will be in the greatest demand, such as those skills deemed to be most important by college professors and employers. Only teaching students to perform well in school or on a test is no longer sufficient.
  • Given the widespread availability of information today, students no longer need teachers to lecture to them on the causes of the Civil War, for example, because that information is readily available—and often in more engaging formats that a typical classroom lecture. For this reason, educators should use in-school time to teach students how to find, interpret, and use information, rather than using most or all of the time to present information.

The following list provides a few examples of representative arguments that may be made against the concept of 21st century skills:

  • Public schools and teachers have always taught, and will continue to teach, cross-disciplinary skills—they just never gave it a label. The debate over “content vs. skills” is not new—educators have been talking about and wrestling with these issues for a century—which makes the term “21st century skills” somewhat misleading and inaccurate.
  • Focusing too much on cross-disciplinary skills could water-down academic courses, and students may not get “the basics.” The more time teachers spend on skill-related instruction, the less time they will have for content-based instruction. And if schools privilege cross-disciplinary skills over content knowledge, students may be denied opportunities because they are insufficiently knowledgeable. Students need a broad knowledge base, which they won’t receive if teachers focus too much on skill-related instruction or “learning how to learn.”
  • Cross-disciplinary skills are extremely difficult to assess reliably and consistently. There are no formal tests for 21st century skills, so the public won’t know how well schools are doing in teaching these skills.


21st Century Skills Definition? ›

What Are 21st Century Skills? 21st century skills refer to the knowledge, life skills, career skills, habits, and traits that are critically important to student success in today's world, particularly as students move on to college, the workforce, and adult life.

What is the simple definition of 21st-century skills? ›

What Are 21st Century Skills? 21st century skills refer to the knowledge, life skills, career skills, habits, and traits that are critically important to student success in today's world, particularly as students move on to college, the workforce, and adult life.

What does it mean to be a 21st-century learner answers? ›

Twenty-first-century learning means that students master content while producing, synthesizing, and evaluating information from a wide variety of subjects and sources with an understanding of and respect for diverse cultures.

What is the definition of 21st-century skills critical thinking? ›

1. Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is the practice of solving problems, among other qualities. In addition to working through problems, solving puzzles, and similar activities, critical thinking also includes an element of skepticism.

Which 21 century skill refers to the ability or attribute of a person to distinguish facts and manipulated articles? ›

Literacy skills (IMT) focuses on how students can discern facts, publishing outlets, and the technology behind them.

What are 21st-century skills give the importance of the following? ›

It prepares students for an increasingly globalized world.

In today's world, it's more important than ever for students to be able to communicate and work with people from other cultures. 21st-century learning helps students develop the global perspective they need to be successful in an increasingly connected world.

What are the 4 referred as in 21st-century skills? ›

Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity are considered the four c's and are all skills that are needed in order to succeed in today's world.

What is 21st century learning in your own words? ›

Twenty-first century learning is the accumulation of knowledge, work habits and soft skills, including digital literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving, that will help students lead successful careers in the modern workplace.

Which best describes a 21st century type of learner? ›

21st century learning is the constellation of learner characteristics which equips students to enjoy a high quality of life, work and relationships by being resilient, intentional, creative and confident learners who understand the value of collaboration, the relationship of effort to results and the need to be ...

What is your definition of 21st century education? ›

A 21st century education is one that responds to the economical, technological, and societal shifts that are happening at an ever-increasing pace. It's an education that sets children up to succeed in a world where more than half of the jobs they'll have over their careers don't even exist yet.

What is critical thinking definition skills & meaning? ›

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

What is critical thinking definition skills and examples? ›

Critical thinking is the ability to make informed decisions by evaluating several different sources of information objectively. As such, critical thinkers possess many other essential skills, including analysis, creativity, problem-solving and empathy.

What is the definition and critical thinking skills? ›

Critical thinking is a kind of thinking in which you question, analyse, interpret, evaluate and make a judgement about what you read, hear, say, or write. The term critical comes from the Greek word kritikos meaning “able to judge or discern”.

How do you assess 21st-century skills? ›

The 21st Century Skills Assessment uses a psychometrically validated blend of interactive, performance-based questions that allow students to authentically perform complex tasks in simulated applications, and multiple choice, knowledge-based questions.

What are the principles of 21st-century skills? ›

This includes the four Cs: creativity, critical thinking ability, collaboration, and communication” (para 5).

How do you develop 21st-century skills? ›

Communication Creativity Critical Thinking Collaboration
  1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning. Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. ...
  2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment. ...
  3. Encourage Collaboration. ...
  4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills. ...
  5. Encourage Creativity.
Oct 9, 2013

What is the most important skill required in 21st-century? ›

In addition to foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, they need competencies like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving, and character qualities like persistence, curiosity and initiative.

What is the most important 21st-century skill? ›

Dr Douglas Reeves, founder of The Leadership and Learning Centre, believes that 'Focus' is the most important 21st Century skill. Unless you can master the skills required to focus, your day ends up out of control and you waste your precious time and energy doing things that are not important, valuable or enjoyable!

What are the most important skills needed to succeed in the 21st-century workplace? ›

The following skills are consistently identified as critical for anyone seeking to be successful in the 21st century world of work:
  • Information and communication skills.
  • Thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Interpersonal and self-directional skills.
  • Technical skills.

What are the 3 categories of 21st century skills? ›

Each 21st Century skill is broken into one of three categories:
  • Learning skills.
  • Literacy skills.
  • Life skills.

What are the four 21st century learning skills describe how they can improve? ›

The 21st century learning skills are often called the 4 C's: critical thinking, creative thinking, communicating, and collaborating. These skills help students learn, and so they are vital to success in school and beyond. Critical thinking is focused, careful analysis of something to better understand it.

What are 5 critical skills in the 21st century? ›

Past President of NAIS, Pat Bassett, identifies Five C's – critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration and character, as the skills that will be in demand and will be rewarded in this century.

What can I say instead of 21st century learning? ›

Instead of “I want my students to develop 21st century skills” we can say “ I want my students to develop the skills and attributes they each need to meet their own goals.” When we shift the conversation with students from the future to my future, students can develop more ownership.

Why are life skills important? ›

Life skills can include the ability to manage your emotions, your health, your finances, your relationships, your school performance, etc. – and your ability to master these things has a direct impact on how you feel about yourself, your emotional balance, your physical health and your independence.

How do I equip myself with 21st century skills in order to cope? ›

Here are five things to consider to get started.
  1. Use Modern Technology. The smart way to combat 21st-century challenge is to use a 21st-century solution. ...
  2. Build a Solid Foundation by Starting Early. ...
  3. Weave Real-World Skills into Every Subject. ...
  4. Encourage a Collaborative Learning Environment. ...
  5. Make Learning Real-World Relevant.
Oct 15, 2020

What are the 8 critical attributes of 21st century education? ›

8 skills a 21st century student should master at school
  • Digital-age literacy. ...
  • Communication. ...
  • Cooperation. ...
  • Creativity. ...
  • Inventive thinking - intellectual capital. ...
  • Problem-based thinking and problem solving. ...
  • Value system and responsibility. ...
  • Quality, top results and productivity.
Sep 16, 2020

Why are 21st century skills important in education? ›

21st-century skills help students build character and cultivate compassion and empathy, which are crucial as social collaborative beings. These skills also ensure that as children grow up, they are ethical and have integrity so that they can collaborate and function well with others and thereby create a better future.

How do you use 21st century skills in the classroom? ›

The 21st-century skills classroom focuses on asking questions to encourage critical thinking, inquiry, and reasoning. In all courses, students evaluate, synthesize, and translate ideas to solve problems and complete projects. Teachers also encourage students to hone their reasoning and inquiry skills.

Do you consider yourself as a 21st century learner? ›

The way I describe myself as a learner in the 21st century digital learner is a person who is always interested in using new and innovating types of technology. I feel comfortable with technology and don't get intimidated when new technology is presented.

What are the 3 main critical thinking techniques? ›

Critical-thinking skills connect and organize ideas. Three types distinguish them: analysis, inference, and evaluation.

What is an example of critical thinking in everyday life? ›

Using your time wisely

Deciding how you use your time is another example of critical thinking. Continually evaluating how you spend your time can help you discover tasks and activities that may change how you prioritize your duties.

How do you prove critical thinking skills? ›

How to demonstrate critical thinking skills on your resume
  1. Describe a challenging situation at work that put your critical thinking and decision-making skills to the test.
  2. Mention a situation in which your answer to a problem was crucial for the success of a project.

What is main purpose of critical thinking? ›

Critical thinking helps people better understand themselves, their motivations and goals. When you can deduce information to find the most important parts and apply those to your life, you can change your situation and promote personal growth and overall happiness.

What is an example of critical thinking in a sentence? ›

Those core skills which were reviewed were critical thinking and problem solving. She is also expected to possess the skills necessary for critical thinking and analysis. Fostering the critical thinking of college women through academic advising and faculty contact.

What is another word for critical thinking? ›

Synonyms for critical thinking include brainstorming, conceptualising, conceptualizing, deliberating, inventing, problem solving, reasoning, thinking, abstract thought and consideration.

Who defines critical thinking? ›

The term critical thinking was coined by American philosopher and educator John Dewey in the book How We Think (1910) and was adopted by the progressive education movement as a core instructional goal that offered a dynamic modern alternative to traditional educational methods such as rote memorization.

Which is not an example of critical thinking skills? ›

Monitoring an exam is not an example of critical thinking abilities. Was this answer helpful?

What is 21st century assessment definition? ›

A process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students' achievement of intended instructional outcomes.

What is the 21st century assessment examples? ›

They include structured interviews, situational judgment tests, role plays, group exercises, in basket exercises, work samples, and performance standards/appraisal.
It defines 10 skills grouped into 4 categories, as follows:
  • Ways of Thinking.
  • Ways of Working.
  • Tools for Working.
  • Living in the World.
Feb 27, 2019

What is a 21st century skill on learning how to solve problems? ›

Critical thinking involves the individual's ability to do the following: conceptualizing, logical reasoning, applying strategy, analytical thinking, decision making and synthesizing to solve any problem.

What is critical thinking in 21st century skills? ›

1. Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is the practice of solving problems, among other qualities. In addition to working through problems, solving puzzles, and similar activities, critical thinking also includes an element of skepticism.

What is communication in 21st century skills? ›

21st Century Communication is a four-level series that uses powerful ideas from TED Talks to teach learners to think critically and communicate effectively. Through authentic models of effective communication, students build fluency in the listening and speaking skills needed to achieve academic and personal success.

What is productivity in 21st century skills? ›

Productivity is the ability to create a product using these skills: setting and meeting goals, prioritizing needs, managing time, working ethically, collaborating and cooperating with colleagues and clients. Accountability and productivity are interconnected.

What are the 21st-century skills and competencies explain each? ›

21st Century Competencies for a globalised world

The following competencies are necessary for the globalised world we live in: Civic Literacy, Global Awareness and Cross-Cultural Skills. Critical and Inventive Thinking. Communication, Collaboration and Information Skills.

What are soft skills or 21st-century skills? ›

Soft skills include communications, listening, and emotional perceptivity, such as empathy and sympathy. These skills tend to reside in personal attributes, personality, and character traits, and social cues picked up throughout one's life.

How do you assess 21st century skills? ›

The 21st Century Skills Assessment uses a psychometrically validated blend of interactive, performance-based questions that allow students to authentically perform complex tasks in simulated applications, and multiple choice, knowledge-based questions.

How do you develop 21st century skills? ›

Communication Creativity Critical Thinking Collaboration
  1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning. Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. ...
  2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment. ...
  3. Encourage Collaboration. ...
  4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills. ...
  5. Encourage Creativity.
Oct 9, 2013

What are the 21st century most essential learning competencies? ›

Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration. The 4 Cs.

What are 21st century skills at home? ›

These skills include communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Families and caregivers play a critical role in supporting the development of 21st-century skills by connecting with their child's teachers and school and providing authentic learning experiences at home.

What are 21st century skills in early childhood education? ›

This includes not only supporting emerging skills in reading, math, science, and social studies, but also most importantly, the 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, technology literacy, and social-emotional development.


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