What are 21st Century skills?

In previous posts I have side-stepped giving an exact definition of 21st Century skills. To be fair on myself, there is some debate about what they are and definitions like this are difficult to pin down. It is a bit like trying to define a dog, they are all different, but you just know one when you see one.

For my purposes it is important to find a definition which is broad enough to include current thinking from a range of sources, but clear enough to be useful.

One definition which is gaining support at the moment is provided by ATC21S, and Microsoft have also produced a list of skill areas as a basis for their 21st Century Learning Design initiative (previously called Leap21).


21CLD lists 6 dimensions of 21st century learning.

  • Collaboration

Working in collaboration with others and in teams.

  • Knowledge construction

The ability to go beyond what has been learned to generate ideas.

  • Self regulation

Taking responsibility for their life and their on-going learning

  • Real-world problem-solving and innovation

Adaptability, creativity and balancing requirements and constraints to solve problems.

  • Use of ICT for learning

The ability to leverage ICT to enhance life and learning.

  • Skillful communication

Actively participate in society and learning through enriching communication.

The descriptors are my abreviations and you should refer to the site for a more detailed explanation.

21CLD has provided sample learning activities and a rubric to evaluate classroom activities against these 21st century competencies. This information is available on the web site above, or through the 21st Century Learning Design app (available from the Microsoft appstore).


This project defined the following list of 10 21st century skills.

  • Critical think and problem solving
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Information literacy
  • ICT literacy
  • Citizenship
  • Life and career
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Learning to learn

The ATC21S group is looking at how these skills can be taught and assessed. For this purpose they are combining the skills into broader areas. To date they have done extensive work on teaching and assessing collaborative problem solving, which is a combination of the first three skills in their list.


Looking at the two lists above it is obvious that they cover the same broad skill set, only differing in the way in which they divide up the skills. This is true of all the major attempts to define 21st century skills.

The ATC21S list of 10 skills is more granular than it needs to be. The skills are so inter-related that attempting to assess them all in isolation would be difficult, complex and ultimately unnecessary. For instance how would we separate personal and social responsibility from citizenship, and do we really need to in developing a learning activity? This has been recognized by the ATC21S group and they have incorporated their skills into sets of related skills, for instance critical thinking/problem solving, communication and collaboration, as inter-related skills, have been placed under the umbrella collaborative problem solving.

Looking at the lists of skills and extending from the groups of skills used by ATC21S, I can see 4 broad areas which could be credentialed as a series of badges:

Collaboration skills
  • critical thinking/problem solving (ATC21S)
  • communication (ATC21S) (21CLD)
  • collaboration (ATC21S) (21CLD)
  • real-world problem-solving and innovation (21CLD)
Information skills
  • information literacy (ATC21S)
  • ICT literacy (ATC21S)
  • use of ICT for learning (21CLD)
Community skills
  • personal and social responsibility (ATC21S)
  • life and career (ATC21S)
  • citizenship (ATC21S)
  • self regulation (21CLD)
Innovation skills
  • creativity and innovation (ATC21S)
  • learning to learn (ATC21S)
  • knowledge construction (21CLD)

As a practicing teacher I am excited by the prospect of using the work of the ATC21S group to move on in teaching and assessing 21st century skills, with the 21CLD resources to assist with designing rich learning activities to support that learning. All this could be overlaid with a robust and criterion referenced digital badge ecology, so that students can earn credentials under these 4 broad areas, and take them out into the world.


One response

  1. […] at the dimension they define as ‘Knowledge Construction’. This is a key aspect of my innovation […]

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