21st Century Skills: What Are They? And What Role Can Early Childhood Programs Play?

Posted: January 6, 2013

In an era when knowledge is expanding at an exponential rate, it is futile for teachers to work feverishly to teach young people all the facts or procedures they know about a given subject. Instead, educators across the spectrum from early childhood to college, both school and community-based, are realizing they need to equip children differently. Today's generation needs skills for the 21st century.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has outlined some of the necessary skills in this way: 

Learning and Innovation Skills

  • Creativity and innovation skills
  • Critical thinking and problem solving skills
  • Communication and collaboration skills

Information, Media, and Technology Skills

  • Information literacy
  • Media literacy
  • ICT (information and communications technology) literacy

Life and Career Skills

  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Social and cross-cultural skills
  • Productivity and accountability
  • Leadership and responsibility

This learning agenda takes the emphasis off content areas like math, science, and English and puts the emphasis on skills like creativity, communication, and problem-solving. These skills can be used all day long, in any discipline. Unfortunately, traditional early care curricula and out-of-school time (OST) programs may not nurture these as much as they should, nor do in-school lesson plans.

To jump start a program and move it from 20th century education patterns like the Back to Basics movement of the 1990’s, researchers suggest some of the following strategies. These strategies contribute to a child’s ability to communicate, collaborate, create, and think critically.

Nurture sense of wonder

Allow children to wonder, investigate, experiment, ask questions, and suggest outlandish solutions/ideas. Keep an active list of what the children wonder about and questions they ask. 

Emphasize effort over ability

Students learn more deeply when they believe it is the result of effort rather than ability. (Education for Life and Work)  Adults working with young children should share their own stories of beginning efforts and improving with practice. Remind children of the famous children’s story of The Little Engine That Could and her “I think I can…” attitude that eventually triumphed.

Encourage use of objects/materials in multiple centers/areas and diverse ways

Don’t restrict art materials to art area or blocks to block area. Encourage use of materials in varied ways (How many different ways can string be used?). Accessibility of materials encourages self-direction and innovative problem-solving. “Flexibility is still the key … because you don’t want to stifle interesting ideas that you may not have foreseen … Be flexible enough to ask yourself, ‘Why not?’” Rotation of available materials stimulates creative thinking and new ideas more than having all materials available all the time. (Chaillé and Britain 2003)

Ask thoughtful questions

Questions that begin with “Why…?” “How…?” “What if…?” “So what…?” encourage critical thinking about an experience, promote creativity, and allow children to practice communication skills. Become an expert at posing non-verbal questions. Chaillé and Britain describe the technique this way, “Sometimes a teacher can ask a question without using words simply by placing a helpful material within the child’s view.” A staff member might put a pitcher of water near children or a magnifying glass or some tape as an unspoken way to stretch an experience or solve a problem.

Use the KWL mindset (What I know, What I want to learn, What I learned). Ask a child to tap into what he already knows that might impact what he is currently exploring or wondering about. Solicit ideas from others in his play or work group. After a time of exploring or creating, allow time to celebrate, reflect, and think about the efforts made and then revised before the task was accomplished.

Provide effective feedback

Build in time for peer assessment. Encourage children to share what they liked and noticed, and what the person did well. Children can ask one another, “What is similar to mine; what is different from mine? If I do this again, what might I do differently next time? What additional things would I like to try?” This experience develops communication skills and critical thinking skills. It also increases the likelihood of knowledge transfer. “There is growing evidence that feedback that explains why the practice is incorrect is more valuable for learning than feedback that simply flags errors.” (Education for Life and Work) Having a model available for a person to review when she is first learning a skill is very helpful. It is important for feedback to come moderately close to the actual work/play time. Feedback given too quickly may stifle a child’s own attempts to self-correct or motivation to try again. Carefully timed feedback with the goal of uncovering the “why” behind a result is crucial to deep learning, a 21st century goal.

Notice Patterns

Highlighting patterns trains children’s minds to think about similarities and to make connections. It helps them to consider how one component is part of a larger whole (systems thinking). Experts are able to tap into their long-term memory banks, noticing patterns and connections between a current situation and something that they worked with or learned in the past. The more children practice seeing connections, the stronger they will be at critical thinking and innovative problem-solving.

Use technology and social media tools

Technology can hook a child into learning or creating who might not otherwise be interested. Technology skills, not only for knowledge acquisition, but for communicating, creating, and collaborating enhance a child’s overall learning experience. Tools like live webcams or virtual tours allow children to digitally visit places that the children can’t go physically. Help them blog with children in other locations, and participate in on-line challenges.

Collaborate with others

Mentoring and apprenticeships (with near-peers or community-based experts) are excellent ways to build real life skills. Invite area business people and community volunteers to share their skills with the children in your program. Working side by side develops a work ethic, models skills, demonstrates collaboration – all important for success as adults. This can also be accomplished by taking on meaningful community service projects within your program. Even the simplest strategy of co-constructing with a child (playing beside a child) models skills and encourages communication and sharing of ideas. Provide opportunities each day for teamwork and group play.

Represent an idea/learning/instructions in multiple ways (words, diagram, photos, audio)

This helps a person to understand at a deeper level and transfer the understanding to related situations in the future. (Education for Life and Work). After an accomplishment or experience, encourage children to re-represent that experience in a new way. A child could be invited to write a journal entry, paint a picture, create a display about the process, send an e-mail with highlights to the family, graph results, describe the highlights to a peer in a video interview, swap results with an on-line “pen pal” in another program.

These are a few of the many research-based recommendations that support a child’s development of 21st century skills. Programs that pay attention to both subject matter (reading, math, crafts, playground games) and the 21st century skills of critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration will prepare this country’s next generation of workers and leaders for success in a global society.

Additional Resources to Inspire You:

Works Cited:

Chaillé, Christine M. and Lory Britain. 2003. The Young Child As Scientist: A Constructivist Approach to Early Childhood Science Education, 3rd Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

National Research Council. 2012. Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 2009. “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Washington, D.C.: The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.