Translating “21st Century Skills”

I had the privilege of hearing the acclaimed education guru Dr. Tony Wagner speak recently on “21st century skills” and why they are so critical for our kids.

Tony is the author of The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills our Children Need and What We Can Do About It and a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Even he admits the “edu-babble” on this topic could leave your head spinning.

A self-proclaimed recovering English teacher, Dr. Wagner talks in plain English about the seven skills kids need today to succeed and what schools must do to teach them. Here’s my recap of Tony’s key points and some ideas on what I think parents can do to help kids learn these “21st century skills.”

Critical thinking and problem solving. Tony’s translation: ASK QUESTIONS.Not just any question, but the right questions. Standardized tests don’t prepare kids for this.

Challenge your kids to look at difficult everyday situations and figure out how to work through them or around them.  Ask questions rather than give answers. What else can you do to solve this? Another way to get kids thinking is when you’re watching TV together, ask your child what a commercial is trying to do. What are they selling? (It’s not always a product, sometimes it’s an emotion.) What parts of the ad are believable? What might be misleading?  

Collaboration across networks and leading by influence. Tony’s translation: RESPECT DIFFERENCES in people and cultures.

Take a walk on a college campus today and you’ll understand why your kids’ future peers and colleagues will be from China, India, Finland and Japan. They need to understand different cultures and have a healthy appreciation for them. That’s why teaching diversity and group projects in public schools is so important. Encouraging kids to read multi-cultural books helps (ask your local librarian for suggestions). Another idea: let siblings work out their differences.

Agility and adaptability. Tony’s translation: BE FLEXIBLE. Technology is changing our world so fast that our kids will be in a new role or job every couple of years.

It’s critical kids can transition and respond to new ideas, situations and people easily. While kids dart quickly around video games and the internet, adapting to social environments is different. The best cure for kids who fear unfamiliar situations is putting them in new situations. Keeping a let’s roll-with-the-punches or cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-to-it family attitude will also help.

Initiative and entrepreneurship. Tony’s translation: BE SELF DIRECTED. Intrinsic motivation is key.

Given our culture’s over reliance on structured play, this skill will be a challenge for many kids unless they’re given some reign to deal with what comes up in their peer world – without parent interference. It’s about sizing up the situation and taking risks. Climbing the monkey bars without mom underneath ready to catch. Key for this skill is kids who are not afraid to fail, who understand that learning comes through failing. That’s why rewarding effort is so critical.  

Effective written and oral communication. Tony’s translation: WRITE AND SPEAK WELL.Two skills most corporations say young hires are sorely lacking.

I’ve found the reality in schools is that many teachers assign writing but don’t teach it. They either don’t have time or don’t know how. If your kids aren’t journaling or writing papers in either literacy or English at least once a week, talk to the teacher, principal or the school board. Make thank you letters mandatory in your family at every birthday and holiday. I know it’s not always easy, but it will help your child. If there isn’t a debate class or team in your kids’ elementary school, grab an interested friend or teacher and look into starting one.  

Accessing and analyzing information. Tony’s translation: EVALUATE & SYNTHESIZE.Not having this skill could be dangerous.

The flood of information on the internet, cell phones, You-tube, video games and social media is overwhelming. I read somewhere it’s like trying to get a drink of water from an open fire hydrant. Our children may be faster at accessing the information than we are, but they need to know how to find the right details and summarize the data that is relevant. Schools should be teaching kids how to use identified sites on the internet.

Getting your kids involved with planning a vacation, finding a fun activity or comparing choices when making a big purchase is another way to teach them how to evaluate information on the internet.

Curiosity and Imagination. Tony’s translation: CREATE. This relates back to skill number one, thinking and problem solving, and completes the circle.

Kids who love to learn are more likely to be curious. They will find answers to problems because they can empathize and think out of the box. Letting kids play and creating time for imaginative play is critical for this skill to flourish. Letting kids read and explore whatever subject sparks their interest will also make them more creative. Keep legos, paper and markers handy for downtime so kids don’t always default to screens. Reading to them regularly throughout their elementary years will help too.

So here’s to self directed, flexible, creative kids who ask questions, respect differences, write, speak and synthesize data effectively. Here’s a video on one of  Tony’s talks  if you’re interested. Good thing there are 13 grades to work on these skills!


  1. …or a lifetime. It’s what it looks like to be fully developed.
    Schools need to reorganize to focus on the whole child to get it this way, and parents can (must) help by reminding teachers and principals that this is what is necessary: “Don’t be distracted and hyper-focus on simplistic 3R’s as if it were the only thing in the world”
    Everyone knows what the world requires these days. Even the kids.

Speak Your Mind