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Five essential 21st century skills that transcend the four Cs

Teach students to think like entrepreneurs with these skill sets

VIDEO: What Are the 4 C's of 21st Century Skills? | AES
21st Century Classroom

21st-century-skillsSince the publication of his highly impactful book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman has been teaching his readers and listeners to think differently about our world and how we interact with each other. Friedman consistently talks about new skill sets that are required for anyone who wants to not only survive but truly thrive in the hyper-connected world that is life in the 21st century.

Educators have been tackling a new mindset for student learning for nearly two decades. In the early 2000s, when as a nation as we sat at the dawn of the 21st century, The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (formerly The Partnership for 21st Century Skills) introduced the education community to a Framework for 21st Century Learning, which highlighted 18 different skills. Over time leaders from a broad spectrum of business and education communities narrowed the focus to concentrate on a set of skills that came to be known as the 4Cs—communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

The goal was to have the 4Cs integrated with the “3Rs” that had served as the backbone of American curricula for centuries. As the K-12 education community continues the work of embedding the 4Cs into all content areas, the world continues to evolve and we find ourselves once again considering what it is all students must know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school.

One organization that has taken on this challenge is Metiri Group, based in Marina Del Rey, California. Metiri Group, through their collaborative project with North Central Regional Education Laboratory, enGauge 21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age, helped to define the term “21st century skills” in the context that it is now widely known.

At the core of Metiri Group’s work is the belief that the skills that are necessary to be a successful entrepreneur are the same skills that all students require in order to be voracious, engaged learners. Metiri Group identifies five competencies that are essential to building entrepreneurial skills in all students: Self-Direction; Evidence Based Thinking; Persistence; Calculated Risk Taking; Tolerance for Ambiguity.

Next page: The right way to take risks

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Common Sense Education

Self-Direction. Emphasizing instructional practices that create student-centered learning experiences, rather than relying solely on teacher-delivered content, is gaining a great deal of traction in the education community. Millennials and technology are having an influence on the culture of today’s workforce. Top down management and 20-year careers are out. That means that, increasingly, individuals need the skill sets required to drive their own learning. Metiri Group identifies self-directed learners as those who have the skills necessary to set their own learning goals, institute plans to accomplish those goals, analyze and solve problems, own and manage their own learning and improvement, while working within a growth mindset. Teachers who provide students with feedback and praise for their effort—perhaps even giving a grade for effort rather than just the end result—help to build self-direction skills in their students.

Evidence-Based Thinking. Empowering students to support or refute ideas, using concrete evidence, based on reliable data and findings, is critical to building entrepreneurial skills in students. Even though innovation is prized, the thinking behind new ideas and concepts must also be sound. Critical thinking can be learned. It is a skill that should be included in the learning repertoire of every student, along with an understanding of common mistakes in thinking to avoid. Students must learn how to construct and communicate their positions on issues based on sound data, facts, and sound logic. Teachers who provide such opportunities for their students will commonly employ instructional strategies that use words that encourage critical thinking such as “Confirm”, “Criticize” “Demonstrate” “Question” “Analyze” and “Interpret” in order to give their students the opportunities to develop patterns of evidence based thinking.

Persistence. Persistence—defined as the ability to continue with a task and maintain attention despite setbacks, resistance, or distraction—is key to success in both entrepreneurial and new learning processes. Students today must learn how to carry on with an assigned task and keep focused, despite challenges. Strong student beliefs in the power of effort and hard work (i.e. a growth mindset) contribute greatly to students’ persistence. Two key instructional strategies that teachers might implement in order to develop persistence in their students are: 1) chunking longer assignments into smaller segments, which enables students to build on a pattern of success; and 2) providing students with choice, which increases their motivation and engagement.

Calculated Risk Taking. This phrase may almost seem like an oxymoron when combining the terms “calculated” and “risk taking”. However the ability to consider and weigh multiple options and mitigate potential negative outcomes before taking a risk is a skill that too many people learn only after a disastrous consequence. Metiri Group CEO Cheryl Lemke defines this skill as “the ability to carefully consider all the factors related to the decision being made, calculate the chances of a positive outcome and the consequences of a negative one, determine ways to reduce risks along the way, and then determine whether or not to take the risk based on this information”. Many educators today are beginning to understand that failure should be viewed as part of a powerful learning process, provided it is accompanied by timely, targeted feedback. Rather than simply labeling the student as a failure, today’s savvy educator helps students to leverage failure as a means for making corrections, noting lessons learned in the process, and then moving forward with continued learning. One of the ways in which students can come to understand the process of calculated risk taking is to carefully examine real life case studies – with both positive and negative outcomes – to recognize the circumstances under which the risk was taken and to discuss and debate the merits of the decision.

Tolerance for Ambiguity. At first glance, it may seem that this particular skill is the opposite of “Evidence-Based Thinking” as described above. The reality is that in a world that changes as rapidly as ours does today, sometimes all the evidence needed to solve a problem is not crystal clear nor readily available. It is essential that today’s students develop the skills to think through ambiguous situations and stay with the question—in a state of ambiguity—until they have the time to examine various aspects and perspectives on the issue. One way that educators can support students in dealing with ambiguity is to include in their assignments open-ended questions, where students are asked to provide multiple options for resolving a problem. This helps students to expand their thinking and dig deeper when an immediate answer is not obvious.

Formerly the executive director for education technology at Klein ISD in Texas, Ann McMullan is an education technology consultant based in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter @Ann_McMullan or LinkedIn.

Stephen Noonoo is a former editor of eSchool News. He has served as a consultant for CUE, California’s ISTE affiliate, and as managing editor of its quarterly publication, OnCUE. He has worked as a freelance writer, an education editor for SmartBrief newsletters, and as a staff editor for a well-known publication focusing on education technology.


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