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21st century skills: in 5 steps from buzzword to better soft skills development

Not too long ago, a focus on soft skills in academia was met with a serious amount of scepticism. By now however, ‘21st century skills’ has developed itself to a ubiquitous buzzword and the sense that students need more than just academic intellectual ability is growing. But how to prime them for success in this century?

21st century skills student21st century skills are the skills, knowledge and expertise students need to be succesful in the 21st century, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21). They can be broken down into four elements:

  • Content Knowledge and 21st Century Themes
  • Learning and Innovation Skills
  • Information, Media and Technology Skills
  • Life and Career Skills

The learning skills are made up of six skills which show a resemblance with the six future proof skills. Next to innovation and problem solving, there are four c’s: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. The four elements require a support system made up of another four elements which should be present in an organization to be able to develop 21st century skills. The P21 summarizes this in their rainbow framework:

Framework 21st century learning.png
Now how to make sure your university, school or organization can implement 21st century skills? We’ve identified five steps based on
Jeff Craig’s recommendations:

1. Create awareness and urgency

Few teachers or deans will dispute the fact that good grades nowadays don’t guarantee you a suitable job anymore. However, that this leads to skills being embedded into the curriculum and made indispensable for students, is a big step for some. Therefore you will have to make people aware of the changes in society during the last decades and the question whether education did develop itself to give students the skills required by that society.

2. Focus on the most critical skills

While the P21 enumerates 25 skills, other researchers go as far as listing 40. Too many to implement, at least intially. So focus on a handful of skills to start off with: which are most important and which offer immediate room for improvement when more attention is paid to them? This made Utrecht University improve interviewing skills first, for instance.

3. Implementation and design

How are skills embedded within the curriculum? They can be offered as a seperate course with its own credits, but also as part of a course where they fit best. Whichever it may be, it’s important that students’ development is continuous: weekly practice over the course of a complete semester is far more effective than a single day of intensive training, a crash course or sudden practice just before exams start. This means assessment has to be arranged in the same way: multiple measurements with relatively short intervals.

4. Facilitate development

Students develop skills faster when it’s simple and effective to practice. The earlier emphasized four c’s and learning skills largely consist of soft skills, for which mass training in a lecture hall is far from practical. It also helps significantly when every student can practice as much as he or she wants at whatever  time or place. Here are five tips to facilitate the development of communicative academic skills.

5. Evaluation and continuous improvement

While Craig is talking about ‘several years’, every sememster seems to be a more logical moment of evaluation. What’s more, why wait for months when you already notice progress is lagging after a few weeks? Find out immediately what barriers students might encounter and what could be improved to get them back up to speed.

Whether ‘21st century skills’ is just a buzzword or not, the evolution is essential, says Elena Silva, policy maker in Washington: “Teachers were long taught to cover content first and wait for children to get older before having them apply it. But now research shows that people learn best by learning content at the same time they are acquiring [and applying] new skills.”

Watch this video to see an Utrecht University professor present about their soft skills course. Or read the case study below!

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Professional communication is an art. We want to help people reach an unexpected level of competence and as a result become more comfortable, happy, effective and successful in all possible areas of professional communication. We support organisations training their employees in this. Here you'll find our insights.