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A better name than 21st Century Skills?

Nathan Mielke on his Be of Use blog echoes a complaint I've long had:

...I am soooooooo sick of hearing about 21st Century Learning, 21st Century Skills, 21st Century ad nauseam. Isn't there a better way to phrase this for everyday conversation? Perhaps we need to stick with this so everyone hears consistent jargon, but I don't think people overall have the right idea of what it means. I would imagine if we polled our staff or parents they would say its technology or computer skills. That couldn't be further from the truth. If I say higher order thinking skills I think that's pretty clear (at least to me) of what that means. I worry 21st Century means the Jetsons or Star Trek to all too many people.

He goes on to suggest Tony Wagner's term survival skills. Hmmmm, I was sort of hoping my school's grads would not just survive, but thrive. Thrival skills? Way too cute.

A dozen years ago, I used the term "Knowledge Worker Skills" and attempted to describe them. (This was shortly after being terrified by Friedman's book The World is Flat. While "knowledge worker skills" has more of a vocational ring to it than I'd like (these should be whole life - not just work - skills), it's more descriptive than "21st Century Skills."

Johnson’s Hierarchy of “Knowledge Worker Skills”

So what's the best term to use for this set of skills that are now important for everyone to master if they are to be employed and employable in a post-industrial economy? Where problem-solving, creativity, and initiative are the new "basic" skills? 

Or will 21st Century Sklils be with us until, oh, 2200? 

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Reader Comments (9)

I totally agree Doug;

We are into the 12th year of this century and we are still talking about moving towards 21st century teaching and learning. I don't really have a better term but I do like higher order thinking skills. WE have to move forward rather than just talking about it. Thanks so much for the post hopefully we are still around 2200 to find out. . .

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJody Watson

I use the term 'critical literacies.'

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Downes

This is hilarious... we had a district leadership meeting just this morning in which one of our principals became disgusted with the term "21st Century Skills" (as if we were pretending some sort of futurism) and suggested we simply call it "skills for living a modern life." With 84% of all American jobs requiring mature computer literacy, we need to stop pretending it's anything other than a fundamental core skill.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Hi Jody,

How about higher orderer thinking and DOING skills? Just thinking doesn't seem to be enough!



I like it.


Hi Bill,

Yeah, we focus so much on workplace skills that we tend to forget (or ignore) just how many skills are needed to just live in modern society. I wonder if operating the TV/DVD/etc remote needs to be included in that skills list?


May 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

So agree...been using the term 'life skills' for awhile now.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Scott

Is the obvious one, too obvious - Learner Skills?

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Janowski

Totally agree - at the RSA in the UK, we have been working on a model called Opening Minds for the last decade. We describe these skills as "Competencies". And importantly, we see these competencies as key to a great childhood, not just a thriving adult life. You can find out more at, and we are up for international collaborations!

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Hallgarten

Hi Melissa,

My only problem with "life skills" is that has a connotation of a course for special education kids. Not that we don't all need life skills, but the term, I'm thinking, has too much history.

I appreciate the comment,


Hi Karen,

That's a possibility. Thanks for the suggestion.


Hi Joe,

I appreciate the link.

Skills for a happy childhood as well? What a concept. I am concerned that we've simply turned all education into one big vocational training school rather than creating thinkers, creatives and dreamers. They seem to both happier and more successful in the long-term.


May 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Yeah ain't their no precise word other than "Life Skills".
But i think the "Survival Skill" seem a bit precise.However their will still be a misconception about too.
People may think it's all about money, some how to survive in a desert or something totally off.

July 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjumbo fortune

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