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William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Dan Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

New Brief Explores 21st Century Skills

How do we promote a more responsive, integrated model to meet twenty-first century learning requirements?

EAST LANSING, Mich. (May 14, 2013) –"Teaching twenty-first-century skills" is a catchy slogan, but its meaning is often interpreted in two different ways. Those appealing to international economic competitiveness typically embrace common cognitive-based curriculums and testing. Those looking toward workforce skills place greater emphasis on softer skills such as problem solving, creativity, and working with others.

The eighth in a series of two- and three-page briefs summarizing current relevant findings in education policy research explores the idea of "21st Century skills." The brief explains the sometimes-conflicting values and proposals for making schools relevant to meeting the needs of the 21st Century.

William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), prepared the brief, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking – Twenty-first-Century Skills and Implications for Education. Previous sections of Research-Based Options have included: teacher evaluations, common core standards, early childhood education, choice funding, dropout strategies, effective school expenditures, and parental involvement for ELL.

To summarize the complicated debate over these skills, Dr. Mathis had this to say, "In broad brush strokes, the debate about twenty-first century skills is represented by these two perspectives; soft skills with constructivist learning versus test-based, set-piece, top-down cognate." However, he cautions, "In reality, few would embrace such a stark contrast."

Seeking to bridge the gap, Mathis reviews current research over "multiple pathways" or "linked learning," which seeks to blend the two perspectives. Linked learning is an approach that combines academic and technical learning, providing context for real-life situations.

Regarding linked learning, Mathis had this to say, "Rather than the traditional one-size-fits-all, classroom-based approach to education, a rich variety of options are open to students, including higher education, workforce internships, career academies, magnet schools, small learning groups and technical careers."

Mathis makes several recommendations for policymakers seeking to promote a more integrated model emphasizing "21st Century skills." Here are a few:

  • Accountability systems must allow for the demonstration of student proficiencies through a broad array of assessment methods (beyond test-bases systems tied to a system of test-based sanctions).
  • Work-based learning opportunities must be defined and adopted as legitimate parts of the school curriculum.
  • Cooperation between secondary and higher education must be expanded.
  • Greater flexibility in school schedules, day and year.

The recommendations also explain the importance of investing time, energy, and resources needed to expand the skills of teachers who would be teaching in a linked learning setting.

Find the brief on the Great Lakes Center website:

Twenty-first-Century Skills is part of Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, a multipart brief that takes up a number of important policy issues and identifies policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) produced this brief with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

This brief is also found on the NEPC website:

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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develop research-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.

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