The Relevance of 21st Century Skills: Incorporating Relevant Knowledge and Skills into Curriculum Content

Sheryll Smith

Ontario Tech University


Incorporating 21st-century skills into the curriculum effectively has been an ongoing conversation for over two decades. World education organizations, countries, and local school boards have been attempting to define and implement curriculum change to ensure these essential skills are taught, and learner-centered approaches are employed to develop learners’ life and work skills relevant to the changing technological world. This paper explores why 21st-century skills are needed and the importance of incorporating them into the curriculum. It also explores the 21st Century skills and the three main skill categories, cognitive, digital, and interpersonal skills, while tackling the how and ethical concerns with the use of technology and the importance of putting these skills into practice.


21st-Century skills, Curriculum, Information Communication Technology,

The Importance of 21st-Century Skills in the Curriculum

Teaching and learning in the 21st Century requires a new and innovative approach to sharing knowledge since students in modern classrooms, virtual and otherwise, require a different skill set for life and work. Whereas 20th-century teaching required a skillset emphasizing a subject-based curriculum embodied in textbooks, the 21st-century approach requires a transformative, action-oriented pedagogy (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020). As educational systems worldwide strive to keep up with the changing times and prepare students to meet the demands of the modern workforce, academia, and educators have recognized the importance of incorporating 21st-century skills into the curriculum (van de Oudeweetering & Voogt, 2018). This includes the ability to think critically, collaborate effectively, and use technology strategically. This chapter will provide an overview of 21st Century skills, explain why they are important, and discuss how they can be integrated into a curriculum to ensure that students are well-rounded and prepared to tackle the rapidly changing world of work (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020; van de Oudeweetering & Voogt, 2018; Farisi, 2016).

The way the world works is constantly changing. There are constant disruptors to the way things have worked for decades. Preparing learners for a constantly evolving world must be the focus for education leaders, educators, curriculum designers, and school boards. All levels of the educational administrative process must be involved in formulating pedagogical methodologies that prepare and equip learners for the real world of work and tackle real-life issues. González-Salamanca et al. (2020) posit that 21st-century skills and competencies are the cornerstones of preparing current and future citizens to address the demands of a new, technologically erupting world. The skills needed to compete, thrive, and succeed in this new world are what are referred to as 21st-century skills.

What Are 21st-Century Skills?

21st-century skills can be broadly defined as the skills and competencies that students need to possess to succeed in the current and rapidly changing world. These skills are often grouped into three main categories: cognitive skills, digital skills, and interpersonal or “soft” skills (van de Oudeweetering & Voogt, 2018). Cognitive skills refer to the mental abilities to think critically and solve problems. Digital skills pertain to technology literacy and how to properly utilize it. Interpersonal or “soft” skills refer to the collaborative, communication, and presentation skills necessary to work with others. These have been encapsulated in the 4 C’s critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. These, coupled with Information Communication Technology, [ICT] are essential skills that must be incorporated into the curriculum (Celume & Maoulida, 2022). Incorporating these skills into the curriculum will help students in the future workforce and will develop their capabilities as global citizens where they have knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes that help them collaborate for sustainable development (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020).

Information Communication Technology (ICT) is fundamental to any 21st-century skill-building framework. With technology such an integral part of work and people’s everyday lives, incorporating it into the learning process is essential. In the modern classroom, teachers are connecting with digital natives (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020). These learners were born with technology and have been using technology since infancy. They’re comfortable and familiar with technological devices and tools and have been using devices all along. Some teachers, on the other hand, must learn the uses of technologies and are sometimes uncomfortable with their extensive use in the classroom (van de Oudeweetering & Voogt, 2018).

Why Are 21st-Century Skills Important?

These skillsets equip students with the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes necessary to prepare them for the global economy of the future. 21st-century skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, communication, media literacy, information literacy, self-direction, and technology literacy (Prensky, 2010). These skills help students to identify and embrace opportunities that shape their lives, prepare them for success in the workforce, and enable them to contribute as active members in an increasingly interdependent, knowledge-based, global community (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020).

Exploring how best to incorporate 21st-century skills in the curriculum has been an ongoing process in many educational organizations worldwide. Many countries have been keenly endeavoring to devise ways of incorporating these skills into the curriculum over the past decade or more. There are various considerations to accomplish this. The understanding that learning is not limited to traditional subjects but extends to more global awareness of your surroundings, environment, and the enhancement of the world changes the objectives and methods of the 21st-century curriculum. The new curriculum must promote autonomous thinking, participation, and collaboration, experiential, transformative pedagogical approaches
that link their formal education with their experiences (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020). Real-world problems and global conversations interest students, and they want to impact their communities and the world with ideas and innovation that can disrupt the status quo (Prensky, 2010).

Incorporating 21st-century skills into the curriculum has been an ongoing endeavor in many worldwide educational organizations and many social and Human Services organizations and educational systems around the world. Many countries have conducted studies and have proposed various ways these skills can be used in the classroom. There is a myriad of recommendations, but even before those recommendations come to fruition, there must first be concrete definitions of what are 21st-century skills. There is still the vacillation of which skills are to be considered as part of the 21st-century skillset and which skills are to be subsets of a larger group, the competencies and aptitudes needed to successfully incorporate this into curricula and who is needed for this to be a successful venture (Celume, & Maoulida).

How Will it Work?

The implementation of 21st-century skills in the curriculum will be successful when the skills are defined and when the practitioners recognize the importance and relevance of the skillset. This has been a continuing conversation, but action is required with curriculum redesign. Designing a learner-centered model for the classroom is at the heart of successful 21st-century skill curriculum upgrades, putting the student in the position to take ownership of their learning and encourage depth of understanding (Donovan et al., 2002).

The skills essential for 21st-century learners have various categorizations, which boil down to producing a student that can navigate various problems with innovative and creative approaches while collaborating with peers (inside and outside their classroom space) with the use of technology (Celume & Maoulida, 2022). Modern students should not be confined to textbooks but should be allowed the autonomy to devise their learning path and create the learning journey that best suits them. The teacher is needed in this learning environment to guide and scaffold learning and provide direction to the learners for the outcomes needed (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020). In the classroom, giving students real-world problems and projects has proven to be instrumental in engaging modern learners. With the technology available, teachers can involve learners in problem-solving and inquiry-based learning and engage learners with the relevance of the material being taught (Donovan et al., 2002).

One school of thought states that 21st-century skills are difficult to teach. However, these can be taught individually or incorporated into subject areas. They must be learned through action-based activities, personal experience, or reflection. Though incorporating these teachings into a curriculum or into a traditional classroom is difficult, it is possible. There are many ways to incorporate 21st-century skills through interactive activities, experiential learning, transformative approaches, and by incorporating students’ voices in the classroom (Prensky, 2010). Some problems incorporating 21st-century skillsets into the classroom stem from teachers’ discomfort with 21st-century methods and ICT. Though, as mentioned, many of our students are digital natives, some teachers are not and are uncomfortable with extensive or even minimal use of technology in the classroom. That discomfort comes to the fore when technology is to be introduced into the class (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020). An integral part of 21st-century skills and learning is that it must incorporate extensive technology use in the class. Teachers’ commitment to lifelong learning and continued professional development must now include a technological component where they commit to learning and becoming comfortable with the use of technology and implementing it in their classes (Milenkova & Lendzhova, 2021). The world of work revolves around the use of technology. As 20th-century learners express in their resumes familiarity with the Microsoft Office suite of products, learners going into the workforce in five or more years will have to be able to state their technology proficiency. If we are to incorporate a new 21st-century skills-based approach to the curriculum, then teachers must become problem solvers, change agents, and transition managers for students (Donovan et al., 2002). They will no longer dictate the students’ learning but will co-create along with learners the learning paths and journeys they will take. This will allow the students more autonomy in the classroom and will allow them to develop 21st-century skills where they work with ideas, people, or systems rather than with physical things (González-Salamanca, et al., 2020).

Incorporating 21st-Century Skills Into the Curriculum Considering Responsible Use and Ethics

Technology places an even greater emphasis on the need for students to be equipped with more than just the traditional academic skills taught in the classroom (Ranta et al., 2022). As technology has become an integral part of modern life, it is essential for teachers to understand the implications of teaching 21st-century skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective use of technology, to promote responsible use and emphasize ethical behavior. Since technology has become ubiquitous in the modern world, it is important for students to learn the skills necessary to use technology responsibly (van de Oudeweetering & Voogt, 2018). Technology can open new worlds of knowledge, collaboration, and creativity for students; however, misuse of technology can have unintended damaging consequences. For example, cyberbullying is a serious problem that can lead to emotional distress and mental health issues in students. Teaching students responsible use of technology is, therefore, a crucial part of any 21st-century skills curriculum. Responsible use of technology should include lessons about internet safety, digital citizenship, appropriate use of social media, cyberbullying prevention, and other skills necessary to maintain a safe online environment.

Moving Forward

The pace at which we see and experience change in our world is rapid. It is impossible to keep track of all the advancements, changes, and disruptions that occur in every industry every day. Preparing 21st Century learners for this world is a task assigned to the community that supports these learners, of which teachers are an integral part. 21st-century skills are an essential part of the learning experience, and it is the responsibility of the educational institution to provide a curriculum that is relevant and progressive to that we can produce the leaders of tomorrow who can confidently take on the challenges of an ever-evolving world.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2023 Copyright © by Sheryll Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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