The key skills today’s employers desire

Pedagogy plays a key role in ensuring that students develop important 21st-century skills.

Education stakeholders are quick to champion students’ need for “21st century skills”—but what do employers say they want students to learn? And, how should schools adapt as a result?

Shifting workplace structures have led many companies to covet a new kind of employee, said Ken Kay, CEO of EdLeader21.

In the 1950s through the 1970s, workplaces were more authoritarian, and employees were taught loyalty and obeyed management’s direction. But as workplaces have changed and “flattened,” eliminating several management positions, employers are seeking workers who are self-directed, able to solve problems, and can manage their time and productivity, Kay said.

“This issue of self-direction is absolutely essential,” he said. “The culture of education today is such that … only the most cutting-edge learning environments are really teaching and allowing kids to be self-directed. That’s a real misfire today.”

Jobs of the 21st century are fundamentally self-directed, and education—pedagogy in particular—must change in response to that, Kay said, adding: “We are going to need an educational system that encourages self-direction.”

Many high school and higher-education instructors focus on their role as content experts, but Kay said that “institutions have to be sensitive to their customers, and they need to be sensitive to employers. They need effective, entrepreneurial people.”

Some institutions are breaking the mold by forming industry partnerships that create a combination of content education and internships, he noted.

The ed-tech movement has struggled largely because it hasn’t been part of a larger movement to redefine educational outcomes, Kay said. Technology is an enabling tool, but if educators use a computer screen to replace flash cards and simply stick with a “drill and kill” pedagogy, not much changes.

“We need to redefine the outcomes for education,” Kay said. “Beyond content mastery, what else does a student need to be able to do? What capabilities do [students] need to have? Once you know the answer, it really opens up the technology side.”

Pedagogy plays a key role in ensuring that students develop important 21st-century skills.

“At the end of the day, what really matters is whether we’re going to change pedagogy,” Kay said. “The real issue is how we are teaching in classrooms, and whether each student is being taught differently [in order] to create outcomes other than just content mastery.”

And changing pedagogy requires changing school culture, he added.

“There needs to be a culture of change, of leadership change, and of teachers who begin to model these skills,” Kay said.

Many people ask how they know if they are in a 21st-century classroom, and Kay said such classrooms and schools feel different, because school leaders and teachers are constantly seeking new ways to improve their instruction as they emphasize student learning.

“The 21st-century classrooms are modeling the practices of the 21st-century workforce,” Kay said.

Kay said the “4Cs”—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity—in combination with self-direction and global competence are six skills that make for an in-demand employee.

“I think they’d be ready for almost any job in the 21st century,” Kay said of students who exhibit these skills.

In pursuit of the 4Cs is EdLeader21, a professional learning community (PLC) that aims to help school district leaders enhance student learning of these skills in their schools.

Education leaders can follow seven steps in pursuit of that goal, Kay said:

  1. Adopt a vision of 21st-century outcomes and lead the implementation of this vision.
  2. Create a community consensus around this vision.
  3. Align the system’s efforts in pursuit of this vision.
  4. Build the professional capacity of teachers and school leaders to support this vision.
  5. Embed the 4Cs into curriculum and assessment.
  6. Support teachers in the classroom.
  7. Improve and innovate.

EdLeader21 offers resources to help with 21st-century skills implementation in schools, including a blog, monthly columns by education leaders, self-assessment tools, and professional development webinars.

What’s more, EdLeader21 consultants meet with school districts to fine-tune a strategy that will help each district meet its individual challenges as it aims to focus on 21st-century learning.

In 2009, a Center for Public Education (CPE) report defined a 21st-century education and what skills are needed in a changing workplace.

Changes that will require students to gain valuable life skills include…

  • Less hierarchy and supervision: Fewer supervisors now oversee more people, owing to companies eliminating unnecessary management positions.
  • More autonomy and responsibility: Work hierarchies are changing, and employees are expected to take a bigger lead in managing their own work.
  • More collaboration: Teams of people work together on different projects and initiatives, both locally and globally.
  • Less predictability and stability: Employees have to adapt to new and changing demands, and 21st-century skills can aid them as they apply their knowledge to solving problems.

“In a lot of ways, the education that kids need in the 21st century is the same that our top students were getting in the 20th century,” said Patte Barth, CPE’s director. “Content still matters; content is still core to whatever it is we do.”

But what receives more scrutiny now, Barth said, is a set of skills that demonstrate students’ ability to think critically, write persuasively, and collaborate—“all of those things that we know are important in this century.”

Those skills were developed by proxy in the past, but now educators and policy makers know they are essential.

“We need to make them explicit and make sure all students develop them,” Barth said. “Technology has a key role to play, but it’s not about learning [how to use] technology—it’s about using technology to help develop these skills, and deliver content in exciting ways. Our challenge is to teach high-level content and high-level skills to all students; we’re likely not going to be able to do that unless we’re able to marshal the power of technology.”

Many of the skills students need are the same whether students enroll in a four-year college or university, attend a community college, or enter an apprenticeship or technical program, Barth said.

For instance, Barth said, math skills are necessary for students who want to major in humanities and also for students who want to learn auto mechanics and earn a technical certificate.

“Businesses are looking for the ability to collaborate, communicate well, and think critically and creatively,” Barth said. “But they also want you to show up on time, understand hard work and how the workplace operates. They still want those abilities.”


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