Home Digital Literacy Study Shows 21st Century Skills Development Clearly Linked to Career Success

Study Shows 21st Century Skills Development Clearly Linked to Career Success


Report also indicates that many of the widely used technology and work skills needed in the work place are not being taught sufficiently in our schools.

Guest author Jon Fortenbury shares and expands on the implications of a recent study that indicates how much we are in need of improving how we educate students to succeed in today’s, and tomorrow’s, work place. I emphasized similar concerns about this issue and the growing skills gap that many studies show on the horizon for the coming decades in my recent presentation at the UB Tech 2013 conference (note that if you sign up for a UB Tech account, you can watch this and dozens of other presentations from the conference for free). Societies across the world are facing this same challenge with their work forces. While educators are talking a lot about it, action on a wide scale has yet to follow. Thankfully there are educators taking action, but they are few and far between. More on this topic in coming weeks. – KW

There's an epidemic of sorts in our current education system: We need more and better skilled graduates entering the work force.

To accommodate a fast-moving global economy and adapt to technology, we need 21st century skills, yet we're not getting them in school, according to a 2013 study by the polling firm Gallup Inc. The previous required skill set (dubbed the three R's: reading, writing and arithmetic) used to be enough to compete well in the workforce, but now we may also need four C's to succeed: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.

Gallup study results 21st century skills

These 21st century skills are more important than ever, due to the Internet making communication and information widespread, and companies responding to an array of new problems with new technology. The Gallup data may not shock you, but it certainly suggests a much-needed change in the current American education system.

The skills study

Gallup, in collaboration with the Pearson Foundation and Microsoft Partners in Learning, surveyed 1,014 people aged 18 to 35 about their exposure to seven 21st century skills during their last year of school. Those skills are: collaboration, skilled communication, knowledge construction, global awareness, technology used in learning, self-regulation and real-world problem-solving.

According to the study, respondents who reported having a relatively large exposure to these 21st century skills during their last year of school were two times more likely to mark “strongly agree” in regards to how successful and valued they are at their jobs. Even though less than two-thirds of the respondents reported exposure to real-world problem solving in their last year of school, the skill most strongly linked in the study to self-reported work quality was, indeed, real-world problem solving.

Perhaps the least surprising but most disappointing statistic from this survey is that high school graduates reported having far less exposure to 21st century skills than those with more advanced degrees. Still, most of the study's respondents (59 percent) claimed to “strongly agree” or “agree” that they developed most of the 21st century skills used in their current job outside of school.

Thankfully, a majority of respondents (86 percent) used technology at some point in school but only 14 percent did so in collaboration with other students, which is in itself a 21st century skill that Gallup called essential to today's highly virtualized work environment.

Another interesting find in a separate set of questions from the study, which could have all sorts of implications, was the link the study found between exposure to 21st century skills, work success and support from teachers (encouragement of student voice and a feeling of belonging).

Numbers don't lie, but the meaning is open to interpretation.

What the data suggests

The survey seems to most strongly suggest that we've recognized these skills as necessary for success in today's workforce, yet most people aren't learning them in school.

The Gallup press release on the study states, “Developing 21st century skills in the last year of school positively correlates with future work success, but too few students have the opportunity to develop these important skills.” The National Education Association (NEA) put it more bluntly in its document “An Educator's Guide to the ‘Four C's'” by writing that America's [current] education system was “built for an economy and society that no longer exists.”

According to this study, many K-12 students aren't learning all the necessary 21st century skills in school, and college students aren't learning them very well either.

Where do we go from here?

There's no shortage of suggestions for changing the current education system in America. One of these comes from the independent company Rand Corporation.

According to an article on the Rand website, there are many lessons you can infer from research that shows how individuals learn, all of which may be useful for the 21st century teacher. Here are just a few of them:

  • Make lessons relevant. Show how a topic fits into the big picture.
  • Exploit technology to support learning.
  • Foster students' creativity.
  • Address misunderstandings directly.
  • Promote teamwork as a process and outcome.

As with any study, the numbers only report what's happened and what's happening. Plenty of schools, teachers and companies are trying to make sure that what will happen is the best possible scenario, though there seems to be no single consensus about how to make it so.

Regardless of the next step, the Gallup study at the very least points out the connection between possessing 21st century skills and work quality. Designing an education in the 21st century may be harder than anyone thinks, since many schools seem to not be teaching those skills yet, the study suggests.



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  2. A very enlightening article. I’m a high school teacher in Quito, Ecuador, and will make an effort to upgrade my technological skills to meet the challenge of educating for the 21st century.

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