22 Learning Skills for 21st Century Learners
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In This Guide…
- What are 21st century learning skills?
- Why are they so important for effective learning?
- How can parents help build learning skills in children?
- The 5 essential skill groups for all learners today
- The 22 must-have learning skills for students today
What are 21st Century Learning Skills?
Learning skills are the skills and abilities that help our children to learn effectively.
In the 21st century - the era of knowledge, disruption and distraction - effective learning needs a strong set of learning skills.
These can be grouped into 5 Essential Skill Groups, and include basic must-have learning skills:
Foundational language skills
Logic and digital literacy skills
Skills that help us engage with the world outside like collaboration, and communication
Skills that help us augment our learning, such as goal-setting and knowledge integration
Skills that help expand our learning possibilities, such as critical thinking, questioning and creative thinking
Skills that elevate our learning outcomes, such as self-directed learning and reflection.
Learning skills, like all skills, are essentially habits, developed consciously and with persistence and practice. We cannot fathom what our children will need to learn. We can only help them become better learners with a strong learning strategy: an optimal and personalized combination of learning skills, techniques, styles and mindsets, all wrapped up in a positive learning environment, especially at home.
Why Are Effective Learning Skills So Important For Children Today?
We never assume children already know WHAT is in the curriculum. We teach it, lesson by lesson.
But we do assume they automatically have the skills needed to learn those things effectively.
We say to them, “concentrate more”, “practice more”, “research more”, “think more”, “question more”.
And yet, I’m yet to see any course in school that helps a child deliberately work on any of those skills.
It’s weird, but our kids are never actually taught how to study or learn effectively.
Since all the focus is on ‘WHAT’ to learn, nobody cares to ask HOW the child plans to learn all that effectively! Some figure it out, others wing it, many fail.
What if we deliberately worked with children to build the skills they need for effective learning?
I know what you are thinking. We got through life just fine, didn’t we?*
But here’s a reality check.
It's the 21st century.
Students don't need to stuff their heads with all sorts of information anymore.
In fact, information by itself has no value.
For the first time in human history, machines are replacing human brains, not just human brawn.
In the knowledge era, it’s effective learners - people who can understand, connect and apply what they learn to create new knowledge or solutions - who will be valued above all.
Our generation may have gotten away with memorizing the curriculum. But our children will have to learn to thrive in ‘the age of disruption’, ‘the information age’, the ‘data age’, the ‘digital age’, and perhaps even the ‘Meta-verse’!
85% of the jobs they will do still haven't even been invented.
Constant change means children (and adults!) have to be in constant learning mode.
Effective Learning skills are key to do that.
* Did you know the adult self+skill improvement industry is worth $30 billion? That means, a majority of us actually start learning effective learning skills as adults! In most cases, employers pay for people to learn things like goal-setting, time management, collaboration, communications and creative thinking just to help them do their job more efficiently.
Now, imagine the advantage if your child went into the workforce having already mastered those skills!
How Can Parents Help Children Develop Strong Learning Skills?
Many skills that had been considered valuable a decade ago, are considered obsolete today and there is no doubt that many valuable skills of today will be obsolete in a few years. We are now preparing for jobs that didn’t even exist before. IndiaToday.in
First, the good news. Your child doesn't have to be a genius or coding whizkid to survive and thrive in the digital era! In fact, the people who built the internet as well as the AI technology we use today probably never even held a computer till they were in their late 20s!
What they need instead, is the learning skills to help them adapt to whatever is coming.
Now, the bad news. If your kid only knows how to memorize stuff, I’m afraid he or she will be trying to compete with robots. No one is going to pay them to do what a computer or robot can do faster or cheaper, and in most cases, better.
Mom and dad - ask yourself. If your child was given an entirely new curriculum every 6 months, how quickly would they be able to pick it up? How comfortable are they with their world getting disrupted every so often? How quickly can they adapt? The truth is, today, I hear children complain if even one question in the exam comes ‘out of syllabus’!
So, what is the parents role in effective learning? This is new, because for too long, we have been depending on others to sort out our children's education. Teachers, schools, tutors, policy makers, even social media! It's time for parents to realize that we are the most important factor that impacts our child's learning.
Not WHAT they learn, but their learning abilities. We can help them become better learners.
Where do you begin? Start thinking about these 5 components - observe them in your child and help them become aware of them. That’s half the battle won.
Read more: curated resources about learning skills for parents of early learners, tweens and teens.
The 5 Essential Skill Groups All 21st Century Learners Need
In the 21st century - the digital /information /intelligence /knowledge / virtual age - what learning skills do our children (and possibly even us) need, to survive and thrive? We have scoured the world of learning and distilled down what most experts say, to this list of top 22 most important learning skills, under 5 essential skill groups.
Polymath Parenting’s 5 Essential Skill Groups:
- WORK SKILLS: must-have learning skills to get stuff done
- WORLD SKILLS: learning skills to better engage and learn from with the world outside
- WITHIN SKILLS: learning skills that augment our learning process
- WONDER SKILLS: skills that help expand learning possibilities
- STRETCH SKILLS: skills that push our boundaries and elevate our learning outcomes
The 22 Most Critical Learning Skills For 21st Century Students
Within the framework of the 5 skill groups, here is a break-down of the 22 most essential skills all young learners need to build today.
LEARNING SKILLS GROUP 1: WORK SKILLS
Must have skills to get stuff done
1. Foundational Literacy
- Language literacy: Whatever your preferred language, being able to read and write is central to learning anything. Parents can supplement the school’s efforts at home by keeping their own child’s learning style in mind.
- Numerical literacy: numeracy is one of the most basic of life skills. It is also possibly one of the most detested and idolized subjects. Parents can help children learn and even love math with these simple ideas.
- Scientific literacy: basic awareness of science concepts helps us build a logical and scientific approach to any problem.
- ICT literacy: in the knowledge era, children need comfort with the tools of the times - digital equipment. They need to know not just the basics of how to operate and use devices safely and effectively, but also how to avoid distractions caused by information overload.
2. Study Skills
- Research and information management: there is a wealth of information available on anything today. Children can find themselves the best teacher regardless of location. They can access research papers as well as archived newspaper articles from 100 hundred years ago! The ability to sift through the mountains of learning resources, and be able to pick what is most relevant and contextual to their learning goals is a critical skill for any progressive learner.
- Documentation: taking notes, making outlines and summaries, and documenting what we have learned so that we can refer to it is a skill to be developed as early as possible.
- Evaluation: test taking: exams and evaluation in some form or other, are part and parcel of the formal learning system and the professional world. The sooner our children are able to learn effective exam taking techniques, the better for them. A part of this is developing our self-evaluation skills as we need to make honest assessments about meeting our own learning goals.
- Concentration: being able to focus is a critical skill for learning because it helps block out all the distractions - especially when trying to learn things we do not particularly love or have a passion for. There are various concentration techniques children can try, which also help address procrastination and avoidance in the learning process. These include focus learning, chunking and the pomodoro technique that Dr.Barbara Oakley talks about extensively.
- Active Listening: is key to learning in an age of audio and video resources, virtual classrooms, as well as good old learning in the classroom as the teacher speaks. Being able to pay attention, listen with intent, and ask the right questions is a crucial learning skill.
LEARNING SKILLS GROUP 2: WORLD SKILLS
Skills that help us engage and learn from the world outside
Learning does not happen in silos or in isolation. Cooperation, working with distributed teams - both virtually and in-person; and building and tapping into global resource networks are all important skills for the modern learner. In a world where everything is inter-connected, the human ability to collaborate and co-create will be paramount to collectively solving problems or meeting common goals.
Being able to articulate doubts, get clarifications, ask questions, give answers, and share what has been learnt all need good written and oral communication skills. In the digital age, this means - in person and virtual communication in all formats - email, audio, video and even in 140 characters on social media!
The feedback loop is essential to improving learning outcomes. A student’s ability to give, take, and act on constructive feedback is central to improving both- the learning process and the learning outcomes.
6. Asking for help
Why is this a learning skill? It’s important to be able to reach out and ask for support or expertise from the right resources.
In our culture, there is too much weight put on always being right, and asking for help or asking questions for clarity are seen as signs of dependence or confusion/ lack of clarity. Our children soon become embarassed to ask questions.
However, learners who can identify areas they need help, and ask the right resource for support and help will make far better strides with their learning, as well as add value to their networks with their questions and explorations.
7. Teaching others
This is a skill that not too many develop, but research shows that teaching to learn is one of the best ways for children to cement the concepts they are learning. Developing this skill and practicing it on younger siblings or even the parents is a super-useful learning skill.
Also read: Why kids learn best when they teach others (and how to help them do it)
LEARNING SKILLS GROUP 3: WITHIN SKILLS
Skills that augment our learning process
This skill can save a learner much time, effort and anxiety. It is also one of the most difficult to develop in life and in the learning context. Humans tend to subject themselves to various biases - especially about ourselves. In the learning process, taking responsibility and trusting oneself with self-confidence is very important to build a growth mindset.
Having objectivity and self-awareness helps us honestly assess what's working for us and what's not, in terms of learning styles and techniques, and make more realistic self-evaluations.
Perseverance, staying the course, not giving up too soon when learning something new and challenging are all hallmarks of this skill. But it has equally to do with knowing when it’s done / when to stop. There is a difference between being a perpetual or lifelong learner and someone who endlessly drags on ‘learning’ a particular subject without any stakes, deadlines, or accountability.
For example, I hate to admit it, but I have been ‘trying to learn’ French for the last 12 years, and I still do not have a cohesive learning plan, deadline to finish or any stakes in the completion of this goal at all.
In my view , this is the skill that should be taught as early as possible. Understanding that not understanding something in the first attempt, getting foxed and even frustrated by things we are trying to learn, is part of the process. Failure - not achieving our goal or a particular learning milestone - is also part of the process.
What’s important is to have the resilience to get up and keep going despite the disappointment or frustration, finding ways to stay motivated. By embracing failure, I mean learning the right lessons and taking the value out of failure rather than blaming ourselves or giving up altogether.
Emotional resilience to stress and discouragement is a core learning skill. In the same vein, it is not the parents job to always make learning fun, or to grab a student’s attention with gimmicks or ‘disney-fication’ of all the learning matter.
Resilient learners know that struggling with the messy middle of learning is part of the process, and that is the time when they should not give up.
11. Connecting and integrating knowledge
Modern learners realize that inter-disciplinary works to compound the value of knowledge. Knowledge in isolated silos can never be as powerful as knowledge that is connected and contextualized. The polymath’s approach to learning is important learning skill because it helps students connect what they know to each other and create new, atypical ideas and solutions that will not be found by just searching in one subject or discipline.
Also read: Why 21st century learners need to be 'inter-disciplinary' learners
12. Goal setting, planning, organizing, prioritizing
These are all key learning skills because they let the child take control of their own learning process, own it, and take more responsibility for the results. They feel more engaged when they feel they have a say in their process and schedules.
Goal setting for learning objectives is a skill that needs conscious practice. We tend to assume anyone can set goals, but poorly set goals are also often the cause of disappointment as they may be unrealistic, misaligned or not supported by an execution strategy.
Before starting any learning activity, ask your child to take a moment and think about their goals for the effort by visualizing the outcome they want and thinking about how they will use what they have learnt, and how it is connected to things they already know.
This puts their mind in a more active engagement zone with the learning effort.
LEARNING SKILLS GROUP 4: WONDER SKILLS
Skills that expand our learning horizons
13. Critical thinking
This is a key learning skill that enables problem-solving. It’s not the same as being critical or just gathering information.
Critical thinking is about being able to ask the right questions, sift through and pick the right information from diverse perspectives and opinions, connect the dots between various chunks of data and information, use reason and rationale to arrive at a well-considered, objective argument or analysis.
Asking questions like ‘What if’; ‘How Come”, “ Why Not” as children learn a particular subject helps them come to a deeper understanding of the subject.
Read more: get this handy PDF of the 6 types of Socratic questions here!
14. Creative thinking
If critical thinking is the yin, then creative thinking is the yang of our problem-solving process, which is central to learning. Specifically, this involves developing our diffuse mode thinking capacities, non-linear thinking capacities and what I call ‘free-range’ thinking skills. There are many creative thinking techniques available to develop this skill, that parents can try with children.
15. Curiosity and imagination
Not everyone would term curiosity a skill - it’s often seen as a character trait. But it is intrinsic to learning. Being curious is the desire to know things, find out more about the things that interest us.
Just like when we read an article, and we click on one link after another to learn more on the subject; following our curiosity takes us to new places, helps us peel back the layers until we get to the heart of learning the subject.
So in my view, its a deep learning skill. However, in our age of distraction, it needs to be coupled with strong information management skills - knowing how to pick resources and being mindful about how we research - or else we risk getting sucked into a rabbit hole of information.
LEARNING SKILLS GROUP 5: STRETCH SKILLS
Skills that elevate our learning outcomes
Being resourceful is a skill that helps elevate our possibilities. It is all about opening several windows and finding the resources we need in diverse, unexpected places. It is about being almost entrepreneurial in our learning journey, finding what we need, overcoming constraints and taking the initiative to be proactive when we come up against walls.
To practice this skill, introduce constraints to your learning. For example, if you are learning to cook, try doing it without any recipes, or without any two key ingredients. If you want to learn art, force yourself to work one day without any video tutorials but just from your imagination or using a medium you do not prefer.
If it’s math you are practicing, force yourself to work one day a week without a calculator. Trust me, when faced with constraints, you will find inventive and creative ways to get around it! Just don’t give up!
17. Flexibility and Adaptability
Again these seem like generic life skills, but look at it from the perspective of learning. Anything can change at any time, including exam dates, teachers, even schools. We live in disruptive times, and as we found out with the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020-21, learners of all ages had to learn to play in a world where the goalposts had shifted overnight.
To practice flex and adaptability, children could try mixing up their learning routines and find new and disruptive environments to learn in. For example, if you are used to learning with music playing, try doing it in silence one day a week. If you usually study alone, try and occasionally work with a bunch of kids, and if you are typically an auditory learner, try to learn by doing at least some of the time.
This flexibility will not only help adjust in sudden and disruptive environments, but also help develop more than one learning style.
Read more: curated resources on learning styles, for parents of early learners, tweens and teens.
18. Polymath Thinking and Learning Approach
Polymaths are people with multiple skills and interests, able to connect and draw on diverse subjects to solve problems. Polymaths are able to leverage their multiple intelligences to learn diverse things, ask the right questions, connect the dots across subjects and form informed opinions based on broader information, and finally, apply their knowledge to solve problems or make progress in a particular field of study.
Polymath thinking skills are critical in a time when disruption and change are the norm. By learning like a polymath, we develop our ability to connect dots across diverse fields to come up with new perspectives and paradigms. This is the only way to innovate.
And the future belongs to innovative thinkers and problem solvers, not to people who know science or math theories by heart.
Our modern approach to education teaches us to focus on the answers, and so we are all too quick to find answers, show we are right and even jump to conclusions. But the ancient skill of observation is something that sets real achievers apart.
Observation skills help elevate our learning outcomes because we take the time to truly understand phenomena instead of assuming and jumping to conclusions. All babies and scientists will tell you observation is the key to a real understanding of anything.
In my view, reflection is one of the key stretch learning skills simply because it helps us make the most of our experiences in the learning context. When we sit down to reflect on a particular experience, we are able to make meaning of it, and by ascribing meaning and placing something in context, we can use and reuse it in diverse ways.
No matter which reflection technique you choose as an individual or a family, being able to ask yourself questions about an experience, such as ‘what I enjoyed, what went well, what didn't go well, what was challenging’ etc. helps us process the experience, and elevate the learning by improving it.
Read more: Types and Stages of Reflection for Effective Learning
21. Self-directed Learning:
In real life (as opposed to life in school between 0 and 18 when someone constantly looks after our needs), no teacher or parent or curriculum is available to prod us along our learning path. It is in fact super easy to simply stop learning anything consciously after one starts working.
Of course some level of learning is always happening based on daily experiences, but I am referring to a higher order thinking and learning where we consciously set out to further our knowledge or skills in a particular subject.
Even when it comes to schools, we have no idea what the future of education may look like. Teachers are becoming more scarce and the availability of high quality digital learning resources is becoming more abundant.
It's a matter of time before students will be expected to take more control of their learning journey even at a school level, working alongside intelligent systems that guide and grade their learning journey.
Self-learning skills help us take ownership to drive our own learning journey, and when we have stakes in something, we are bound to do it more efficiently and effectively.
22. Physical Fitness
Again, you may question why I’m including this in learning skills! But research has proven that sleep, exercise and the food you put in your body have a huge impact on your ability to learn things effectively. This is a biological need, but practicing our physical well-being consciously is a skill that will help us develop and elevate our learning outcomes.
When we became aware of effective learning and started digging deeper, we decided - as a family - not to confuse curriculum with learning. Instead, we focus on how to learn (anything) better.
With our always WIP effective learning strategy, we focus on building learning skills, mastering learning techniques, and identifying our preferred learning styles. We work on developing our multiple intelligences and learning like polymaths to harness the magic of compound knowledge.
To learn more about our journey, and get monthly insights about how kids learn, sign up to my newsletter!
- These are all equally important skills in their own way, but I’ve tried to organize them in a framework to make it easy to absorb as one whole. My framework is inspired by Dr.Laura Jan’s QI SKILLS framework as well as my own elements to make it as comprehensive as possible. Download a handy infographic of my EFFECTIVE LEARNING SKILLS FRAMEWORK here
- You may feel several of these are general life skills, and you are right! Learning is life and life is learning - but more importantly, do not confuse ‘learning skills’ with ‘studying skills’ - look at the list of learning skills below from the lens of ‘my child’s ability to learn new things will be enhanced if they were to consciously develop some or many of these skills’.
- Remember: learning anything is a process -including learning these learning skills! They won’t come overnight- as a parent, pick one or two and work on them consciously with your child (and with yourself too!). Don’t expect perfection from day one but as you consistently stick with aa skill, you will see it getting stronger over time. Spend time to observe how your child internalizes the skills with various learning activities throughout the day - not just with the studies or text books!
Parting words? Work with your child, not on your child.
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