7 Skills Students Will Always Need: Future-Proofing School

From critical thinking and collaboration to adaptability, influence, and imagination, here are 7 skills students will always need.

7 Skills Students Will Always Need

contributed by Jennifer Rita Nichols

Ed note: This post has been updated from a 2013 post.

As educators, we constantly strive to prepare our students for the ‘real world’ that exists around them. We teach them how to read, write, and calculate. Then, of course, there are the less tangible skills we teach; such as how to work in a team, think critically, and be curious about the things they encounter each day.

We want to prepare them to lead productive and successful lives once they leave us and enter into the realm of adulthood. But what lies ahead for our students in the future? Did educators of twenty years ago know that so much of our world would be based on computers and technology now? Could they have known what skills would be needed in the job market today? Unlikely, but yet they had to do their best to prepare their students for this world anyhow. Nowadays, educators are still charged with the same complicated task – preparing students for the unknown.

Tony Wagner of Harvard University worked to uncover the 7 survival skills required for the 21st century. To accomplish this, hundreds of CEOs in business, non-profits and educational institutions were interviewed. A list of seven skills that people will need to survive and thrive in the 21st century was compiled from their answers.

We may not know exactly what lies ahead for our students in the future, but we have the advantage of knowing what skills they will need once they get there. Here are the 7 survival skills of the 21st century, along with how they may look being purposefully applied in a classroom.

7 Skills Students Will Always Need

Skills #1: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Preparation: Students will need to develop their skills at seeing problems from different angles and formulating their own solutions. Regardless of the field they choose to enter for their careers, the ability to think and act quickly is an indispensable tool for the future. To practice this, teachers should present students with situations in which they need to figure things out for themselves – where skills that they have already developed can be drawn upon and applied to help them figure out a problem.

The problem should ideally lend itself to multiple solutions, as we do not want to teach students that there is only one answer available, but instead that problem-solving can be a creative and personal experience. Situational problems in mathematics provide a good example of these skills at work.

Skill #2: Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence

Preparation: Understanding that not every person is born a natural leader.

However, the ability to lead others can definitely help a person to advance and become successful in their chosen career. Also, finding a job where you don’t need to be able to work closely and harmoniously with others can be quite a difficult task. To best prepare students in this area, more than just the typical teamwork is required. Instead of simply getting into a group and splitting the tasks with each other, students should instead be encouraged to take on different roles within their group for each task within the project.

Sometimes they can be the ‘manager’ and at other times they can be an ‘organizer’ or a ‘graphic designer’. There are many different roles that students can fill during a project with their peers that allows them to work with others in a more collaborative way than just breaking apart a project and then putting it back together in the end.

Skill #3: Agility and Adaptability

Preparation: If we look back at the last twenty years we can see how much has changed in the workplace and the world.

Our students need to be comfortable with the idea of change and be willing to adapt to the changes around them. Teachers can create a very dynamic environment within the classroom that can help to prepare students for the future. Varying the teaching strategies we use, the setup of the classroom, the ways that learning is demonstrated by students, and even the guidelines for group work or homework can help students learn to adapt.

Have students create a storyline, for example, then surprise them with a mandatory element to incorporate, or even have them switch work and complete a task based on the preparations of another. They might grumble at first, but the skills will serve them well!

Skill #4: Initiative and Entrepreneurship

Preparation: Students need to be able to take initiative and contribute to the world. We should encourage these skills within our classrooms and our communities. Our students can be incredibly creative and interested in shaping their experience in the classroom, so we can ask them for much more than a list of classroom rules and consequences.

Let them know that you are available and willing to listen to any of their ideas about improving the classroom or school. Help them organize their ideas and put them into practice – even if an idea may fail. It can be a valuable lesson about how to analyze what went wrong and consider how to improve the idea. Students should never be afraid of trying because they are afraid of failure.

Skill #5: Effective Oral and Written Communication

Preparation: Despite advances in technology, these skills never diminish in importance. Think of a boss or manager sending you an email full of grammatical errors or presenting a new business plan while speaking too low and reading the entire presentation from a sheet of paper. What would you honestly think? Consider some of the best communicators you have seen – what makes them rise above the rest? We need to teach our students how to speak confidently and clearly.

This doesn’t come naturally, but with practice; enunciation, speed, volume, gestures, and eye contact can all be taught and learned. The same skills that help in drama can help in oral communication. Take a moment one day to begin teaching a lesson in a very ineffective way and see how long it takes your students to ask what you’re doing… they should be able to tell you exactly what’s ‘wrong’ with your communication skills!

As for written communication, we need to continue to emphasize the rules while also teaching students how to use the technology available to them to help check their writing. The difference between formal and informal writing is quite important for students to learn and start applying.

Skill #6: Accessing and Analyzing Information

Preparation: Students have access to unimaginable amounts of information today. The Internet provides an incredible research tool that can be their best friend or worst enemy. Accessing information is easy, but accessing good information tends to be more complicated. Students need to be taught how to sift through the millions of web pages available on a topic and find what they need (and be able to trust what they find). They need to learn the difference between factual information and factual-sounding opinions.

Many students today will check ‘answer’ websites to gather information, not really thinking about how the information was written by a person who may or may not be correct or truly knowledgeable in a subject area. In the same way, a teacher can ‘think-aloud’ reading strategies, we can think-aloud Internet searching strategies. Project your screen on the board and learn about a topic with your students. Show them how to search, and how to use those ‘answer’ sites without being misled!

Skill #7: Curiosity and Imagination

Preparation: Our students come to us naturally curious about their world and wanting to explore it. Their imaginations are vast and untamed, creating endless amounts of practical and impractical things. Our task as educators has less to do with teaching them how to be curious and imaginative, and more to do with not taking that away from them. We need to continue to encourage them to develop these skills, as well as teach them how to apply them creatively and purposefully. Imagine the little boy who loves soldiers and robots, but dislikes princesses.

How do you react when he shows you his freshly-drawn picture of a soldier using a robot-inspired weapon to destroy a princess? Do you celebrate his creativity in the same way you celebrate the world-saving-robot drawn by the student next to him? Is his picture hung on the wall?

We don’t all like and appreciate the same things, so an educator must be very careful about how they nurture and develop their students’ creativity and imagination. We can teach them which things are appropriate in which situations without making them feel like their ideas are wrong or bad.

Image attribution flickr user gustavodevito and flickeringbrad; How To Prepare Students For 21st Century Survival