Sharon V. Kramer

Sharon V. Kramer, PhD, an author and a consultant, is a former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. She has taught in elementary and middle schools and was a principal, director of elementary education, and professor.

So, what’s changed?


21st Century Skills require a balance of content and process. How have teaching and learning shifted to meet these demands?


James Melsa (2007) says it best, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t yet been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know we have.”

We can no longer prepare students for our past, we must prepare them for their future. But what does this mean and where should we start?

In the past schools were expected to teach students to read, write, and compute. However, the skills of the 21st century are remarkably different than ever before. Success now lies in one’s ability to create solutions to problems, collaborate with others to meet a goal, communicate effectively, and develop unique ideas that can change things for the better. In fact the top five specific skills of 21st Century learning include:
  1. Oral communication
  2. Collaboration
  3. Work ethic/self-discipline
  4. Written communication
  5. Critical thinking & problem-solving

These skills do not address specific content but instead focus on process skills. Though we are already nearly two decades into the 21st century, too many students sitting in classrooms are still learning only content, without the process skills necessary to ensure opportunities in the future.

In other words, in order for students to be prepared, they must learn habits of mind connected to process while learning content standards in each subject area. This has an effect on not only what is taught, but also how students will engage in the work or activities. So how do educators respond, especially in underperforming schools where students often have deficit skill levels? Have we incorporated these important skills in our classrooms? What would it look like?

Let’s Get Practical

Oral Communication

How much time do students spend in oral communication? More pointedly, who is doing most of the talking in classrooms? The ones doing the talking and thinking are the ones doing the learning. So how much teacher talk is present and how many opportunities are there for students to talk about their thinking? Is it a 50/50 split or 90 percent teacher talk with only 10 percent student communication?


Students who sit in rows do not have an opportunity to collaborate. Activities that do not allow for accountable talk or reciprocal teaching will not help students communicate their ideas or reasoning. How often do students have opportunities to work in pairs, triads, and small groups? How are discourse questions being used to engage these groups in meaningful discussions and exploration of important content?

Work Ethic/Self-Discipline

It is impossible to develop a work ethic and self-discipline without empowering the students—the actual ones that do the learning. Experts have referenced student engagement often in articles, books, and presentations. Though a hot topic, engagement and involvement are only the first step in the process. The real goal is to empower students to own their learning. This requires a student–teacher partnership in learning not a one-way flow of information. How are students tracking their own learning, examining their errors, setting short-term goals, self assessing, engaging in meaningful dialogue about their learning, and developing rubrics?

Written Communication

In too many instances written communication is translated into the five paragraph essay format. It is clear that learning occurs if students have multiple opportunities for repeated purposeful practice. Therefore, written communication needs to occur in a variety of formats. It could easily be an extended response question in any content area. What if all teachers agreed to include one extended response item on every formative assessment? And what if there was a simple rubric that was used school wide? How often do students write across subject areas?

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Questions posed to students that have one correct answer will not afford the opportunity for students to think critically. Is learning teacher-centered or student-centered? In a teacher-centered classroom students are shown what to do and then sent off to practice the skill or algorithm. How often are we asking students to think and solve the problem or think critically? How student-centered is instruction?

21st Century skills are primarily process skills. This is a shift in how we teach and how students learn. Have we made a shift in instructional methods? Are our classrooms more student centered? Are students partners in the learning process? Is critical thinking apparent as students learn? Is written communication a focus across content areas? What’s really changed . . . and how do you know? The future is near.



Melsa, James, (2007, September). Forces Driving Change. American Society for Engineering Education Presidents Letter. ASEE Prism, 17(1), Newsletter. Retrieved at on July 29, 2016.

Partnership for 21st Century Learning. accessed on July 23, 2016.

Kramer, S.V. & Schuhl, S. ( June 2017). School Improvement for All: A How-To Framework for Doing the Right Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press



Jaclyn Heppner

I am a teacher in lower elementary and found that the 21st century skills push has been strong in the lower grades. Sometimes the critical thinking skills seem a little to advanced for where students are at that age, but I have seen other students who were able to use these critical thinking skills to help them learn about a topic. All of the other skills are implemented into my classroom daily. I agree that it is hard to teach students for advances that we do not know what they are yet. The skills that you have recommended will help students with any advances that may come their way.

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