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Essential Skills Children Need in the 21st Century

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Foundational skills of the 21st century encompass soft skills: adaptability, flexibility, collaboration, and curiosity. That's not to say that hard or academic, technical skills are not essential. Still, in a world where technology is changing rapidly, where companies and individuals are interconnected and collaborating at a global level, and information is immediately available, these skills are and will be critical in appropriately preparing our kids for the future. We need thinkers who welcome a challenge, enjoy solving complex, wicked problems, aren't scared of taking calculated risks, speak up or question the status quo, and can adapt to the rate of change and relentlessness of our evolving world (Levine, Ready Or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World). The more unpredictable our world becomes, the riskier our decisions will feel- and those who thrive will be the ones who aren't scared of taking educated risks.

In our developing world, technology is advancing and changing at an alarming rate. So, we don't know what is to come and where we are going. The World Economic Forum estimates that a shocking 65% of our students will land a job that doesn't exist today! At the rate we are going, our children need to be equipped to handle unpredictable situations and have the emotional intelligence to not act on instinct but rather reason, take calculated risks and problem-solve to take appropriate actions.

How do we cultivate these skills? When we focus on an outcome or define success by a metric, we crowd out the opportunity for children to take risks, problem-solve, and think flexibly. Since they're too hyper-focused on the outcome and finding the correct answers, they are scared to fail. Their curiosity and flexibility are obliterated; however, when we are attuned to their interests and let them be, they become intrigued and intrinsically motivated to find answers to their problems. We need to support and nourish whatever they're passionate and interested in and focus less on a metric of success to cultivate what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined a "state of flow."

In essence, a state of flow is a mental state in which humans become fully immersed in one activity and use their skills at the utmost to extend themselves to their peak performance- this is when learning is fun. Experiencing flow promotes curiosity, creativity, flexibility, risk-taking, perseverance, and self-regulation. When curiosity is triggered, answers lead to more exploration, which leads to the production of meaningful work. In the process, students learn how to absorb information, take into account multiple perspectives, adjust their existing beliefs, and learn to take risks while considering consequences and possible solutions. Critical thinking skills are curated since they deeply analyze information, evaluate their course of action and research, and justify their thinking. It is here when children learn to be okay with ambiguity and can palate failure because they know failure will bestow them with new information to rethink and redesign their plan. As they work through their problems and make progress, they develop an enthusiasm for challenges, develop a lifelong love of learning, and cultivate resilience.

Here are some examples that induce a state of flow for students:

  • Genius Hour Projects

  • Make the work or learning meaningful to them

  • Allow students to set their own clear goals that match their interests and abilities

  • Let students choose their own extracurricular and sports

  • Permit them to lose track of time in their hobbies: reading, sports, music, gaming, dancing, photography, etc.

For better or worse, the environment in which our children grow up in matters and sculpts who they become. They learn by observing us; therefore, let's model curiosity, critical thinking, exploration, and resilience. Let's show them that it's okay not to have all the answers and be brave enough to live with uncertainty. Our job is to cultivate the mental strategies that our children will need to thrive in this fast-paced and expanding world.

Levine, Madeline. Ready Or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. HarperCollins Publishers, 2020.


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