What is 21st century learning? Preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce


America’s workforce is rapidly changing. Technology has evolved significantly in the last two decades, and it’s had a direct impact on the types of skills organizations across industries are looking for in job candidates. It’s no surprise that this is affecting the way our schools approach teaching.

The purpose of education has always been to help prepare students to become active members of society who make positive contributions to their surrounding communities. While this remains true, leading researchers and national organizations have begun to explore necessary changes.

The National Education Association (NEA) suggests that our education system was built for an economy and a society that no longer exist. Mastering reading, writing and arithmetic alone would be insufficient.


If today’s students want to achieve their goals, they must learn to become proficient communicators, innovative creators, sharp critical thinkers and multifaceted collaborators.

If you hope to continually guide your students toward success in tomorrow’s workforce, it’s crucial to emphasize 21st century learning. Join us as we dissect the constructs of this evolving education framework.

What is 21st century learning? Aligning today’s education with the economy

21st century learning focuses on enabling students to succeed in the workforce as it evolves to both create and eliminate jobs. While core academic subjects remain important, life skills, global awareness and economic and civil literacy are finding their place in today’s curricula.

Technological literacy is also essential. The NEA notes that today’s workforce is seeing a rapid decline in “routine” work. Instead, roles that involve analytical and interactive communication skills are rapidly increasing.

Harvard researchers Fernando Reimers and Connie K. Chung suggest that education should include a nuanced understanding of numerous global competencies. In addition to rounding out young learners’ knowledge of world cultures and international communication, schools must also teach them the skills to use what they learn as active and engaged citizens. Reimers and Chung suggest breaking these down into three types of competencies:

Cognitive competencies

One of the most important cognitive competencies, the researchers note, is digital literacy. More specifically, students need to be able to determine the validity of the digital content they encounter. Students should also be able to do the following:

  • Communicate effectively
  • Listen actively
  • Think critically
  • Reason logically
  • Interpret clearly

Interpersonal Competencies

Empathy is a cornerstone 21st century competency, as it allows students to consider the true complexity of issues. To achieve tolerance and respect for others, 21st century learners need to master the following skills:

  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Leadership
  • Responsibility
  • Assertive communication
  • Social influence

Intrapersonal competencies

The world is far less predictable than it used to be. The ability to remain flexible and adaptable to change will be more important than ever for the next generation of working professionals. To help students become comfortable taking initiative, persevering and remaining innovative, 21st century educators should work to nurture the following traits:

  • Ethical orientation
  • Self-regulation
  • Intellectual openness

21st century skills all students should master

In an effort to prepare 21st century students for a global society, experts at the NEA have defined four specific skills that are among the most important elements in this new recipe for success. Known as the “Four Cs,” these skills are defined as follows:

Critical thinking and problem solving

Arming students with strong critical thinking skills can help prepare them for success in higher education and the workforce alike. Critical thinking includes the ability to reason effectively, use systems thinking, make judgments and decisions, and solve problems. Becoming adept at critical thinking can be crucial in helping students develop other important skills like increased concentration, deepened analytical abilities and improved thought processing.

In our progressively automated society, the jobs that are least likely to become obsolete are the ones that require expert thinking and complex communication. Robust critical thinking abilities enable professionals to more effectively serve customers, develop improved products and continuously better themselves in an ever-changing global economy.


To communicate clearly, students need to learn how to articulate their thoughts in a variety of contexts. They need to listen effectively with the intent of deciphering meaning and converse well in diverse environments using multiple media and technologies. It’s important for working professionals to know how to determine which information sources are accurate, how they can be leveraged successfully and how to use culturally effective communication so that they can productively contribute to global teams.

Because complex communication often requires direct human interaction in the form of explanation or negotiation, jobs that require these skills are less likely to become automated in the future.


Being able to work effectively with diverse teams, make compromises and assume shared responsibility for work are essential for individuals to help their professional team meet their goals. The rise of technology and globalization in today’s workforce has made these skills especially necessary.

Effective collaboration can even lead to more intelligent decisions than any singular thinker might produce. Collaboration has been found to increase an organization’s flexibility and profitability, resulting in more engaged and productive teams.


The NEA suggests that if students leave school without learning to create and innovate, they will be underprepared for the challenges they’ll one day face in their professional lives. With this in mind, all 21st Century learners should receive an education that features exploration, problems and a tolerance — even encouragement — of productive mistakes.

Innovation and creativity are also skills that can help professionals preserve their value amidst an increase in global competition and task automation.

Prepare your students for 21st century success

As you review the competencies and skills that will be required of today’s up-and-coming professionals, you’re likely wondering, “What is 21st century learning going to look like in my classroom?” It can be intimidating trying to determine how to incorporate these elements into age-appropriate lessons for your students.

Thankfully, it’s not just the education of our nation’s young people that’s transforming in the face of the evolving workforce. Graduate and certificate programs for educators like you are also being catered to meet these new needs. Consider the following options offered at University of Massachusetts Global:

Be sure to also mark your calendar for UMass Global’s upcoming webinar, “21st century competencies: Empowering students using the four Cs” where you can examine the core competencies of a 21st century education in greater depth.



Become a Student

Have questions about enrollment, degree programs, financial aid, or next steps?

Further your education with a few questions

Student Type
Please enter your zip code to proceed.
Please enter a valid zip code to proceed.
Please select a degree type
Please select your area of interest
Please select a program type
Please select a session
Please enter your name
Please enter your last name
Please enter your email to proceed
Please enter a valid email address
Please enter your phone number to proceed.
Please enter a valid phone number.

About UMass Global

Earn your bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or certificate at UMass Global, a regionally accredited university.

We value your privacy

By submitting this form, I agree that UMass Global and/or Kaplan North America, LLC may contact me about educational services by voice, pre-recorded message and/or text message using automated technology, at the phone number provided, including wireless numbers. I understand that my consent is not required to attend University of Massachusetts Global. Privacy Policy