Why 21st century skills still matter

Over the past 12 months, previously unimaginable challenges to Australia’s education system have exacerbated the education equity gap and highlighted the vital importance of student mental health. More than ever, these challenges have drawn attention to the necessity of equipping students with skills such as creativity, critical thinking, teamwork, and the ability to solve complex problems.


What are 21st century skills?

The idea of arming students with skills for 21st century life and work isn’t new. As the Australian Council for Educational Research point out, since the 1990s, forces such as increasing automation and work complexity, globalisation, and rapid economic and technological transformation have changed the skillset young people need to thrive.

For example, many of today’s workers must be able to solve complex, multifactorial problems to master challenging work tasks. They need good decision-making skills to manage competing demands and choose courses of action based on relevant evidence.

However, promoting the importance of 21st century skills (or general capabilities, key competencies, employability skills, and generic skills, as they’re sometimes also known), risks forcing them into an outdated siloed approach, says Andrew Barr, CEO of Australia’s Centre for Strategic Education. “The last thing schools need are departments of creativity or critical thinking,” he says. “That’s just throwing new things into an old construct.”

He adds that 21st century skills education must be grounded in high-quality research evidence, such as John Hattie’s work examining factors that influence learning success (which show quality teaching is the top determinant, highlighting another key factor in addressing the equity gap); along with that of Dr Tania Vaughan, which looks at evidence-based educational approaches, including strategies to reduce disparities between Australian schools.

Most importantly, though, 21st century skills education must be tied to the larger purpose of ensuring young people can lead fulfilling lives that encompass both work and opportunities outside of it.


Why 21st century skills matter

The importance of these skills – to individuals, employers, and wider society – cannot be overstated.

Their importance for the individual

  1. Employability and work success

As The New Work Smarts report by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) points out, by 2030, workers will spend 30% more time learning on the job, almost 100% more time at work solving problems, 41% more on critical thinking and judgment, and 17% more using verbal communication and interpersonal skills. Clearly, today’s students will require these capabilities to succeed in the new world of work.

Furthermore, they will need to run their own careers. A key change driver is the explosion of the gig economy, which a December 2020 report by Australia’s Actuaries Institute shows has grown 9-fold since 2015 and involves as many as 250,000 workers. In 2020’s The New Work Standards report, the FYA note young people are disproportionately represented in flexible and gig work. While these work arrangements present opportunities for young people, they also pose risks (such as greater financial and employment vulnerability) they must be prepared to manage.

  1. Decision-making

Faced with an extraordinary range of employment and life choices, young people must be able to make decisions. Just some of the questions they encounter include:

  • How do I decide what’s most important?
  • How can I use my time effectively?
  • How can I best use my talents to contribute?
  • How do I balance work with other things that matter?
  • How do I work with others to complete this project?

To make good decisions, young people require skills in evaluating evidence, weighting up options, drawing conclusions, appraising their choices, and making corrections accordingly.

  1. Mental health

Any discussion of 21st century skills must recognise the importance of mental and emotional health. In headspace’s 2020 National Youth Mental Health Survey, 34% of young people aged 12-25 years reported high or very high levels of distress. Results also showed young people’s wellbeing had been impacted by the pandemic, particularly among 22-25 year-olds, who showed a decline in their ability to conduct daily activities and cope with stress compared to 2018 levels.

The wellbeing of young people aged 12-14, especially young women, also appears to have been affected by the pandemic. As Andrew says, 21st century skills must include things like building kids’ confidence and sense of belonging.


Why they matter to employers

As already noted, the future workforce requires strong skills in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communication. Andrew says that, as an employer, “you don’t want to surround yourself with ‘yes’ people. You want creative energy within your team knowing that’s what’s important going forward.”

COVID-19 has also raised a whole new issue for employers – that of trust. With workplaces increasingly relying on teams to perform with minimal supervision using information and communication platforms, the importance of characteristics such as integrity, trustworthiness and self-motivation has become increasingly clear. Young people will play a vital role in developing collaborative, trust-based working cultures.

Recognising this trend, along with the importance of student agency in learning, one Victorian senior school recently sent more than 750 students on camps with no teacher supervision. Only one episode required teacher intervention.



Any discussion about 21st century skills must acknowledge, and endeavour to address, the widening education equity gap. Andrew points out that while 2020 saw many lovely reports about kids from high-achieving independent schools successfully engaging with online learning, the overall picture wasn’t so rosy.

For example, school communities lacked equivalent technology access. Andrew describes one Northern Territory school that had to send 150 Indigenous students home to remote areas with no technology access. Although they posted out packages of educational materials, at least some of them didn’t arrive or weren’t used. A similar scenario played out in locations across Australia.

Conversations around 21st century skills must therefore consider key contextual factors such as geography and culture, and how skill acquisition and measurement can be adapted accordingly.

Aside from their role in addressing the equity gap, general capabilities like creativity and problem-solving are vital to Australia’s economy and capacity to compete in the global marketplace, with some institutions recognising the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship. The University of New South Wales’s Business School, for example, evaluates the success of its program by the number of start-ups graduates establish.


What is the best way to measure and document 21st century skills?

Learning Creates Australia, an alliance of education stakeholders dedicated to solving entrenched and systemic educational challenges, emphasise we need a way to design, assess and accredit learning in a way that “better reflects the diverse knowledge sets, skills and dispositions of students. “A shift in how learning is recognised will strengthen and increase agency in young people and help them to effectively navigate and access a range of pathways beyond school that are more inclusive of the needs of students disadvantaged by the current dominant systems,” they write.

Andrew agrees that skills acquired throughout a student’s journey should be captured on a whole-person learning profile, rather than simply based on performance of a specific task at a given point in time.

Representations of a student’s skills must acknowledge their bidirectional nature. They also need to position the student at the centre, as the agent of their own learning, and acknowledge they are both a recipient and contributor of skills as part of a wider, interconnected web that includes the school, co-curricular activities and society.

In summary, 21st century skills are vital to the future success of Australian young people and society. Any efforts to develop these skills much acknowledge and address the importance of mental health and Australia’s educational equity gap.