Preparing Students for THEIR Futures: 21st Century Skills and the Common Core


Teaching21stCenturySkills-Cover-BeersBy Sue Z. Beers, ASCD author of Teaching 21st Century Skills: An ASCD Action Tool

Two of my grandchildren visited this weekend. Their 2- and 4-year-old antics are the source of great joy and wonder for me.  And I wonder as well: How prepared will they be to enter a career and adult life that we cannot even imagine at this time? How will what they are learning right now contribute to their future success in life? How does education need to change to ensure that they are prepared to meet the challenges of a future that is mostly unknown?

The development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) was a vital first step in the process of defining the skills that will lead to future success in college and careers. Combine the common core standards with 21st century skills, and a powerful formula for teaching and learning is created.  By adding the four Cs of 21st century skills—communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity—to the design and implementation of the CCSS, students practice valuable skills that will be needed to continue to learn throughout their lives.

Putting this formula into action means that core content skills are grounded in and learned through the literacy CCSS standards and the 21st century skills. This enables students to become not just consumers of academic content, but creators and users of what they are learning. So what does this look like in practice? A classroom that is preparing students for their future

–  Applies content to real-world applications that call for students to solve problems, think creatively, and work with others to develop solutions.

–  Leads students to a deep understanding of the content through a carefully crafted set of questions that demand answers that are based on evidence from text.

–  Engages students in collaborative groups to conduct investigations, discuss and share learnings, and create products that demonstrate what was learned.

– Asks students to think metacognitively about what they have learned and the process they used to learn it.

–  Uses technology as a tool for learning and for connecting students globally to develop deep understanding of key ideas and concepts.

–  Requires students to wrestle with complex problems that engage them in higher-order thinking skills.

–  Gives students the license and the responsibility to craft their own learning paths and direct their own learning.

–  Helps students make sense of their world by connecting what they learn with what they know, with other content areas, and with other ideas.

–  Focuses instruction away from “knowing” to being able to use and apply information in relevant ways.

The key to effective implementation of both the CCSS and 21st century skills is active, interesting tasks. Students need to wrestle with real-life problems that are engaging and relevant. Involvement in the process of solving problems builds a culture of inquiry, in which the asking and answering of one’s own questions becomes the center of instruction. Students become creative problem-solvers who use high levels of thinking as they apply content knowledge in innovative ways. They are literate individuals who can read multiple types of text efficiently and who can share what they learn effectively.

This is an exciting and amazing time to be an educator. Even in the midst of titanic changes in curriculum and assessment, there has never been a time when so many have been moving in the same direction. With the advent of the CCSS and the knowledge of the skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century, we have a “perfect storm” of ideas to use in creating an educational system that will truly prepare students for THEIR future and not the world of our past.

How are you bringing the four Cs of 21st century skills to life in your classroom?

Editor’s note: Learn more about how to incorporate 21st century skills into instruction with Sue Beers’ ASCD Action Tool, Teaching 21st Century Skills: An ASCD Action Tool, available now in print. Free sample tools are available online.


  1. I’m sure, as a grandmother, you are a very nice lady. But as an educator, I’m afraid you are likely quite out of touch. As someone in the thick of it and as someone who tries to find better ways to architect learning on a daily basis, I can say with tremendous certainty that your eutopian view of the common core is extremely flawed.

    The common core will not change the bad methods which make up about 90% of what goes on in America’s schools. The common core will not help students be more creative, critical thinkers at all. The common core will not allow individualized, personalized education that helps educators be agile and mindful of learning preferences, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, indivdual passions, or local culture. Common core will create even more reliance on standardized testing and rote memorization of disparite facts with very little tie to life, context, culture, or reality.

    If you want to see the effects of common core for an entire country, look to most of the Asian countries for the past 5 decades. They have finally, in the past few years, figured out that a common core approach assessed by heavy, methodical standardized testing was a failure. They have produced fantastic test takers who are not satisfied with adult life, cannot critically think, problem solve, or create entrepreneurial opportunities. This is why China, Korea, and many other Asian countries are trying desperately to move away from the exact kind of education the USA is racing into. It’s not a coincidence that scores on “world” tests have a direct correlation to entrepreneurialism and critical thinking tests. The higher a country’s youth scores on the TIMSS or PISA test – the lower their adults score on tests of innovation. The more “educated” a population is with regard to common curriculae, the lower their numbers of small business owners (actually of any business owners), the heavier their reliance on manufacturing, which is where most of their population are employed, and the lower their satisfaction for life.

    Anecdotally, Vivek Wadhwa, president of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University, Fellow at Stanford Law School and Director of Research at Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, wrote in Business Week in response to the latest PISA rankings, “The independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce. They learn to experiment, challenge norms, and take risks. They can think for themselves, and they can innovate. This is why America remains the world leader in innovation; why Chinese and Indians invest their life savings to send their children to expensive U.S. schools when they can. India and China are changing, and as the next generations of students become like American ones, they too are beginning to innovate. So far, their education systems have held them back.”

    Common core takes much of this away. It takes No Child Left Behind to the next level of ineffectiveness. Those education systems Wadhwa describes are based largely on the notion that “common core” would fix many of their problems (in addition to more time in school and cutting back of curriculum elements – their textbooks are often 1/2 to 1/3 smaller than US textbooks – both trends that the US common core promotes).

    You want your grandchildren to be ready for the 21st century? You want them to be able to problem solve and critically think? Common core is not the answer…not even close. It doesn’t teach educators new and better methods. Common core doesn’t teach skills or creativity. Ontario, Finland, and other well respected, non-common core educational structures have realized it’s about acting differently, teaching differently, and making education far less political. Common core does zero of this. And when we look back at common core as one of the biggest educational experiements gone wrong of all time, hopefully we’ll be able to quickly move in another direction – to one where our students ARE getting what they need, when they need it.

    • “Preparing Students for THEIR Futures”. That being the case why do we pretend to know what they need for THEIR futures? Time to put this title into real use, its their future, we should be following their lead as to their interests and what they want to learn, our job is to facilitate them reaching THEIR futures, not dictate CCSS or any other adult created expectation that is guaranteed not to match up with THEIR aspirations. Want evidence? Ask any expert what the fastest growing job in 10 years will be and they will unanimously agree that job has yet to be invented! Times have changed, we can’t predict what kids will need, and after all its THEIR futures. Hey teachers, leave them kids alone….

  2. While the Common Core is a great start for education in the twenty-first century it does not completely fix the root of the problems in education. While collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking are important these four C’s do not guarantee improvement in learning in the twenty-first century. The Common Core does not fix educators as a whole, it does not fix teaching methods, or guarantee individual strides in education.

  3. I also agree that Common Core does not fix educators but places a greater focus on the processing skills of students. Previously students were required to know the answers and remember them, but now they have to tell me why they got that answer. I view Common Core as a way to build critical thinking skills in students from an educator’s point of view. As a teacher, it is vital that we know the importance of the curriculum change and not close the door and continue to teach the same methods. This will not only affect you but the students as well for they are being tested on strategies based off Common Core.

  4. I just read the stance on common core curriculum. I guess the biggest problem that I am having with the idea is that our kids are familiar with programs that teach the basics of the 3 Rs. Now, since standarized test show that there is a possibility that the students are meeting these requirements, the school system wants to move the curriculum away from the basics. My problem is that schools should always teach the basics. I was talking to a grandmother as such as yourself the other day. She was talking about the fact that she has a doctorial degree, but she has no understanding of helping her granddaughters with math based on the common core curriculum. Another problem would be how to bridge the gap between parents learning and core curriculum learning. The students cannot get help from parents. I have no problem with ourt students becoming better thinkers. I just do not like the idea of abandoning basic taught skill all together. I hope that their can be an undeniable connection between previous basic skills and common core skills.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here