21st Century Skills. Finding a Job (and Being Good Global Citizens)

“I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”

So speaks Siddhartha, the protagonist of the book of the same name written by Herman Hesse, the story of which takes place in ancient India. This is the wise man’s answer when life confronts him with new challenges. In a certain sense, Siddhartha had already understood the importance of the 21st century skills, which I am going to talk about in this article.

Let us first take one step back.

A Rapidly Changing World

The world in which we live is undergoing very rapid changes. In order to keep up with them, it is therefore essential to develop competences allowing us not to be “left out”. With this phrase, I am not only referring to the job market but, more generally, to a more personal and social isolation.

The increase of NEETs  – Not (engaged in) Education, Employment or Training – is a worrying phenomenon, as only in Italy it affects 1 in 4 youngsters, according to the Italian institute of statistics. Though lower in countries like France or Germany, the rate hits double digits, an alarming number considering that we are talking about young people whose enthusiasm, creativity and joy of living have come to a standstill.


21st Century Skills

Let’s go back to the initial question. How can we define 21st century skills – also known as transferrable skills – and what are they?

Professor Tony Wagner, currently serving as an Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab, has identified seven 21st century skills:

1 critical thinking & problem solving ;

2 collaboration and leadership;

3 agility and adaptability;

4 initiative and entrepreneurialism;

5 effective oral and written communication;

6 accessing and analyzing information;

7 curiosity and imagination.

21st Century Skills

21st Century Skills


Point 7 is reminiscent of Peter Drucker’s words written in Post-Capitalist Society (1993): “In the knowledge society, people have to learn how to learn.” Wanting to learn something new gives the motivation to examine a matter in depth and re-elaborate it creatively in a continuous, lifelong process of learning and creation of new knowledge.

Why then, if transferrable skills are so crucial, are they not taught at school? There are different reasons.

School and 21st Century Skills: A Difficult Relationship

Let’s start with the more ‘technical’ ones. The mastery of 21st century skills is hard to measure. If it is easy to grade a student who knows – or doesn’t know – the year when World War One started, or the formula for calculating a surface, assessing their critical thinking or collaboration is not as immediate or easy.

New legislation would also be needed, but actual reforms in the field of education require time and patience, two factors which rarely go hand in hand with electoral slogans and promises.

There are also ‘cultural’ reasons. Shifting from an educational system based on the transmittion of sheer information from the teacher to the student to a more innovative system stimulating critical thinking and initiative brings into question a model that, in many countries around the world, has been perpetuated for generations.

Interdisciplinary Aprroach at School: CLIL

Even though school is the place where the acquisition of 21st century skills can be accelerated, it is not the only environment where they can be learnt. Team sports or playing in a band boost collaboration and leadership, individual sports enhance initiative and entrepreneurialism, even engaging in dialogue with family and friends increase effective communication and critical thinking. These all are examples of pratical experience helping to develop the skills listed above.

However, education institutions around the world have tried to implement a more interdisciplnary approach, with CLIL being is a good case in point. The concept of Content and Language Integrated Learning – CLIL – dates back to around 5000 years ago, but the idea was revitalised in the 1960s in Québec – the predominantly French-speaking region in Canada – were Anglophone parents convinced teachers to start a French language immersion programme for their children. In many European countries, CLIL has been a reality for decades, with one or more school subjects being taught in English, or in any other language different from the students’ mother tongue. As has been shown, the teaching of a discipline in a foregn language helps teachers to design new teaching strategies and pupils develop transferrable skills such as team work and collaboration.

Toward a More Conscious Global Citizenship

According to Drucker, in knowledge society education should contribute to the creation of leaders who are “prepared to live and work simultaneously in two cultures – that of the ‘intellectual’, who focuses on words and ideas, and that of the ‘manager’, who focuses on people and work. […] If the two balance each other, there can be creativity and order, fulfillment and mission.”

Working on one’s 21st century skills means becoming more consciuos and responsible global citizens in an era in which humanity has not only put at risk the survival of the human species but of life in general on our wonderful Blue Planet.

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