Preparing Students for Life and Work

Employers, educational policymakers, and others are calling on schools and colleges to develop “21st century skills,” such as teamwork, problem-solving, and self-management that are seen as valuable for success in the workplace, citizenship, and family life. For example, 19 states are working with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a nonprofit association of education and business leaders, to infuse 21st century skills into their curricula, assessments, and teaching practices. On Capitol Hill, bipartisan sponsors in the House and Senate introduced the 21st Century Readiness Act, with the goal of including attention to 21st century skills in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The bipartisan Congressional 21st Century Skills Caucus, formed by Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI) and Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) in the 112th Congress, provides a forum for discussions about the importance of 21st century skills in preparing all students for college, career, and life.

The Achilles heel of the growing movement for 21st century skills is the absence of agreement on what these skills are. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework includes four learning and innovation skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity—along with life and career skills, information, media, and technology skills, and core academic subjects. The Hewlett Foundation focuses on “deeper learning,” including mastery of core academic content, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and an academic mindset. Other individuals and groups see information technology skills as most valuable for career success. To address this lack of a shared vision, the National Research Council (NRC) conducted a study of deeper learning and 21st century skills and published the report Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century (National Academies Press, 2012).

To understand the importance of 21st century skills, including their relationship to learning of school subjects, the committee reviewed research not only from the cognitive sciences, but also in social psychology, child and adolescent development, economics, and human resource development. As a first step toward improved definitions, the committee clustered various lists of 21st century skills into three broad domains of competence:

  • The cognitive domain, which involves reasoning and memory;
  • The intrapersonal domain, which includes the capacity to manage one’s behavior and emotions to achieve one’s goals (including learning goals); and
  • The interpersonal domain, which involves expressing ideas and interpreting and responding to messages from others.

To prepare for an uncertain 21st century economy, where workers can expect to frequently change jobs (whether as a result of layoffs or to explore new opportunities), students need to go beyond memorizing facts and taking multiple-choice tests. They need deeper learning, which the committee defined as the process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations—in other words, learning for transfer. Through the process of deeper learning, students develop 21st century competencies—transferable knowledge and skills. In contrast to a view of 21st century skills as general skills that can be applied across various civic, workplace, or family contexts, the committee views these competencies as aspects of expertise that are specific to—and intertwined with—knowledge of a particular discipline or topic area. The committee uses the broader term “competencies” rather than “skills” to include both knowledge and skills. In mathematics, for example, these competencies include content knowledge together with critical thinking, problem solving, constructing and evaluating evidence-based arguments, systems thinking, and complex communication.

Competency counts

The committee set out to identify the competencies that were most valuable for success at work, in education, and in other settings. It found that the research base is limited, based primarily on correlational rather than causal studies. Thus, the committee could draw only limited conclusions:

  • More studies have focused on cognitive competencies than on interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies, showing consistent, positive correlations (of modest size) with desirable educational, career, and health outcomes. For example, many studies have found that higher levels of general cognitive ability are correlated with higher occupational levels and earnings.
  • Among interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies, conscientiousness (a tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking) is most highly correlated with desirable educational, career, and health outcomes. Anti-social behavior, which has both intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions, is negatively correlated with these outcomes.

In contrast to the limited evidence of the importance of cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies, the committee found much stronger evidence of a causal relationship between years of completed schooling and higher adult earnings, as well as better health and civic engagement. Moreover, individuals with higher levels of education appear to more readily learn new knowledge and skills on the job.

The strong relationship between increased years of schooling and higher adult earnings suggests that formal schooling helps develop a mixture of cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies that is not measured by current academic tests, but is valued by the labor market. Further research is needed to examine this hypothesis. This would entail longitudinal tracking of students with controls for differences in individuals’ family backgrounds and more studies using statistical methods that are designed to approximate experiments.

Many educators are well aware of the importance of nurturing broader competencies, as reflected in their development of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts and the Next Generation Science Standards, based on the NRC Framework for K-12 Science Education. All three standards documents highlight the importance of a cluster of cognitive competencies including critical thinking and non-routine problem solving. For example, the mathematics standards and the NRC science framework include a “practices” dimension, calling for students to actively use their knowledge to tackle new problems, while the English language arts standards call on students to synthesize and apply evidence to create and effectively communicate an argument. Although all three documents expect students to develop the cognitive and interpersonal competencies needed to construct and evaluate an evidence-based argument, the disciplines differ in their views of what counts as evidence and what the rules of argumentation are.

The Common Core standards and the NRC framework represent each discipline’s desire to promote deeper learning and develop transferable knowledge and skills within that discipline. For example, the NRC framework aims to develop science knowledge that transfers beyond the classroom to everyday life, preparing high school graduates to engage in public discussions on science-related issues and to be critical consumers of scientific information. At a more basic level, deeper learning of a school subject over the course of a school year develops durable, transferable competencies within the subject that students can apply when continuing to learn about that subject in the following school year.

However, research is lacking on how to help learners transfer competencies learned in one discipline or topic area to another discipline or topic area or how to combine and integrate competencies across disciplines.

Research to date has identified a number of practices and principles that contribute to deeper learning and transfer within a discipline or topic area. Instruction for deeper learning begins with a focus on clearly delineated learning goals along with assessments to measure student progress toward and attainment of the goals. It requires the development of new curriculum and instructional programs that include research-based teaching methods, such as:

  • Using multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks, such as diagrams, numerical and mathematical representations, and simulations, combined with activities and guidance that support mapping across the varied representations.
  • Encouraging elaboration, questioning, and explanation—for example, prompting students who are reading a history text to think about the author’s intent and/or to explain specific information and arguments as they read—either silently to themselves, or to others.
  • Engaging learners in challenging tasks, while also supporting them with guidance, feedback, and encouragement to reflect on their own learning processes and the status of their understanding.
  • Teaching with examples and cases, such as modeling step-by-step how students can carry out a procedure to solve a problem and using sets of worked examples.
  • Priming student motivation by connecting topics to students’ personal lives and interests, engaging students in collaborative problem solving, and drawing attention to the knowledge and skills students are developing, rather than grades or scores.
  • Using formative assessments to: make learning goals clear to students; continuously monitor, provide feedback, and respond to students’ learning progress; and involve students in self- and peer-assessment.

But will these same methods be effective in developing interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies, such as teamwork or self-regulation? It seems likely that they would, but the reality is that we don’t have the evidence to support this assumption. The research challenge is to first more clearly define and develop reliable methods for assessing students’ intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies in order to study and compare various approaches for developing them. A new NRC study of assessing intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies will begin to address this challenge.

The political environment creates additional barriers to the creation of an educational system that fosters deeper learning and transferable 21st century competencies. Many states are now pushing back against the Common Core standards that were initiated by a wide coalition of education and business leaders. Even in states that have embraced the new standards, the extent to which 21st century competencies will be taught and learned will depend on developments in educational assessment. Although research indicates that formative assessment by teachers supports deeper learning and development of transferable competencies, current educational policies focus on summative assessments that measure mastery of content. State and federal accountability systems often hold schools and districts accountable for improving student scores on such assessments, and teachers and school leaders respond by emphasizing what is included on these assessments. Traditionally, education leaders have favored the use of standardized, on-demand, end-of-year assessments. Composed largely of multiple-choice items, these tests are relatively cheap to develop, administer, and score; have sound psychometric properties; and provide easily quantifiable and comparable scores for assessing individuals and institutions. Yet, such standardized tests have not been conducive to measuring and supporting deeper learning in order to develop 21st century competencies. In the face of current fiscal constraints at the federal and state levels, policymakers may seek to minimize assessment costs by maintaining lower-cost, traditional test formats, rather than incorporating into their systems relatively more expensive, performance- and curriculum-based assessments that may better measure 21st century competencies.

Recent developments in assessment may help to address these challenges. Two large consortia of states, with support from the U.S. Department of Education, have developed new assessment frameworks and methods aligned with the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts. These new assessment frameworks include some facets of 21st century competencies represented in the Common Core State Standards, providing a strong incentive for states, districts, schools, and teachers to emphasize these competencies as part of disciplinary instruction. Next Generation Science Standards have been developed based on the NRC framework, and assessments aligned with these standards are currently under development. If the new science assessments include facets of 21st century competencies, they will provide a similarly strong incentive for states, districts, schools, and teachers to emphasize those facets in classroom science instruction.

Next steps

Because 21st century competencies support deeper learning of school subjects, their widespread acquisition could potentially reduce disparities in educational attainment, preparing a broader swath of young people for successful adult outcomes at work and in other life arenas. However, important challenges remain. For educational interventions focused on developing transferable competencies to move beyond isolated promising examples and flourish more widely in K-12 and higher education, larger systemic issues and policies involving curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development will need to be addressed. As noted previously, new types of assessment systems, capable of accurately measuring and supporting acquisition of these competencies will be needed and this, in turn, will require a sustained program of research and development. In addition, it will be important for researchers and publishers to collaborate in developing new curricula that incorporate the research-based design principles and instructional methods we described previously. Finally, new approaches to teacher preparation and professional development will be needed to help current and prospective teachers understand how to support students’ deeper learning and development of 21st century competencies in the context of mastering core academic content. If teachers are to not only understand these ideas, but also translate them into their daily instructional practice, they will need support from school and district administrators, including time for learning, shared lesson planning and review, and reflection. States and school districts should implement these changes, while private foundations and federal agencies should invest in research on assessment and curriculum development to foster widespread deeper learning and development of 21st century competencies.

Margaret Hilton, a senior program officer of the Board on Science Education and the Board on Testing and Assessment at the National Research Council, was study director for the report Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.

Cite this Article

Hilton, Margaret. “Preparing Students for Life and Work.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 4 (Summer 2015).

Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Summer 2015