21st Century Competencies

Winter 2016

By Charles Fadel

In the 21st century, humanity faces severe challenges at the societal, economic, and personal levels. We need to address climate change and financial instability. We must find a way to stem political partisanship and religious fundamentalism. We see both promise and challenge in globalization, and we know that innovation matters now more than ever. On the personal level, we want to be employable — to work in engaging jobs — and have a reasonable chance at happiness.

Technology’s exponential growth is rapidly compounding the problems via automation and offshoring, both of which are producing societal disruptions. We all feel it — the weight of uncertainty and volatility. During times like these, we pin a lot of hope on our educational system — on its ability to help young people prepare for our changing times. But education is falling behind the curve,1 as it did during the rapid changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The difference between then and now, however, is that, today, the stakes are much higher. More crucially than ever, humanity is searching for its sustainable future.
And we know we must find it.
The last major changes to cur­riculum2 were effected in the late 1800s as a response to the sudden growth in societal and human capital needs. Considering that the world of the 21st century bears little resemblance to that of the 19th century, education curricula are overdue for a major redesign, emphasizing depth of understanding and versatility. Curricula worldwide have often been tweaked, of course, sometimes to a large extent. But they have never been deeply redesigned for all the dimensions of an education: knowledge, skills, character, and meta-learning. Adapting to 21st-century needs — and finding our sustainable future — means focusing on all of these dimensions and their interplay simultaneously (see sidebar on page 23).
At the Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR), a nonprofit established to lead the shift in education to serve the deep needs of the 21st century, we have created a curricular framework and have been working with organizations worldwide to share this knowledge and to answer the central educational question of our times: What do students need to learn for the 21st century? This work applies to all schools across the globe. But, with their independence and flexibility, independent schools seem like ideal schools for leading the way.


Knowledge, of course, is what we know and understand. Having students develop deep knowledge is as essential as ever. But today, we must also make that knowledge relevant. Students’ lack of motivation, and often disengagement from school, reflects the inability of the current education systems to connect the content to real-world relevance. Relevance is critically important to our economic and societal needs, not only to satisfy students’ interests. Thus, in redesigning our curricula, there is a profound need for us to rethink the significance and applicability of what is taught and, simultaneously, to strike a better balance between the conceptual and the practical.
Traditional subjects (math, language, history, etc.) are essential, but they must be augmented by modern disciplines (robotics, entrepreneurship, etc.). Tough choices must be made regarding what to pare back in order to allow for more appropriate areas of focus (for instance, in math, more statistics and probability and less trigonometry). At the same time, we need to build in room for a concomitant depth of study that will cultivate the other three dimensions — skills, character, and meta-learning.
In addition to reexamining what we teach, we need to reconsider how we teach. One important change is to focus on interdisciplinarity — combining two or more academic disciplines in order for students to learn across boundaries. Interdisciplinarity is viewed as a strong binding mechanism for traditional and modern disciplines alike, and for the practices they require for the learning in the skills, character, and meta-learning dimensions. For example, new interdisciplinary fields that are already relevant to tomorrow’s world are robotics, biosystems, social systems, wellness, entrepreneurship, media, and journalism.
At the same time, we need to infuse “themes” — important lenses such as global literacy, environmental literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, systems thinking, and design thinking — into our approach to teaching knowledge.

CCR Framework Matrix



Our skills are how we use what we know. Helping students develop and strengthen their skills is absolutely necessary if we want the education outcomes that serve students well today and in the future. Higher-order skills such as the “4 C’s” — creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration4 — are essential for deeply learning knowledge as well as for demonstrating understanding through performance.5 In most schools, the curriculum is so overburdened with content it makes it much harder for students to acquire skills — and for teachers to teach them via projects. There is a reasonable global consensus on what the skills are at the broadest level,6and how different pedagogies and assessment practices can affect skills acquisition. Yet, in spite of this consensus, we struggle to infuse them into the curriculum because of two major barriers:


  • the overwhelming amounts of ­prescribed content for each school year that allow little time to address skills; and
  • a lack of leadership support for educators to combine knowledge and skills in robust pedagogies and deeper learning experiences.
To make the shift to a better balance and interplay between the teaching of relevant knowledge and the teaching of needed 21st-century skills, we need to address both of these barriers.

Venn diagram: 3 circles; intersection is 21st C Ed. 1st circle: Skills - 'How we use what we know': Creativity, Critical Thinkin



Character is about how we engage in the world. In order to face an increasingly challenging world and to benefit civil and civic society, the following reasons for focusing on character education in school have been identified:8,9
  • Inevitability through the education system — educators are models of behavior.
  • Intellectual authorities’ call through history — numerous education philosophers have made a case for it.
  • Public support is generally widespread.
  • Law-based — many countries have supportive laws and codes.
  • Cultural indicators of need and the impact of the media.10
  • Societal and personal challenges: violence, divorce, etc.
  • Global challenges: greed (climate change, financial instability, personal privacy) and intolerance (religious fundamentalism, political absolutism).
The challenges to approaching character education in schools are similar to those for teaching skills, with the extra complexity of accepting that character development is also becoming an intrinsic part of the mission of public schools, as it is for private schools. Yet character learning is also likely to happen in out-of-school settings (such as sports, scouting, adventure trips, etc.), which heightens the challenge within schools.
The character framework11 at the CCR identifies the following six essential qualities: mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience, ethics, and leadership, in which all other character qualities and concepts can be fitted.


Meta-learning is the awareness of one’s own learning and cognitive ability. Having such an awareness is the best hedge against continuous changes. It is the process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of their habits of perception, inquiry, learning, and growth. And it is essential for activating transference, building expertise, and establishing lifelong learning habits.
CCR’s meta-learning framework is composed of:
  • Growth Mindset: Positing that talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. This directly relates to Carol Dweck’s work at Stanford University.
  • Metacognition (Reflection): Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Metacognition for learning, often called “learning to learn,” involves the learner reflecting on all three of the key learning processes in the CCR framework as he or she performs these learning tasks: gaining knowledge and understanding, building skills, and developing character qualities.


Making It All Work Together

In order to redesign curriculum to embed the four dimensions described above, CCR proposes the development of a matrix that highlights the intersection of skills, character qualities, and meta-learning with the three forms of knowledge — traditional knowledge, modern knowledge, and embedded themes (see sidebar on page 22).
Of course, this matrix needs to be fully developed — by policymakers and curriculum designers — for every stage of the students’ learning. The appropriate pedagogies will have to be implemented as well. But once we make the commitment to large-scale change, the change itself is eminently possible.
Historical inertia has been a large deciding factor when it comes to curriculum design, at the policy/process level. Human dynamics play a role, too. For policy at the system level, most countries face political life-cycle instabilities that make it hard for systems to innovate in an ambitious way due to the lack of continuity, and thus generally preclude the removal of obsolete topics. As for human dynamics, decisions are generally made by subject-matter experts — e.g., math decisions are made by math experts — in relative isolation from the demands of the real world (and the users of the discipline itself), and thus tend to take an incremental (and perhaps overly collegial) approach. Herein lies the deep value of the CCR: it is a nonpolitical and nondogmatic forum.
Most of the education transformation efforts worldwide are focused on the how of education, which is very laudable. But little is being done about the what. Education badly needs an innovative curriculum adapted to the needs of the 21st-century student and society. To get there we must keep two key questions before us at all times: Is education relevant enough for this century? Are we educating students to be versatile in a world that is increasingly challenged and challenging?

The Opportunity for Independent Schools

Independent schools intuitively, if not procedurally, understand the need for a comprehensive education. This has always been a differentiator and a selling factor. Often their mottos, taglines, and vision and mission statements reflect skill and character qualities. The schools themselves are natural laboratories to embed all dimensions of an education through a comprehensive yet concise, eminently actionable framework along the lines of the one presented here.
I encourage all schools to get involved — to join us in redesigning the goals of education in the 21st century so it serves the individual and societal needs of the century. 


1. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, The Race between Education and Technology. Harvard University Press, 2009.
2. Also known as “standards,” “programmes,” etc., depending on the country.
3. There is no word that works equally well in all languages to convey the meaning of “skills,” which ends up being the best compromise. It could be “competencies,” “savoir-faire,” “proficiencies,” etc.
4. Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, 21st Century Skills, Wiley, 2009, www.21stcenturyskillsbook.com.
5. The Conference Board’s “Are They Really Ready to Work?”; AMA “Critical Skills Survey”; PIAAC program (OECD); etc.
6. www.oecd.org/site/piaac/mainelementsofthesurveyofadultskills.htm.
7. Just as for “skills,” there is no perfect word that covers all meanings of “character” in all languages; for instance, it may be “personality” in some. So, by “character,” we mean all of related terminology such as agency, attitudes, behaviors, dispositions, mindsets, personality, temperament, and values. CCR objects to the use of the improper “noncognitive” or “soft skills” and much prefers the OECD’s use of “social and emotional skills.”
8. Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin, Building Character in Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
9. As yet another important voice, UNESCO has stated: “There is every reason to place renewed emphasis on the moral and cultural dimensions of education…. [T]his process must begin with self-understanding through… knowledge, meditation, and the practice of self-criticism.”
10. Thomas Lickona, Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues, Simon and Schuster, 2004.
11. http://curriculumredesign.org/ccr-publishes-its-character-framework-complete-concise-clear-actionable-globally-relevant/.
Charles Fadel

Charles Fadel is the founder and chairman of the Center for Curriculum Redesign. He is a coauthor of Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed (CCR 2015). For more information about ARC and CCR, visit www.curriculumredesign.org.