3 Core Learning Skills for the 21st Century

How do we prepare our learners to succeed in the 21st century? More to the point, how do we equip *adult* learners for ever changing careers, skills and needs when the traditional education system is behind them?

First, I want to outline three critical skills—then I’ll talk about an organization that I think does well in this area and how they are helping to promote that particular skill for any worker in their organization. There are more skills than these that are required, but these ones top my list.

Cultivating Information Literacy

The American Library Association lists information literacy as one of the key skills needed in today’s workforce. And it’s no wonder—with the amount of information doubling every 18 months, there’s more to sift through than ever before. It’s a downright Herculean task to:

  • Identify a topic or issue
  • Find correct/factual information about that issue
  • Curate the relevant information 
  • Then form ideas and solutions around that information.

We have to help people in the workforce learn to find and use good information—if we don’t make decisions based on quality information, those decisions will at best be misinformed, and at worst, potentially disastrous.

One great example here is Amazon, who have an interesting strategy. For any meeting, the leader of the meeting is required to write a focused, 6-page memo around the topic, including relevant data, questions, solutions, projections, costs and other information. These memos are read, critiqued, and edited by peers until they are finalized before the meeting.

Come meeting time, everyone first sits and reads the memo silently. This ensures that everyone has the information, and guarantees they are prepared to participate in the discussion. And it’s a discussion based around good information, which improves clarity, ensures everyone’s time is being used effectively, and helps foster strong business decisions. 

Can every organization (especially smaller ones) take the time to write and vet a 6-page memo before every meeting? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but it’s worth exploring ways to make sure all the right people have all the right information, at all the right times.


Once you’ve gathered all that information, it doesn’t do you much good if you don’t put it to use. Being able to take knowledge, combine it in new, interesting, and useful ways is an essential skill for life-long learning. We don’t even know the challenges we’ll face 10 years from now, much less 50. Creative adaptability and problem solving were identified as a core standard by the Foundation for 21st Century Learning. 

Roger Von Oech talks about 4 creatives ‘roles’ in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head.

  • The Explorer – This person is great at collecting new information, data, and research
  • The Artist — Great at taking the raw information provided by The Explorer and combining it in lots of new ways
  • The Judge — This is the person who’s great at taking the ideas from The Artist, deciding which ones are practical
  • The Warrior — The ‘doer’ of the group. The warrior takes the practical ideas and pushes to get them done, or does them themselves

Helping learners to understand their role in the creative process is essential for their success in the workforce. By knowing where they are strongest, they’ll have a better grasp on how they can work both inside and outside of their direct teams to tackle complex issues. Take a moment to pause and reflect. What roles do you think you fall most naturally in to?

Google does a great job here in allowing their employees to explore creativity. Employees are given 20% of their work time to explore and work on side projects in self-selected teams. This flexibility allows them to work in groups that can have a mix of the creative roles and cross-pollenate ideas from one working group to another.


It doesn’t matter how great your new idea or product is if you can’t communicate it effectively. Speaking, networking, writing, and other communication skills were identified by Harvard educator Tony Wagner as some of the most necessary skills after consulting with scores of CEOs, industry leaders and other professionals. 

However, communication isn’t just being able to speak or write. It means writing or speaking with intentionality and tone. Being able to adapt voice and structure to the situation at hand. Making a compelling argument to convince people. Navigating in and out of groups, and presenting ideas to a broad range of people to build consensus and actually Get. Things. Done. 

I’m going to make a couple of my co-workers pretty happy right now and mention Toastmasters International—an organization devoted to helping people develop communication skills and further their professional development. They teach people how to not only be comfortable speaking publicly to groups of people, but also to develop leadership projects, and even skills like communicating on their feet using strategies like their Table Talks.

Whether professionally or personally, these skills will serve learners well. It’s essential that we find ways to develop these skills within whatever learning experiences we design—they don’t replace content, but give it shape, meaning, and practical direction. 

What other core skills do you think learners of all ages will need for the 21st and 22nd centuries? Am I way off base? Let us know!

Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

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