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Why 21st century skills are essential for today’s students

What are 21st century skills?

Between Zoom, WhatsApp, Slack, and more – the opportunities to communicate with others around the world are changing rapidly. And the skills our students will need to navigate these new tools, build relationships, and be successful in work and in life are constantly evolving, as well. We often hear about the importance of “21st century skills” – but what are they exactly? More than a fancy buzzword, 21st century skills are, simply put, the skills our students will need to be successful in an increasingly interconnected and complex world. They may be defined in a multitude of ways, but 21st century skills typically include both the academic and life skills that will support students in school and in their careers.

Perspective taking, critical thinking, respectful communication, and cooperation

At Empatico, we focus on four crucial skills that help students learn how to build strong relationships, especially with people from different backgrounds and cultures: perspective taking, critical thinking, respectful communication, and cooperation. We have integrated these skills into each of our activities.

Practicing these skills helps students have more meaningful interactions with peers in their own class and can also facilitate connections between classrooms, as they do during Empatico exchanges. When students learn to look from the perspective of others, think critically, communicate respectfully, and cooperate, they are equipped with the skills to succeed in an interconnected world and navigate their differences with curiosity and kindness – in the present and for years to come.

Let’s take a look at each of these skills in greater detail:

Perspective taking – The ability to understand another person’s perspective and see the world through another person’s eyes is beneficial for all forms of social interactions and relationships. As students start to ask themselves “What is life like for that person?” and “How can I relate to their experience to understand how they feel?” they will begin to expand their worldview and ability to solve complex problems.

Critical thinking – Critical thinking skills can deepen students’ academic learning and are also beneficial for successful interactions and relationships. Critical thinking helps students assess whether they have all the parts of a story and how to explore the difference between assumptions, perspectives, and facts with an open and curious mind.

Respectful communication – The ability to actively listen and communicate respectfully with others (even – and especially – when disagreeing) can help students build stronger relationships as well as deepen learning during discussions. It is a critical skill for operating in multilingual and multicultural environments both in the classroom and in daily life.

Cooperation – Working well with others is a foundational life skill for students to develop as they learn to navigate relationships in the classroom, at home, and eventually, in the workplace. When students cooperate, they must consider each other’s perspectives and experiences as they take on unique roles to achieve shared goals.

These skills are ultimately the building blocks for fostering a greater sense of empathy in your classroom. Empatico experiences more broadly also relate to other 21st century themes such as global awareness, creativity and innovation, problem solving, and collaboration as they expose students to different ways of thinking and different cultures. 

Translating 21st century learning to life and career skills

So why are these skills so important? Without a doubt, today’s youth will interact with many types of people when they are older, and the ability to interact, cooperate, and learn with others who are different will benefit them in many ways.

Learning about different perspectives also stimulates creativity and innovation by offering new ways of thinking, which can enhance group problem-solving. The ability and willingness to learn from others who have different viewpoints can also be beneficial for communicating complex ideas and resolving conflicts. Supporting this, studies show that children with diverse friends are more likely to be prosocial and have higher levels of social satisfaction and leadership potential than those without.

Having early positive experiences with diverse types of people can influence how children develop perceptions of others in the future. As students develop skills such as critical thinking and perspective taking, they will be more flexible and adaptable in our constantly changing workforce, increase their ability to work cross-culturally, and be able to take on positions of leadership. Learn more about the research behind Empatico and how we incorporate 21st century skills into all of our activities.

Aligning skills to curriculum and instruction

Like any other learning standard or skill, 21st century skills require continuous practice. As an educator, you can support your students through short questions and exercises woven into existing curriculum. Teaching social skills like critical thinking and cooperation doesn’t have to take time away from academic skills – start with a short exercise at the beginning or end of your lesson and go from there.

“I think if students become engaged in some form of relationship with teachers and students from [different places around the world], this can help plant the seeds of being more open to people from different backgrounds, especially the more frequently they do it. This is why it’s a great opportunity to develop a deeper, long-term relationship with other classrooms.”
-Michael Dunlea, 2nd grade teacher

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