Learning 21st-century competencies to build a sustainable future

Blog 24/09/2018

Learning 21st-century competencies to build a sustainable future

By Bradley M Kremer

If you spend any time surfing the online educational world or attending teacher workshops, you’re already familiar with the phrase ‘21st-century learning.’ But what exactly does it mean?

For some educators, the term ‘21st-century’ indicates a heavy reliance on teachers’ use of technology to deliver lessons or students’ demonstration of learning via podcasts, videos, animations, and other products that didn’t exist when we old-timers were in school. Others claim that ‘21st-century learning’ refers to skills that apply not only to school, but to life in general. Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving are generally at or near the top of this skills list.

I would argue that modern education requires a focus on competencies rather than skills, and that technology should simply facilitate the learning process instead of being its focus.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘skill’ as “the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.” It’s the capacity to do something. Competencies, on the other hand, go deeper. ‘Competency’ implies a shift in mindset or attitude. I may be physically fit, capable of consistently shooting 3-pointers and making difficult passes, but if I don’t have the competitive drive to apply that skillset, I’ll never make it to the NBA. It’s the mindset that makes the difference.

Here in Finland, the National Core Curriculum includes 7 Competencies which transcend all subject learning. They’re ways of thinking that shape how learners approach challenges in school and in life. These competencies are central to the New Nordic School continuum of learning and permeate every learning experience a child encounters at one of our schools.

The first and probably most important competency is Learning to Learn – identifying and leveraging personal strengths and preferences in a way that enables all subsequent learning. Multiliteracy (extracting information from many sources and formats) and Communication (meaningfully exchanging ideas with others) make up the rest of these learning tools. If a child knows how she learns best, uses that understanding to locate and synthesize information into new ideas, and then effectively shares those ideas with the world, then that child can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.

Additional competencies focus learning experiences through real-world applications directly relevant to students’ lives. We frame units of learning as shared goals to be achieved by overcoming individual and communal challenges. Managing Daily Life entails physical and mental health, as well as executive functions such as prioritizing and scheduling tasks. Students demonstrate Cultural Competence when they successfully navigate different values, ideals, and traditions to interact and cooperate with others. Work and Entrepreneurship competency means collaborating and negotiating with others to create new solutions at school and in the broader community.

The final competency, Building a Sustainable Future, is forward-thinking and may potentially have the greatest long term impact on students’ lives. At New Nordic School, sustainability doesn’t just refer to ecological sustainability, though that is a major component of the idea. In our educational model, Building a Sustainable Future means actively participating in democratic society to create a world that is just and fair for everyone. Taking care of our planet means taking care of our people first because a person without access to water or food or justice can’t care about climate change.

Literate children who know how to learn and effectively communicate new ideas with the world are equipped with the tools to manage daily life, collaborate across cultures, and work meaningfully to build a sustainable future for themselves and for all of us.


Bradley M Kremer
Director of Education for Curriculum
New Nordic School
Espoo, Finland

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