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Career Readiness | Middle School | 21st Century Skills

How to Teach 21st Century Skills in Middle School

May 30th, 2024 | 9 min. read

Brad Hummel

Brad Hummel

Coming from a family of educators, Brad knows both the joys and challenges of teaching well. Through his own teaching background, he’s experienced both firsthand. As a writer for iCEV, Brad’s goal is to help teachers empower their students by listening to educators’ concerns and creating content that answers their most pressing questions about career and technical education.

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It’s an unfortunate reality that thousands of middle schoolers across the country aren’t being taught the skills they need to flourish in the modern workspace.

21st Century skills are essential to cultivate in your students if you want them to lead successful professional lives. But too often teachers send their students on to high school without even being aware of these skills, let alone how to teach them.

As a career readiness curriculum developer, teachers who’ve heard of these skills often come to us asking for more information about them and the best ways to teach them. You want to plant the seeds of success in your students’ minds as early as possible, so that when they finally enter adulthood, they’re ready. 

In this post, you’ll find tips and resources to help you teach 21st Century skills in your middle school courses. 

By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of each skill and will know where to find 21st Century skills lesson plans for your classes. 

But before we get into the details, what does the phrase “21st Century skills” actually mean?

What Are 21st Century Skills?

21st Century skills are 12 abilities that today’s students need to succeed in their future careers:

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Information literacy
  6. Media literacy
  7. Technology literacy
  8. Flexibility
  9. Leadership
  10. Initiative
  11. Productivity
  12. Social skills

By mastering these skills, your students will be better equipped to start and grow in whatever career path they choose.

Now that you know what skills we’ll be discussing, let’s dive into how you can teach them!

1. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves logically assessing information to make informed decisions.

It’s an important skill many employers expect from new employees, which means there are a ton of articles on how to improve critical thinking skills.

However, these resources often focus on professionals, not middle school students. To help you effectively teach this skill in your classes, consider adopting a curriculum that teaches critical thinking at an early level. That way, students will be able to learn the fundamentals of critical thinking that they'll need later in school and in their professional careers.

Once you’ve tackled critical thinking, you can also consider adding in some decision making activities to reinforce the concepts even more.

2. Creativity

Creativity empowers people to see concepts in a different light, leading to innovative thinking and problem solving.

In many cases, it’s tough to directly teach students how to be creative thinkers. This is because it's ultimately up to individual learners to discover their own creativity and put it to good use.

That’s why we recommend using problem solving lessons to get your students thinking creatively. Problem solving lessons, including many of the projects and activities included in iCEV, encourage learners to come up with new solutions that inspire them to think creatively as they work by themselves and with classmates to complete tasks.

After you’ve introduced creativity and problem solving, you and your students will find that many of the other 21st Century skills can help reinforce them!

3. Collaboration

Collaboration involves multiple people working together to achieve a common goal.

When teaching collaboration skills in your classroom, it’s common to assign group projects and call it a day. After all, if students are working together, they are learning collaboration skills, right?

While group work can help reinforce collaboration and teamwork, it’s important to address these and other key employability skills in your daily lessons to make them stick.

To teach collaboration skills that your students will remember you should start by incorporating teamwork lessons and activities.

Once your students understand the importance of good collaboration skills, assigning group work will help to reinforce the concepts and skills you’ve discussed.

4. Communication

Communication is the practice of conveying ideas by using a variety of methods. In fact, it's also one of the 4 C's of 21st Century Skills.

With texting, messaging apps, and an ever-changing slate of social media, today’s middle school students can communicate quicker than ever before.

But just because it’s easier to connect with others doesn’t mean your students have good communication skills -- especially ones that will translate to the workforce.

When teaching these skills, it’s important to cover multiple facets of communication, including:

  • Listening skills
  • Verbal communication
  • Written communication
  • Collaborative communication
  • Social media

If you’re wondering how to incorporate all of these pieces in your lessons, consider a comprehensive curriculum that includes professional communication skills. That way, you can teach communication in the context of learning about future career opportunities.

5. Information Literacy

Information literacy gives your students the tools needed to distinguish fact from fiction.

When teaching information literacy, we recommend a five-step approach:

  1. Define information literacy
  2. Show examples of trustworthy and untrustworthy information
  3. Define what makes a source trustworthy
  4. Encourage critical thinking
  5. Introduce other 21st Century skills

Following these steps will help your students hone their information literacy skills while reinforcing other skills you’re teaching. They'll also learn a valuable transferable skill they can use in other classes as they research and discern sources and information. Developing these skills early will help them gain the intuitive skills they need when working and living in a world which requires constant critical analysis and understanding.

6. Media Literacy

Media literacy helps students analyze media and understand potential issues that can arise when using digital tools.

Often times, media literacy is incorporated as a small piece in some teachers’ digital citizenship lessons.

Some teachers also include social media and cyberbullying as topics within their media literacy lessons, since they are so closely intertwined. Together, developing media literacy involves several steps including:

  • Discerning reliable media sources
  • Analyzing bias and point of view
  • Learning appropriate and inappropriate uses of media
  • Discovering where media usage can be both helpful and harmful to oneself and others.

Teaching media literacy can be challenging and complex, but covering these concepts and others can be an important step to building media literacy for students and preparing them to be discerning consumers of news and media in the future.

7. Technology Literacy

Technology literacy involves students understanding different applications and the best ways to use them.

Very often, technology literacy is taught in a computer applications course focused on Microsoft Office or Google Applications.

If that’s the case in your school, you won’t need to spend much time discussing technology literacy as part of your classes.

However, if you’re required to include lessons on technology literacy, you could connect with the computer teacher to tie in with the skills they are teaching.

Here are a few ideas you could start with:

  • Have students create a presentation in the computer class and present it in your class.
  • Ask students to write an email in the computer class to practice good communication skills.
  • Use a word processing application to create a flyer about a 21st Century skill you’re teaching.

Regardless of how you approach technological literacy, it's essential that your students have a solid grasp of this skill before moving on to high school.

8. Flexibility

Flexibility is someone’s ability to adapt to change and understand differences in views, opportunities, and experiences, that can impact decisions.

It involves being able to adapt to circumstances and decisions as they change and affect you and your work. That makes it one of the most difficult 21st Century skills to teach to middle schoolers.

However, if you approach flexibility in relation to other skills such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking you may find it’s easier to teach than you first thought.

To get started, consider a conversation about how students balance their work between different classes. As students learn the flexibility involved in balancing their schedule, they'll learn a bit more about the flexibility that will be required in high school and their future occupations.

9. Leadership

Leadership involves a person’s ability to influence and guide others towards a common goal.

There are hundreds of articles dedicated to helping employers and professionals grow their leadership skills. But finding leadership resources that are relevant to middle school isn’t easy.

When teaching leadership, it’s important to dive into the qualities that make a good leader, including:

  • Developing a strong vision
  • Problem solving
  • Teamwork
  • Goal setting
  • Responsibility.
  • Personal integrity
  • Recognizing, motivating, and empowering others

Each of these qualities represents an important life lesson that will help learners succeed in any field. When you use lessons that break leadership down into these more concrete qualities, you’ll find it's an easier to teach the topic as a whole!

10. Initiative

Initiative, sometimes called intrinsic motivation, relates to employees starting projects, creating plans, and executing strategies on their own.

Many websites include tips and tricks for keeping employees motivated, but how can you teach these skills before your students even head for their first interview?

Some of our best tips for teaching initiative include:

  1. Tie your lessons to the end goal
  2. Incorporate group work
  3. Let students work independently
  4. Find ways to help students stay productive
  5. Encourage students to discover connections

When teaching your students about initiative it may also be a great time to discuss the six pillars of character and how they can influence an individual's initiative.

11. Productivity

Productivity measures how well people are able to prioritize, plan, and manage their work.

In order to be productive, individuals need to hold themselves accountable for meeting goals and identify when an obstacle may prevent them from meeting that goal.

One of the most important topics to discuss as part of productivity is time management.

When teaching time management skills in middle school, it’s best to tie it back to their current lives rather than looking ahead at the future. After all, it’s likely your students would benefit from improving their productivity skills right now!

Start by discussing productivity in your classes and get students thinking about good time management. Once you’ve covered the basics, you can tie in with other skills by explaining how problem solving and critical thinking also help people work productively!

Ultimately, establishing good time management skills now will help students succeed in high school and on future work projects.

12. Social Skills

Social skills are one of the most ambiguous pieces of teaching 21st Century skills in middle school.

As a 21st Century skill, social skills refer to the capabilities needed to interact effectively with others, especially when working with a diverse group of people.

While this includes having good communication, it’s important to focus on the use of empathy and understanding others who may have different social or cultural backgrounds.

Teaching empathy to middle schoolers may seem challenging, but it's one of the most important qualities they can learn to help them lead successful lives!

You can also reinforce the importance of empathy and social skills by relating it back to communication and collaboration with others. Having empathy with others will encourage your students to understand different perspectives and help them work more effectively both with friends and with future colleagues.

Discover the Ultimate Guide to 21st Century Skills

Effectively leveraging 21st Century skills will set up your middle school students to become successful future professionals. But if they don't learn these skills, they'll risk being unprepared for high school and falling behind their peers.

When you teach the skills and strategies in this article, your students will be on the way to developing good behaviors that will benefit them throughout their lives.

But this article only touched on the basics of implementing 21st Century skills in your middle school courses. 

For a more structured guide that will teach you all you need to know about how to teach these valuable skills, download the Ultimate Guide to Teaching 21st Century Skills.

You'll discover answers to the most common questions teachers ask about 21st Century skills so you're more prepared to teach your middle school students.

Read Your Free Guide on Teaching 21st Century Skills