Unique Learners and Essential Skills

21st Century Learners


Considering the changing definitions of information and of literacy, it stands to reason that the students with whom teachers and teacher-librarians work are also distinct in the 21st century. In Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott (2009) identifies eight common norms of what he calls “Net Geners,” people between the ages of 11 and 31. The author identified these norms from his extensive research and surveys of the youth of the net generation. “The eight norms are: 1) freedom; 2) customization; 3) scrutiny; 4) integrity; 5) collaboration; 6) entertainment; 7) speed; and 8) innovation” (Tapscott, 2009, p. 74).

The eight norms identified by Tapscott (2009) closely mirror the ten characteristics identified by Asselin and Doiron (2008) in their review of the literature on 21st century learners (see Appendix A: Characteristics of 21st Century Learners). Asselin and Doiron (2008) describe “new learners” in this way:
"They are growing up connected to the world and each other; they use technologies to communicate with known and unknown others and to shape their lives; they are action‐oriented problem solvers and see technology as their primary tool; they define their identities by shared interests and experiences; they herald creative thinking, empowerment, and problem solving as key qualities in the new global economies; and they see themselves as competent pioneers in their personal and shared futures'" (p. 2).


Students today have grown up immersed in a technological age in which they have easy and fast access to more information than any previous generation (Breivik, 2005; Geck, 2006). They seem more confident and comfortable with technology and are often early adopters of new formats of communication and technology (Geck, 2006; Kirkland, 2010; Valenza, 2007a). They want to innovate, create, discuss, interact, collaborate and participate in their own learning (Asselin & Doiron, 2008; Tapscott, 2009). Above all they want to use technology in school the same way they use it in all other aspects of their lives (Tapscott, 2009). It is especially important for educators to consider these unique characteristics of 21st century learners when developing learning experiences (Asselin & Doiron, 2008; Tapscott, 2009).

The Needs of 21st Century Learners


Even given Tapscott’s (2009) glowing illustrations of 21st century learners, there still exists a gap between perception and reality. Although some literature identifies youth today as exceptionally skilled with technology, still other literature notes that this view of the student of the 21st century as an information literate user is a misconception (Breivik, 2005; Geck, 2006; Islam & Murno, 2006; McPherson, 2008; Sykes, 2010; Valenza, 2007a). A position paper released by the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries (CISSL) states “the fallacy that the Millennium generation have information skills to be successful in the 21st century learning and working environments underestimates the sophisticated skills needed for increasingly complex information tasks” (Todd & Gordon, n.d., p. 5). Geck (2006) even goes so far as to suggest that students today are information illiterate.

In describing the rationale behind their study of information literacy programs in high schools, Islam and Murno (2006) noted that college students were ill-prepared for the information seeking demands their professors placed on them and that their information literacy skills were sorely lacking. In addition, Valenza (2007a) cited “Griffiths and Brophy (2005) [who] observed that college students’ use of academic resources was low and that students had little awareness of alternative information-seeking methods beyond their favorite search engine” (p. 227).

Geck (2006) notes that students are lacking many information literacy skills, such as the fact that students “do not have a deep understanding of the inner workings of the Internet. . . . are unfamiliar with electronic resources that are not free. . . . [and] tend not to place time constraints on themselves” (p. 20). Students who are not information literate are also at greater risk of being victims of nefarious internet based activities (Breivik, 2005; McPherson, 2008), and are “frequently fooled about the reliability of the information they locate, even when they know that they cannot trust information on the Internet” (Leu, et al., 2007, p. 47). Islam and Murno (2006) cite an inability to “effectively evaluate [or] appropriately use the information they find” (p. 492) as a major problem for college freshmen. Valenza (2007a) points out that “students are not planners. . . . they tend to repeat flawed strategies in different search tools, with little or no knowledge of search syntax. . . . [and they] have trouble naming their information needs” (p. 227).

Essential 21st Century Skills


There are three interesting studies that identify 21st century skills. The first is the pedagogical framework for 21st century school libraries created by Asselin and Doiron (2008) through an extensive review of the literature. The second is a study conducted by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) titled enGauge 21st Century Skills: Digital Literacies for a Digital Age (Lemke, 2002) and was also based on extensive literature reviews. Although based mostly on American literature and focused on employment skills in the 21st century, this second study still provides a pertinent and detailed look at 21st century skills for these purposes. Finally, in 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, Trilling and Fadel (2009) describe the “Framework for 21st Century Skills” that was created by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21).

The three studies noted above define the essential 21st century skills needed for success. These skills can be categorized into eight areas: basic literacy; information skills; critical thinking skills; creativity and innovation skills; collaboration and teamwork skills; multimedia skills; technology skills; ethical thinking skills; and skills for lifelong learning (see Appendix B: Essential 21st Century Skills Identified in the Literature).

Basic literacy will be essential for the 21st century citizen (Asselin & Doiron, 2008; Lemke, 2002; Trilling & Fadel, 2009). The ability to read, write and comprehend will always be essential; however, just as important now is the ability to read and write in an online, information-rich (Kuhlthau, 2003), hyper-mediated and hyper-linked environment (Asselin, 2005; Branch & Oberg, 2001; Leu et al., 2007). Accessing prior knowledge to define a need for information and framing a search for that information (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007) are essential skills in a knowledge and information based society.

Information skills, including effective questioning skills, will be important for the 21st century learner (Kuhlthau et al., 2007; Oberg 2009), as will other search skills such as “generating search terms” (Branch & Oberg, 2001), brainstorming and concept mapping (Oberg, 2004). Students need to gain an awareness of multiple search strategies for information seeking (Geck, 2006; Hay & Todd, 2010; Islam & Murno, 2006; Valenza, 2007a) and be able to recognize where to look for information (Branch & Oberg, 2001; Sellen, 2002). Skimming and scanning for pertinent information (Branch, 2000; Branch & Oberg, 2001), paraphrasing, summarizing, recalling and extending information (Kuhlthau et al., 2007), choosing suitable resources, knowing how to avoid plagiarism by citing and documenting references, and developing a topic by broadening and narrowing inquiry questions (Hay & Todd, 2010; Islam & Murno, 2006) are skills that will take on an even more important role in the basic and information literacy instruction of the 21st century. Indeed, in her study of high school students’ inquiry learning, Oberg (2009) found that students identified “ ‘narrowing the topic’ or ‘finding keywords or search terms’ ” (p.7) as areas in which they would have preferred focused instruction.

In the 21st century, critical thinking and analysis will also be imperative skills (Asselin, et al., 2005; Asselin & Doiron, 2008; Hay & Todd, 2010; Leu, et al., 2007). Langford (2007), a proponent for critical literacy “as a subset of information literacy,. . . . [argues that critical thinking skills are] more vital than ever to school curricula” (p. 250).

One important aspect of critical thinking for the 21st century is the evaluation of information (Hay & Todd, 2010; Leu, et al., 2007; Sellen, 2002). Evaluating information in the 21st century will involve the ability to recognize the quality, reliability (Geck, 2006; Hay & Todd, 2010), “authority, accuracy, timeliness and bias of a wide variety of sources” (Islam & Murno, 2006, p. 504). The Internet has not only changed the definitions of literacy and information, it has also changed how we evaluate information (Sellen, 2002). Hamilton (2009) comments that “the nature of information and the strategies for evaluating it are rapidly changing . . . disrupting many traditional, long-held concepts of authenticity” (p. 48). Breivik (2005) argues that “it has become one of education’s greatest challenges to teach students the skills needed to test the reliability, currency, and relevance of the information they find” (p. 22). Successful 21st century learners will be able to evaluate information for pertinence or relevance to their inquiry (Branch & Oberg, 2001; Oberg, 2004), judge if it is misinformation, disinformation, opinion or fact (Langford, 2007; Sellen, 2002), and will understand the “impact of [present and emerging] technologies on the decisions and choices they make” (Sellen, 2002, p. 125).

Problem-solving skills are also an important element of learning in the 21st century. Successful 21st century learners will be able to use information to “solve problems, make decisions and create new knowledge” (Asselin & Doiron, 2008, p. 8). Trilling and Fadel (2009) define problem solving skills as the ability to “reason effectively. . . . use systems thinking. . . . make judgments and decisions . . . . [and] solve problems” (p. 52). These skills help learners approach their search for information and to define and refine their information needs (Asselin & Doiron, 2008; Lemke, 2002). Problem solving skills will also be useful in the personal lives of 21st century citizens (Sellen, 2002).

Identifying essential 21st century skills is something that many organizations have done. CASL’s Achieving Information Literacy (Asselin, Branch & Oberg, 2003), AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner (AASL, 2007), and the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) National Educational Technology Standards and Performance Indicators for Students (NET-S) (ISTE, 2007) are only a few examples. There exist many similarities between the standards frameworks and the essential 21st century skills identified in the literature (see Appendix C: 21st Century Frameworks and Skills). These similarities indicate that the skills identified are in fact going to define life and learning in the 21st century.