Today we hear a lot about 21st century skills, but what does that really mean?

When our education system was designed, business was pretty predictable. For example, we looked to a limited number of known providers in a given market for most of our purchases. The goal of education was to have students understand the key knowledge and practices that someone else had already worked out.

One decade into the 21st century and information is a commodity available on any smartphone or computer.

Competitors all over the world regularly create new options for consumers and companies, making business increasingly complex and highly unpredictable. Students must be prepared to deal with constantly changing situations.

To be leaders, young people must also be innovators, and they must learn to drive those new products and markets that surprise everyone.

The most common learning approach associated with 21st century skills is project-based learning.

In this approach, students work on their own or in teams to research an issue, compare alternatives, and formulate effective answers. To develop true leaders, we wanted to see if our high school students could take the next step: not just researching and judging good answers but discovering and developing innovative solutions. This led to a partnership based at Lincoln Leadership Academy Charter School. 

21st Century Skills:  Students Learn to Solve Problems

Lincoln, a public charter school in Allentown, Pa., that formed in 2009, currently serves about 360 students in grades 6–11, and more than 85 percent of these students are Hispanic students whose families live below the poverty line. This demographic drops out of the regular public high schools in Allentown at a rate exceeding 60 percent. From day one, Lincoln has challenged these traditionally underserved urban students to excel in a safe, high-integrity environment that addresses the whole child.

For help incorporating the advanced 21st century skills of leadership and innovation that existing curricula and professional development services did not support well, Lincoln partnered with Charter Partners Institute (CPI) in summer 2011. CPI is a small nonprofit organization formed by entrepreneurs with the goal of helping students learn to think, collaborate, and innovate just like the most creative entrepreneurs. Through programs such as summer camps, CPI has developed effective approaches that help high school students learn to initiate and innovate, but the organization wanted the opportunity to test and adapt its experience to the core curriculum of a school environment.

For the first year of our collaborative pilot, all the juniors at Lincoln (51 students) spent two days a week in one class, Junior Seminar, on a project-based leadership effort. We had the students pick the issue they would address (any serious issue in the school or community) and who they wanted on their team.

Examples of current projects included developing programs to teach social and life skills to orphans in the extremely violent country of Guatemala, educating immigrants about their rights and responsibilities in our country, creating new history curricula that turn boring facts into exciting stories told through comic book–style graphics, and creating the first dedicated park on the eastern U.S. coast for Parkour (sport) enthusiasts so that they don’t get in trouble doing it in people’s back yards and businesses.

Continue reading this article on 21st Century Skills & Problem Solving at