Interview | Partnering Up for 21st-Century Skills

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or P21, recently partnered with Wireless Generation. P21 has worked hard to build a broad coalition of education, business and nonprofit organizations and foundations all focused on 21st-century readiness for every student. “Every new member brings a different perspective and thereby strengthens the organization and improves our ability to push for the changes we know are necessary at the local, state and federal levels,” says Tim Magner, Executive Director, who succeeded Ken Kay, co-founder of the organization. Tim was a Presidential appointee at the US Department of Education; he was responsible for developing education policy and carrying out the Education Secretary’s education  priorities. Tim also held executive positions advocating on behalf of education entities with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Schools Interoperability Framework Association. As well, he served as the executive director for K12 education for Microsoft Corporation and developed global strategy for the education sector focused on primary and secondary schools. “Wireless Generation brings a unique combination of technological expertise and deep pedagogical knowledge that combine to push
innovations in teaching and learning. Adding their views and their voice to P21 helps add depth to our discussions around the ways in which schools and classrooms can operate both more efficiently and effectively by leveraging technology to provide teachers with the capacity to embed 21st-century skills into personalized instruction” says Tim. Here is one such discussion. Enjoy.

Victor: P21 has been around for some time now. Has the main message evolved? Why? How relevant is it today? 

Tim: This year we will be celebrating 10 years of leading the movement to identify and promote the mastery of core content and key skills that all of our young people need in order to be successful in school, work and life in the 21st century. While content mastery and the specific skills in our Framework may not be new, what is new is the recognition that every child, regardless of their zipcode or their aspiration needs to have skills like the 4Cs of creativity and innovation, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving.

Because of rapid changes in technology and the increasingly global economy, we need to do a better job of educating all of our children, than we have ever educated any of our children. As a result, these skills aren’t just for the top tier, or the just for those students headed to college, these skills are essential for all students.

Over the past decade the P21 message has evolved. We began by bringing together business, education and non-profit organizations to identify, really for the first time, a comprehensive set of skills that, along with content mastery, are what all sectors can agree are essential for success. The P21 Framework itself took several years to develop, and it has been enhanced by additional documents such as the 21st-Century Skills Maps that have been developed in collaboration with literally hundreds of teachers who have shown how to integrate 21st-century skills within their disciplines such as English, mathematics, science, social studies, world languages and the arts.

The message has also become more relevant as well. When we began a decade ago the name 21st-century skills was aspirational – something forward looking. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century we have seen over and over how critical these skills are and so the fact that we call them 21st-century skills is now more of an alarm bell reminding us that the time is now for us to ensure that all students master these vital skills.

Victor: What are the main issues and challenges that lie ahead in regards to education and technology? 

Tim: The main issues and challenges ahead in educational technology are, in many ways, the ones we have always struggled with – what’s the best way to harness the affordances of technology to make teaching and learning more effective, not just more efficient. If we look at the P21 Framework and look at the myriad of ways in which schools and districts are implementing 21st-century skills, we see that technology can play a wide variety of roles, all the way from the back room data systems to classroom learning apps. The technology has the capacity to fundamentally alter what school is, what it can do, and what it can be for each child. As educators, we have a unique opportunity and a profound responsibility to be thoughtful, intentional and purposeful about when and how we bring technology into schools. We also have an equally profound responsibility to determine when technology doesn’t make sense and what it is that works in our current system so that we preserve those human interactions that are vital to both education and to human growth and development. The P21 Framework can provide a helpful roadmap in this regard. By being intentional and purposeful about implementing 21st-century skills into a school or district, you open up the kinds of conversations about student experience and student outcomes that naturally involve thoughtful discussions about appropriate intersections points for technology.

Victor: What are some of the key trends to watch, why these ones? 

Tim: I think two important trends right now are BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and the ‘flipped classroom’ paradigm. Both of these are important because they get at two different, but fundamental truths about technology that we have often overlooked. With BYOD the important feature here is personalization – it is the individual’s device. That ownership changes both the individual and systemic dynamic in profound ways.

Because it is your device you can customize it and it becomes a seamless learning appliance. But all of that individual benefit comes at a huge cost to the system in terms of security and ease of content and assessment delivery. There are huge inroads being made in both these areas, and we will get there, but we are not out of the woods yet. BYOD also is potentially a game changer in terms of digital equity.  If the vast majority of students have their own device, then the resources of the system can be used to provide devices only for those who cannot afford their own – even to the point of subsidizing ownership.

The impact of the ‘flipped classroom’ is essential for two reasons. First, when done well, it maximizes the affordances of technology – information distribution (like learning at home), multiple ways to display the same content or ideas (video, print, narrated presentations, games, interactive graphics, etc.), the capacity for the individual to personalize their content acquisition experience (pause, rewind, view multiple sources, etc.) to name but a few. Second, when done well, it opens up the opportunity to maximize the affordances of face-to-face interaction. Being physically at school can become about creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, doing, making, building, inventing, individually and in teams.  In a ‘flipped’ world, the physical school building and the face-to-face experience become even more important because of what you can do outside of school with the technology.

Taken together with the P21 Framework and creatively and thoughtfully applied, these two trends can fundamentally reshape how we think about the role and purpose of school in our communities and re-invent the kinds of experiences students have access to on a daily basis.

Victor: What emerging areas in edtech do you see right around the corner? 

Tim: There are two emerging areas in edtech in my opinion, one is sexy and one is not, but both are essential to getting the next generation of educational delivery right.

The sexy one is the next generation of educational content. Personal computing devices and the software to run on them have been refined now for over 30 years. We have learned so much in that time and the power of both hardware and software have come so unimaginably far that I believe the next generation of instructional materials is just around the corner. They will blend text, image, audio, video and interaction in new combinations that are defined by new metaphors and use cases. But these new models are only half the story.

The second, less sexy but no less important, are the essential underlying interoperability standards and back end data systems. The standards are vital to allowing content, data and information to flow seamlessly between and among devices, and the data systems are key to tracking student progress and giving rapid feedback to students, teachers, parents and administrators.

When these two emerging areas come to fruition and are linked with BYOD and the ‘flipped classroom’ you will have almost all of the elements in place for the kind of phase shift in education we know we need but have yet to realize.

Victor: Smartphones are reaching a certain degree of ubiquity among students. Missed opportunity here to weave in academic apps? 

Tim: Smartphones have a critical role to play in the learning ecosystem, but more to support on-demand informal learning than as a platform for sustained formal instruction. Using a smartphone for data collection (taking pictures with the camera), looking up information, as a review and practice tool through games or apps, as an in-class audience response system, as a calculator, etc., all make sense. But, using it to type a paper, create a presentation, edit video or read for long periods, while all possible, don’t make as much sense. Larger differently configured devices have greater utility for those kinds of tasks. What smartphones have done, more than anything, is explode the myth that one-to-one is the proper student-computer ratio. Ultimately, students need access to the right device for the right task.  For a growing number of personal learning tasks, the smartphone may be that right device, but we do our students a disservice if we force it to be their only device.

Victor: Any lessons you bring forward from your time at the Department of Ed that have helped to inform your current approach? 

Tim: Being able to serve at the U.S. Department of Education was a tremendous privilege and an incredible learning experience. Two of the most important things I took away from that experience are first, realizing that we are in the midst of an enormous cultural change and second that we have a great deal we can learn from how other countries tackle the common problems we all face.

The importance of recognizing that this is a period of cultural change is that it helps reinforce that people change at vastly different rates from one another and at a much slower rate than technology changes. Old habits die hard, entrenched systems resist change and long held beliefs and world views often require repeated exposure in order to be revised. With people it’s often one step forward, two steps back, all while the technology is moving at a rapid and inexorable pace. The human element is both a challenge and a blessing. A challenge because it drags things out, saps our energy and wastes time and money. But it is also a blessing because it forces us explain, refine and personalize the response to change. And, it can also save us from ourselves when we implement too fast or when the technology isn’t as ready/useful/appropriate as we think it is. Ultimately our education systems are made up by and are made to serve people and we need to be mindful of that as we seek to re-organize and re-design them, so that we always focus on meeting the needs of the children we serve.

The importance of learning from other nations is that in many respects we are all facing the same challenges – how to educate the next generation, what to do with technology, how to prepare teachers, etc. – but we bring to it a different combination of cultural expectations, resources, histories, world views, etc. In some cases those different combinations produce bad policy or poor implementations that we can examine for their lessons of what not to do. In other cases, these combinations produce masterful insights, enlightened policy frameworks or innovative approaches that we would do well to study and localize for our own needs.

Ironically, 21st-century skills is one of the areas where an increasing number of countries have recognized the universal need for these skills, have begun to retool their systems and are looking for ways to integrate 21st-century skills into the foundations of their education systems.  In much the same way that Japanese automakers adopted the quality and service oriented ideas of William Edwards Deming in the 1950’s, decades before it was fashionable to do so in the U.S., other countries are on the cusp of leapfrogging the U.S. as they look to embrace 21st-century skills. By looking at how those countries are approaching these ideas and implementing them, we may find new models that have value here at home.

Victor: Anything else you’d like to add, emphasize or comment on?

Tim: It seems trite to say that ‘the world has changed’, but it really has fundamentally and unless we recognize that and are willing to look long and hard at our education systems to figure out what works and what doesn’t we will lose our place as a global leader. The time has come to stop questioning whether our students need 21st-century skills; they do. The question we should be focusing on is how we can make sure that all children master the content and skills they need to be successful in school work and life in the 21st century. Our children may only be twenty-five percent of our population, but they are one hundred percent of our future, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to ensure that they are prepared not just to succeed, but to lead in the 21st century.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. Innovative CEOs, founders and educators: enter the EdTech Digest Awards Program.

  • Joe Beckmann


    What a profoundly disappointing vision: all top down, all from the center outwards, with the student as a passive recipient. The heart of real 21st Century Skill building are the skills the kid shows to self and to others, and the keys to re-framing those skills is assessment and feedback. That means multimedia documentation prepared by the kid to show the impact of those skills. Those media – most certainly – include written and quantitative documents, tests, and other evidence, but they also include much, much more. And they are the students’ products, not the teachers’ nor the schools’ nor the Department of Education, no matter how important they are or think they are. Without those student “inputs” the system intended to serve those students will only feed on its own excreta, which, pretty much, is where this interview starts and stops: how in the world will you know you’ve inspired until you ask, not tell, the student to share that student’s pride in achievement. And this medium – this keyboard, camera, edit, and display – is, finally, ideal.

    • Tatyana Varshavsky

      I’m sorry this came across that way, because P21 strongly believes that engaging students and ensuring that they’re intricately involved in their own process of learning is key to 21st century learning. There are numerous ways in which this can be done, the flipped classroom is one successful model which rather than having the student be a passive recipient provides students active hands on time to apply their knowledge, test out theories and valuable skills. Authentic assessment systems are of course central to creating a way to measure, assess and provide accountability for this kind of active skills implementation.
      Would love to take the discussion further!

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