4 Steps to Teach 21st Century Skills in Middle School

21st Century skills are some of the most in-demand educational needs throughout the United States right now.

In middle school education, 21st Century skills represent a wide swathe of modern experience intended to prepare the next generation for the tech-centric world of tomorrow. 

That can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different teachers.

But generally, 21st Century skills break down to 12 main capabilities:

  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


So this is all well and good. But how do you actually teach these skills?

That’s a challenge for every teacher who’s tasked with laying the foundation of career readiness and soft skills.

Fortunately, there’s a solution.

By following these four steps, you can effectively teach your middle school students everything they need to know about 21st Century skills.

1. Plan to Teach All 12 Skills


Before you start teaching, you have to plan your class. That means planning to teach all 12 of the 21st Century skills.

This can take a lot of time, especially since the skills are so different from one another. Depending on your class period duration and marking period duration, this could become even more difficult than you think at first.

You can simplify your planning with a handful of lesson ideas for each 21st Century skill.

You could approach concepts like critical thinking and creativity by presenting students with problem solving lessons.

You could also teach communication specifically by focusing on specialized communication lesson plans.

There’s always ultra-focused lesson plans for concepts like information literacy too.

You have a lot of options at your fingertips, and none of them are specifically right or wrong.

What matters is how you combine them together to create a comprehensive overview of 21st Century skills.

If you’re pinched for time, you can segment 21st Century skills according to different categories, like the four C’s. That’ll let you teach a portion of 21st Century skills without leaving students feeling like they only got halfway through a course.

But planning is just the first step.

To really nail 21st Century skills, you also need 21st Century technology.

2. Use 21st Century Technology


21st Century skills are all based around modern technology and how students can use it to succeed in school and the workplace.

As a result, it only makes sense to teach those skills through 21st Century technology!

That means using computers, tablets, and even smartphones as the basis for teaching digital concepts.

That’s not to say that traditional teaching methods are bad. In fact, using traditional lecture education combined with computer-based education is a great way to help students learn.

But without the accompanying technology, you won’t actually be teaching 21st Century skills since many of them rely on digital tools.

In other words, it’d be like trying to teach a full shop class with a textbook. The textbook might have instructions and schematics for students to make something, but they shouldn’t use it as a hammer!

Likewise, you can lecture in a 21st Century skills classroom, but don’t use a lecture as the one-size-fits-all solution for your students.

Besides, with today’s tech-focused students, you can’t expect to engage them without technology. 

Combining lecture-style education with technology actually creates a blended learning environment, which is ideal for educating a diverse range of students.

3. Highlight Digital Literacy & Digital Citizenship


Every 21st Century skills class needs to reference digital literacy and digital citizenship.

These two concepts form the cornerstone of 21st Century skills since they teach students how to understand online materials and behave when using the Internet.

Digital literacy emphasizes reading and critical thinking skills to ensure students can tell the difference between fact and fiction online.

This is especially important today when social media and low-quality websites make it so easy for fraudsters to disseminate misinformation.

If a student grows up on the Internet without learning how to tell between honest truth and malicious lies, their reality — and maybe even their lives — will change for the worse.

Similarly, students need to learn how to act when they’re using the Internet.

This is called digital citizenship, and it essentially reminds students that their words have power online. They can build someone up, but they can also tear someone down. Maintaining a sense of empathy is crucial to a student behaving responsibly and ethically online.

Plus, it’s difficult for anything to ever “disappear” online, especially with social media and search engines. Once a student says or posts something online, it’ll probably be around for a long, long time.

Today, it’s possible for someone to post a mean-spirited comment in social media when they’re 12 and still have it online when they’re 21.

They may have said or done something when they were a child and didn’t know any better. But because the Internet never forgets, they’ll deal with the consequences of it for years — even decades!

To make sure this doesn’t happen, your students need to understand digital citizenship from start to finish!

But, as we said earlier, digital literacy and digital citizenship require a major component — critical thinking.

4. Emphasize Critical Thinking


Critical thinking is important for any person in any generation. But today, it’s more important than ever for students to think as individuals instead of succumbing to incorrect or misleading information. 

By teaching your students how to think critically, they learn how to read between the lines and solve problems.

Fortunately, teaching critical thinking doesn’t have to be a chore since it’s so closely tied to problem solving.

One way you can inspire critical thinking is to ask students complex questions and have them map out their solutions independently.

This prevents students from depending on one another to complete the assignment, so each student has to exercise their brain.

Then, your students can compare their answers and — more importantly — their thought processes.

Keep in mind that there’s no right answer for these scenarios. The key is to get your students thinking and sharing with one another to expand their thinking capabilities.

You can use a few different “genres” of questions to get most students thinking.


  1. Present your students with a statement of fact as to why something (like a system) works.
  2. Ask them if they think it works well
  3. Ask them how they would improve it
  4. Ask them how they would argue for it
  5. Ask them how they would argue against it

Goal: Encouraging critical thinking in terms of objectivity


  1. Present two scenarios to students (like two reasoning questions)
  2. Ask them how they’re similar
  3. Ask them how they’re different
  4. Ask them what results they expect from each system
  5. Ask them to compare and contrast those results

Goal: Encourage critical thinking with predictive, logical thinking


  1. Present two scenarios to students (like two reasoning questions)
  2. Ask students how they’re related
  3. Ask students to map similarities
  4. Ask students how they overlap
  5. Ask students to declare whether these scenarios are connected concretely

Goal: Encourage critical thinking in the context of patterns, comparisons, and non-obvious information

These are just three options to spur the critical thinking of your students. You can always find more.

But by encouraging critical thinking, you’ll set your students up for success in the future when it comes to modern skills.  

Start Teaching 21st Century Skills with AES Career Readiness Curriculum

Are you ready to teach 21st Century skills to your students?

AES offers a full digital curriculum system that helps you teach these crucial concepts to students in middle school.

If you want to give your students the skills they need to succeed in the modern world, AES is here to help. 

But is it the right choice for you?

Check out a free demo of AES career readiness curriculum to see for yourself! 

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