5 Ways Parents Can Encourage 21st Century Learning

Tatyana Warrick

Parents are key to supporting, if not inspiring, life-long learning. After all, they are, in the words of Tom Vander Ark, “Chief Growth Officers!” As our world of work and learning become more complex, so does parenting and the importance of supporting 21st century learning for even the earliest learners.

At P21, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, we spend a great deal of time talking about what 21st century learning looks like and the importance of making it available to all students. All parents want the best opportunities for their kids – education that is relevant, hands-on, and will set students up for success beyond school.

Because we are a partnership that brings together experts in business, education, and policy – we have heard from business as well as higher education about the kinds of skills and knowledge students need to be successful beyond high school. These skills are the bedrock of our Framework for 21st Century Learning. Many schools and educators have used it as a guide for learning in their communities. There are many schools that get it right and show what’s possible when both adults and students in a school or district are supported to do their best work.

Students today need to be globally aware and competent, digitally savvy, engaged as 21st century citizens, and master content deeply not just to ace the end-of-year tests, but for the big test which comes after – that first college application, the first “real” job.

The 4Cs- Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity- are the skills they will need, and are often cited as 21st century skills– but what’s new about them is how important they are for all kids, not just those lucky enough to live in the right zip code. Here’s a short animation from P21 and FableVision (Above & Beyond) that puts the 4Cs into perspective:


These skills foster thinking outside the box and drive innovation – both for our economy and our society. Plus it’s a much more fulfilling and fun way to learn!

Our recently released P21’s Parents Guide for 21st Century Learning and Citizenship includes tips for safe digital practices, building global awareness, and civic engagement. We include resources that help parents engage in their school communities, become advocates for their students and for strengthening the skills that are so important for success in the workforce and 21st century life.

So how can you ensure your kid is building these skills for life-long learning? Here are 5 concrete ways that parents can support 21st century learning – both in school and beyond, for even the youngest learners:

Model good citizenship. Whether making sure to vote in local elections, supporting your community, or just paying attention to what’s happening in the news, talk about what you do, and why it’s important with your child. (Here are some ideas from Generation Nation).

Make decisions about responsible digital practices together. Talk with your child about ways to behave safely and responsibly in the digital world, how to judge the accuracy and bias of online news and set expectations about digital devices.  (Here are some ideas from Common Sense Media and Connect Safely)

Make learning other languages and cultures a priority. The best time to expose kids to other cultures is between the ages of 7 and 12, but learning other languages builds extra connections in the brain, and may set your child up for success in more ways than one. (Check out this great resource from Edutopia on 21st century learning.)

Support your child’s school. Advocate for your child, and for your child’s teachers. Ask questions about how your school embeds the 4Cs into the learning day. Share resources you find with other parents. If you think your school is doing a fantastic job preparing kids for 21st century learning, work, and citizenship – nominate them for the P21 Exemplar program! If you are in the DC area, consider getting a Nifty Fifty presenter for your school.

Make connections to afterschool activities. Many of the best 21st century learning opportunities are available outside of school and probably already exist in your community! Prioritize 21st century skills and citizenship when choosing extra-curricular and out-of-school activities to reinforce problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity skills. Take advantage of programs at local libraries, summer camps, and boys & girls clubs. (Here are some other ideas from EdLeader21)

For more ideas, check out our full list of tips and strategies for families from the Parents’ Guide to 21st Century Learning and Citizenship, and set your child on a path to success!


This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Tatyana Warrick is Communications Director at Partnership for 21st Century Learning. Follow her on Twitter at @P21Learning.


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