A high school class learning 21st century skills
Leadership Skills and Implementation

A Framework for Teaching Tomorrow’s Innovators Today

By Jennifer Gunn

It’s said that today’s teachers are educating students for a job market that doesn’t yet exist. Foundational skills are still important, but how should this generation’s educators teach tomorrow’s workers and innovators? 21st-century learning is at the heart of a movement preparing students to work in a very different world. But the concept of 21st-century skills may seem nebulous. That’s why a Chicago organization created an easy-to-integrate skills framework you can start using right now.

How it all began

Longtime youth advocate Leslie Beller is the founder and CEO of Chicago’s MHA Labs, which stands for “the means and measures of human achievement.” MHA Labs has conducted extensive research on the habits and mindsets citizens need to be successful, creating an entire set of building blocks that she believes today’s learners will need tomorrow. “In 2010, I was asked to design a Work-Based Learning Readiness Rubric for the Chicago Public Schools Career and Technical Education (CTE) department to more effectively help them identify internship-ready candidates from their 17,000 CTE students,” says Beller. MHA Labs recognized the expansive and bewildering nature of soft-skills research.

“Researchers are invested in domains such as soft skills, habits of mind, deeper learning, cognition, non-cognitive factors, college readiness, career readiness, and social-emotional learning that compete for mindshare among youth developers, colleges, and employers,” according to MHA. There was a clear need for a concise framework that all stakeholders could use, so the MHA Labs team built a “4,000-item competency database from existing research and engaged over 100 subject matter experts, assessment specialists, youth, and parents to isolate six core skill domains and 35 core skills.” This work sparked a “21st-century skills readiness movement in the city of Chicago and beyond, and we simply focused the last seven years on supporting the movement’s goals and expanding cradle through career,” says Beller.

The 21st-century skills framework

The MHA Skills Framework itself is rather simple. MHA’s Six Building Blocks include:

  • Personal Mindset
  • Planning for Success
  • Social Awareness
  • Verbal Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Problem Solving

These six building blocks serve as tools for schools and employers in teaching and employing a new generation. Within the six building blocks are “35 core social, emotional, and cognitive skills deemed critical for college, career, and life success,” as well as descriptive verbs and adjectives that apply to each.

For example, Personal Mindset includes words like flexible, adaptable, and resilient as well as the following skills:

  1. Needs minimal supervision to complete tasks
  2. Attempts to complete tasks independently before asking for help
  3. Follows rules/directions as required by the task/situation
  4. Maintains focus on tasks despite internal (e.g., emotional) and/or external distractions
  5. Avoids actions that have produced undesirable consequences or results in the past
  6. Strives to overcome barriers/setbacks, seeking assistance when needed
  7. Adapts approach in response to new conditions or others’ actions

How to use the framework

MHA provides practical tools for integrating the framework into classroom learning, including colorful posters, materials, worksheets, and planners — and it’s all for free, downloadable from the MHA Labs website. You can also choose to order additional materials, or have paper materials professionally printed at cost for use in your school.

Displaying the Building Blocks posters in every classroom — whether printed in-school or ordered — is an easy start in creating whole-school familiarity of the new 21st-century skills framework language. Using the free worksheets and certificates in classes provides a pathway for students to self-identify their strengths and areas of growth. The Toolkit also provides a “Quick Start” guide for teachers to get started on the work.

Another great way to begin is with the very youth-friendly MHA Boss Youth and Employer Empowerment Toolkit that includes “five youth empowerment workshops that can be done as a mastery-based scope and sequence or simply a grab-and-go activity resource guide.”

A toolkit for personal growth

The skills framework is just that — a framework schools can use to help promote building 21st-century skills in content-area classes, Career/Technical Education, life-skills, or advisory classes. “MHA Labs’ frameworks are fundamentally the foundations for being a highly functioning human. The human nature of college, career, and life readiness was highlighted and reinforced by our High School Student-Founders team and became the focus of the work,” says Beller. “Home, school, work, community, civics, and life all generate specific demands on our core foundational skills as humans. These spaces and places become highly functioning when all members possess the foundational skills and enhance their own unique strengths. So if you want a ‘better’ world, you need to care about human development.”

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