Home > 21st Century Classroom > The Role of 21C Skills in Learning Mathematics

The Role of 21C Skills in Learning Mathematics

This post is the written form of a presentation I gave in a class that I am taking. The purpose was to show how I’ve been dealing with the tensions between 21st century skills and the work I’ve been doing in some math classrooms. The prezi (which lacks detail but shows a good over-view) is available here.

Twenty first century skills have been a topic of discussion in Alberta since 1987 when Alberta Education published Essential Concepts, Skills and Attitudes for Grade 12.  Since then various organizations have used the term ‘21st century skills’ to refer to a set of overarching skill sets and competencies to be developed throughout a child’s schooling (ISTE, 2007; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.; Alberta Education, 2010).

There seems to be consensus among the educational organizations regarding what 21st century skills are, each noting the following skills: critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, information fluency, citizenship and technology literacy. As a 21st Century Literacy consultant my job is to foster 21st century skill development of students in my work with teachers and in classrooms. It has been particularly difficult to do this in mathematics classrooms which has led me to wonder: do 21st century skills have any place in the mathematics classroom? I analyzed the Alberta Mathematics Program of Studies 10 – 12, as well as research in the field of mathematics education, looking for a relevance of 21st century skill development in the schooling of mathematics.

There seems to be a clear connection between 21st century skill sets and the tenants of the Mathematics Program of Studies in Alberta. The philosophy of the program states “Meaningful student discussions also provide essential links among concrete, pictorial, and symbolic representations of mathematics” and “The learning environment should value, respect and address all students’ experiences and ways of thinking, so that students are comfortable taking intellectual risks, asking questions and posing conjectures”. These statements directly identify the necessity of disciplinary discourse in the learning of mathematics.

The program further identifies 7 processes that are “critical aspects of learning (Mathematics Grade 10-12, pp 4). These processes include: communication, connections, mental mathematics and estimation, problem solving, reasoning, technology and visualization. Even though the program explicitly states a need for discourse, communication and reasoning, these processes aren’t built into the outcomes as they are in other Alberta Education Program of Studies (Social Studies, Science and English/Language Arts).  Another point of interest are the 21st century skills that aren’t mentioned: collaboration, innovation, information fluency and digital literacy.

Research in mathematics education does suggest that at least some of the 21st century skills are important to the learning of mathematics. Lampert (2005/1990) distinguished there was a difference between traditional school mathematics and the discipline of mathematics. Traditionally, school mathematics has involved students being told mathematical principles and then using those principles to solve problems. In the discipline, ‘knowers’ of mathematics make conjecture, identify assumptions, and challenge one another and themselves to develop new understandings that are shared by those involved in the discourse of the discipline. Lampert suggested in order for our students to become ‘knowers‘ of mathematics “[A student] needs to be able to stand back from his or her own knowledge, evaluate its antecedent assumptions, argue about the foundations of its legitimacy, and be willing to have others do the same” (Lampert, 2005/1990 pp 154).  This type of conjecturing, reasoning and arguing is how students develop an understanding of the mathematics as a discipline and it occurs through authentic discourse between students.

The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics also identifies  the importance of collaboration and verbal exchange. They state “Interacting with others offers opportunities for exchanging and reflecting on ideas… Students should work effectively with others” (NCTM, 2000 pp 349). Mathematics and mathematical understanding doesn’t develop in isolation – it  develops through frequent and meaningful interactions with others in a community.

Twenty first century skill sets are well-defined and agreed upon by various organizations. These skills are very directly stated in the Alberta Mathematics Program of Studies showing their importance in the program, despite not being as well-developed as in other content areas. They are also showing up in research and important literature, suggesting that 21st Century skills were important far before the 21st century – simply put,  these skills lead to the learning of mathematics. The question that will further drive much of my thinking is how can teachers develop 21st century skills, specifically discourse and collaboration, in the secondary mathematics classroom?


International Society for Technology in Education. (2007) National Educational Technology Standards for Students (2nd ed.)

Alberta Education. (2010). Inspiring Action on Education: A Discussion Paper [Data file]. Retrieved from http://engage.education.alberta.ca/uploads/1006/20100621inspiringact86934.pdf

Alberta Education. (1987). Essential Concepts, Skills and Attitudes for Grade 12 (2nd draft). Edmonton, AB.

Partnership For 21s Century Skills. (n.d.). Framework for 21st Century Learning. Retrieved October, 28 2010, from http://www.p21.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=120.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA.

Lampert, M. (2004) When the Problem Is Not the Question and the Solution Is Not the Answer: Mathematical Knowing and Teaching. In Carpenter, T. P., Dossey, J. A., & Koehler, J. L. (Ed.) Classics in Mathematics Education Research (pp. 153-169). Reston, VA: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (Reprinted from American Educational Research Journal, Spring 1990, 27, 29-63)

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