A graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Denver College of Law, Ken Kay has dedicated the majority
Ken Kay
Ken Kay

of his professional career to the field of education. Throughout his twenty-eight years spent in Washington, DC, Kay became a major figure in coalition building and competitiveness. With a focus on technology, innovation, and leadership, Kay helped to create and cement a coalition between American universities and high-tech
companies. This initiative advanced research and development policies, and created a distinct connection between education, economics, and technology.

Kay would develop these connections further in 2002, as the co-founder and President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, holding that position for eight years. As part of the Partnership, Kay developed a series of skill sets which would be of use to students in the twenty-first century, as future workers, leaders, and innovators. These skills included global awareness, media literacy, and directed motivation and formed the basis for a system which could be utilized by school districts, schools, and individual teachers alike to prepare students for a rapidly changing and advancing world. The Partnership's reputation and respected set of formative skills gained the attention of numerous technological and educational companies, including Adobe Systems Incorporated, Apple, Blackboard, McGraw-Hill Education, and Pearson Education.

In recent years Kay has continued this focus on twenty-first century skills, becoming a co-founder and the CEO of EdLeader21, as well as serving on the board of the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). EdLeader21, a continuation of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, aims to provide educators with rubrics, workshops and other resources they may use to properly inject twenty-first century skills into their respective classrooms. Kay's focus is on the four 'C's: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, which provides educators with a direction for their teaching practices. As a board member with the Buck Institute of Education, Kay has continued his advocating for preparing students to lead successful lives, through the use of Problem-Based Learning in both individual classrooms and at the school-wide level.

21st Century Skills

With the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Kay recommended a set of skill sets educators and school boards should recognize for the benefit of their students. These skill sets were divided into four primary groups:
  • Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes, identifying the primary subjects students should be learning, including English, world languages, mathematics, and economics, as well as interdisciplinary topics which should be focused on in class, such as civic, health, and environmental literacy
  • Life and Career Skills, preparing students for complex life and work environments by developing their leadership abilities, initiative, productivity, and cultural awareness
  • Learning and Innovation Skills, comprising the four areas Kay and his fellow educational researchers would bring to EdLeader21, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity
  • Information, Media, and Technology Skills, ensuring students are information, media, and ICT literate and able to thrive and succeed in the heavily technologically-focused environment of twenty-first century society

These skill sets together formed the Partnership for 21st Century Skills' framework for success in education, along with maintaining educational standards and progressive instructions in a supportive learning environment.

P21 Framework

Though these skills, outside of ICT literacy skills, are not technically unique to the twenty-first century, as Kay rightfully admits, he provided numerous reasons as to why they are crucial for students to hone in the modern day United States. These included an acknowledgment of the rapidly changing world, including career prospects and opportunities for individuals, as well as a sharpening focus on technology; a lack of adaptation to this change by U.S. schools and students, citing the demand for creativity and problem-solving by employers not being met; and an overall lack of direction for securing economic competitiveness.

Though all four groupings of skill sets are important to the overall framework, Kay's assertions present Learning and Innovation Skills, and Information, Media, and Technology Skills as the crux of the model, due to their increasing significance and recognisability by employers. The '4Cs' are valuable assets for students in both fulfilling the needs of their employers, and making further and future contributions in their respective fields, by becoming interconnected and communicative, though self-directed, individuals. Changing management structures alongside an erratic economy and job market cement creativity, flexibility and critical thinking as desired skills for workers in a plethora of fields and at multiple levels of responsibility and influence. The necessity for Information, Media and Technology Skills is more overt, with the presence and permanence of technology creating far reaching effects on the workplace. Without literacy in the fields of information, including research, media, and ICT, students will find themselves ill-equipped to gain meaningful employment, or advance further in the increasing number fields becoming reliant on new technologies.


Curricular Considerations

The 21st century skills described by Kay and the Partnership were designed as benchmarks and goals for student success, achievement, and preparedness in the digital age. In the classroom, these skills can be used in much the same way, incorporated into the curriculum to provide students with specific aptitudes and abilities they should be demonstrating throughout the semester or year. This practice is already done to an extent in the Ontario elementary and secondary school curriculums, with 'learning skills and work habits' being assessed, including collaboration, initiative and responsibility. While these cover the 'Life and Career Skills' portion of the Partnership's framework and one of the 'Four Cs,' crucial developmental and necessary skills for the twenty-first century, including critical thinking and information literacy, remain unaccounted for. Teachers seeking to prepare their students for the rapidly changing landscape of the digital age should expand upon and add to these evaluated skills and habits, covering the spectrum of Kay's 21st century skills.

Through instructional design, these skills, particularly learning and innovation skills and information, media, and technology skills, should be practiced and honed on a regular basis. Lave's and Wenger's communities of practice theory, as well as Prensky's partnering model offer ideal opportunities to cover the 'Four Cs' of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. Communities of practice are created through the dedication to complete common goals, such as attaining necessary twenty-first century skills, and provide a context for discussion, the sharing of ideas, and connectivity to emerge. Partnering sees the student in a variety of roles, including researcher, thinker, and world-changer, all developing critical thinking and communication skills, while placing the student in a learner-centered and collaborative environment. Prensky also proffers students the role of technology-user, aligning with the information and ICT literacy skills of the framework. As this is the area becoming most prominent and expansive in the twenty-first century, it is crucial teachers allow students to become both familiarized and responsible digital citizens, providing access to school or classroom technology on a consistent basis.

Extending Questions

  1. Could the 21st Century Skills developed by Kay and the Partnership be applied to other socio-economic contexts besides the United States? Or are these prescribed skills too 'Americentric?'
  2. After reviewing both videos, and noting the continuing development and promotion of the 'Four Cs' (collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication) by Kay and his colleagues, which of these four skills do you believe is most important to education? To economics and career success?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with Kay that one of the focuses of education should be on preparing students to become economically competitive citizens? Is this belief recognizable in your current or previous educational settings?

Researcher's External Links

Blog on edutopia
Reflections on Education


EdLeader21. (2012). Ken Kay, CEO. Retrieved from
Kay, K. (2010). 21st CenturySkills: Why They Matter, What They Are, and How We Get There. Retrieved from
Kay, K. (2011, August 30). The Seven Steps to Becoming a 21st Century School or District [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2007). Welcome to Route 21. Retrieved from

"As a whole, the education sector has not yet fully embraced a culture of continuous improvement. Often when I meet with teachers and talk about a topic like critical thinking someone will remark, "I already do that." The issue is not whether you "do" critical thinking, but whether you're committed to continually improving your practices in support of the critical thinking capabilities of your students" - Ken Kay