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News from the National Academies

Date:  July 10, 2012




Transferable Knowledge and Skills Key to Success in Education and Work; Report Calls for Efforts to Incorporate 'Deeper Learning' Into Curriculum


WASHINGTON — Educational and business leaders want today's students both to master school subjects and to excel in areas such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication -- abilities often referred to by such labels as "deeper learning" and "21st-century skills."  In contrast to the view that these are general skills that can be applied across a range of tasks in academic, workplace, or family settings, a new report from the National Research Council found that 21st-century skills are specific to content knowledge and performance within a particular subject area.  The report describes how this set of key skills relates to learning mathematics, English, and science as well as to succeeding in education, work, and other areas of life.


Deeper learning is the process through which a person develops the ability to take what was learned in one situation and apply it to new situations, says the report.  Through deeper learning, the person develops transferable knowledge, which includes both expertise in a particular subject area and procedural knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to solve unique problems in that subject.  The report refers to this blend of transferable content knowledge and skills as "21st-century competencies."


The committee that wrote the report identified three broad categories of 21st-century competencies: the cognitive domain, which includes thinking and reasoning skills; the intrapersonal domain, which involves managing one's behavior and emotions; and the interpersonal domain, which involves expressing ideas and communicating appropriately with others.  Supporting deeper learning and developing the full range of 21st-century competencies within mathematics, English, and science will require systematic instruction and sustained practice, which calls for instructional time and resources beyond what is currently spent on content learning, the report says.


Research has identified features of instruction that support the process of deeper learning and therefore the development of transferable knowledge and skills in a given subject area.  Curricula and instructional programs should be designed with a focus on clear learning goals along with assessments to measure students' progress toward and attainment of the goals, the report says.  These programs should feature research-based teaching methods such as using multiple and varied representations of concepts, encouraging elaboration and questioning, engaging learners in challenging tasks while also providing guidance and feedback, teaching with examples and cases, connecting topics to students' lives and interests, and using assessments that monitor students' progress and provide feedback for adjusting teaching and learning strategies.


Goals for deeper learning and 21st-century competencies are found in the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics and English language arts and the National Research Council's Framework for K-12 Science Education.  All three disciplines emphasize the development of cognitive competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, and argumentation, but differ in their interpretation of these competencies.  For example, the rules for constructing an argument and what counts as supporting evidence are different for physics than they are for history or essay writing.  Research and development is needed to create and evaluate new curricula for 21st-century competencies and to more clearly define and develop assessments of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies, says the report.


Because 21st-century competencies contribute to learning of school subjects, widespread development of those competencies in the K-12 curriculum could potentially reduce disparities in educational attainment and other outcomes, the report suggests.  But the committee found that research to date linking 21st-century competencies to desirable education, career, and health outcomes is limited and primarily correlational and does not show causal effects.


Cognitive competencies, however, show consistent, positive correlations with desirable educational and career outcomes, the committee found.  Among intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, conscientiousness -- being organized, responsible, and hard-working -- shows the strongest correlation, while antisocial behavior is negatively correlated with these desirable outcomes.  The committee also found that the total number of years a person spends in school strongly predicts adult earnings, health, and civic engagement, suggesting that schooling develops a poorly understood mix of valuable 21st-century competencies.


The report recommends that state and federal policies and programs support deeper learning and acquisition of 21st-century competencies, including efforts to help teachers and administrators understand the role of these competencies in learning core academic content and create environments that support students' learning of these skills.


The study was sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Science Foundation, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Pearson Foundation, Raikes Foundation, SCE, and the Stupski Foundation.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.



Lauren Rugani, Media Relations Officer

Luwam Yeibio, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail


Additional resources:

Report in Brief

Pre-publication copies of Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education

Board on Testing and Assessment


Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st-Century Skills


James W. Pellegrino (chair)

Distringuished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences; 

Distinguished Professor of Education; and


Learning Sciences Research Institute

University of Illinois



Greg J. Duncan*

Distinguished Professor of Education

University of California



Joan Herman


National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing

University of California

Los Angeles


Margaret A. Honey

President and CEO

New York Hall of Science

New York City


Patrick C. Kyllonen


Center for New Contracts

Educational Testing Service

Princeton, N.J.


Henry M. Levin

William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, and


National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education

Teachers College

Columbia University

New York City


Christine Massey

Director of Research and Education

Institute for Research in Cognitive Science

University of Pennsylvania



Richard E. Mayer

Professor of Psychology

University of California

Santa Barbara


C. Kent McGuire

President and CEO

Southern Education Foundation



P. David Pearson

Professor of Language and Literacy and Cognition and Development

Graduate School of Education

University of California



Edward A. Silver

William A. Brownell Collegiate Professor in Education

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor; and


School of Education

University of Michigan






Margaret Hilton

Study Director


* Member, National Academy of Sciences