Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century

The National Academies

Known collectively as the National Academies, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council are private, nonprofit institutions that provide expert advice on some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation and the world. The National Research Council, the operating arm of the NAS and NAE, performs its studies and workshops through five major divisions; Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Earth and Life Studies, Engineering and Physical Sciences, Pol icy and Global Af fai rs, and the Transportation Research Board.

At any given year, the National Research Council sponsors hundreds of conferences, workshops, symposia, roundtables, standing committees, and other gatherings that attract the finest minds in academia and the public and private sectors. Each year, more than 6,000 of these experts volunteer to serve on hundreds of study committees that are convened to answer specific sets of questions. These venues for discussion and debate are essential for allowing the scientific process to unfold. In addition, the Academies publish dozens of proceedings and summaries on these activities and offers a variety of opportunities from grade school to grad school and beyond that are designed to ensure lifelong learning, promote research across disciplines, and engage the public in a deeper understanding of science.

A recent publication, “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century,” describes an important set of skills that develops college and career readiness, student-centered learning, and higher order thinking. These labels include both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, col laborat ion, ef fect ive communicat ion, mot ivat ion, persistence, and learning to learn. Creativity, innovation, and ethics are also qualities crucial to success and may be developed in formal or informal learning environments. Here we summarize the key conclusions of this study.

Domains of Competence

The report identifies three broad domains of competence: cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal.

  1. Cognitive domain. This involves reasoning and memory. This contains three clusters of competencies: cognitive processes and strategies; knowledge; and creativity. Critical thinking, information literacy, reasoning and argumentation, and innovation are part of this domain.
  2. Intrapersonal Domain. This involves the capacity to manage one’s behavior and emotions to achieve one’s goals (including learning goals). This domain includes three clusters of competencies: intellectual openness; work ethic and conscientiousness; and positive core self-evaluation. These clusters include competencies such as flexibility, initiative, appreciation for diversity, and metacognition (the ability to reflect on one’s own learning and make adjustments accordingly).
  3. Interpersonal Domain. This involves expressing ideas, and interpreting and responding to messages from others. It includes two clusters of competencies: teamwork and collaboration; and leadership.These clusters include competencies such as communication, collaboration, responsibility, and conflict resolution.

Cognitive competencies have been more extensively studied than interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies. These competencies have consistently positive correlations of modest size with desirable educational, career, and health outcomes. Early academic competencies are also positively correlated with these outcomes.

Among interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies, conscientiousness is most highly correlated with desirable educational, career, and health outcomes. Conscientiousness is defined as a tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking. Anti - social behavior, which has both intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions, is negatively correlated with these outcomes.

Although the absence of common definitions and quality measures poses a challenge to research, emerging evidence indicates that cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies can be taught and learned in ways that promote transfer.

“Deeper Learning” and Transfer

“Deeper learning” is the process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations.This capacity to apply learning is called transfer. Deeper learning often involves shared learning and interactions with others in a community. Through this process, the individual develops expertise in a particular domain of knowledge. The product of deeper learning is transferable knowledge, including content knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems. We refer to this blend of both knowledge and skills as“21st century competencies.”The competencies are structured around fundamental principles of the content area and their relationships. While other types of learning may allow an individual to recall facts, concepts, or pocedures, deeper learning allows the individual to transfer what was learned to solve new problems.

Methods for Deeper Learning

Designers and developers of instruction have targeted deeper learning and development of transferable 21st century competencies—and meaningful assessment to measure student progress in these areas—as a primary goal. Such instruction should begin with the earliest grades and be sustained throughout students’K-12 careers. The following methods can be used:

  1. Encourage elaboration, questioning, and explanation from students. For example, they can prompt students who are reading a history text to think about the author’s intent and explain specific information and arguments as they read.
  2. Engage learners in challenging tasks, while also supporting them with guidance, feedback, and encouragement to reflect on their own learning processes and the status of their understanding.
  3. Draw f rom examples and cases, such as modeling step-by-step how students can carry out a procedure to solve a problem and using sets of worked examples.
  4. Foster student motivation by connecting topics to students’personal lives and interests, engaging students in collaborative problem solving, and drawing attention to the knowledge and skills that students are developing, rather than focusing on grades or scores.


Instruction can use assessment to:

  1. make learning goals clear to students;
  2. regularly monitor, provide feedback, and respond to students’ learning progress; and
  3. involve s tudent s in self - and peer - a s sessment .
    Designers and developers of curriculum, instruction and assessment in problem-solving and metacognition should use modeling and feedback techniques that highlight the processes of thinking rather than focusing exclusively on the products of thinking . Problem- solving and metacognitive competencies should be taught and assessed within a specific discipline or topic area, rather than as a stand-alone course.


We must devotet ime and resources to develop a sophisticated system that fosters the process of deeper learning. This process is essential to the development of transferable 21st century competencies. Foundations, state and federal agencies should support research to define and develop assessments of 21st century competencies. In particular, they should develop valid, reliable, and fair assessments of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies.