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Evaluating 21st Century Competencies

by Sheryl MacMath


Across Canada curriculum changes can be seen on the immediate horizon. Ministries of Education are moving away from curriculum that solely focuses on acquiring knowledge to instead focus on how students use knowledge. When cell phones and tablets enable an infinite amount of information on dates, people, facts and events at our fingertips, requiring students to memorize the major battles of World War I or the definition of a simile are quickly fading away. Instead, students need to be able to think critically, work collaboratively, be creative and solve problems that exist far beyond the classroom. These are often referred to as 21st century skills (Dede, 2010) or competencies (Ananiadou & Claro, 2009).

All aspects of 21st century learning fall under what Wiggins and McTighe (2005) refer to as application skills: the “ability to use knowledge effectively in new situations and diverse realistic contexts” (p.92). The challenge for teachers is moving from the assessment of knowledge to the assessment of the application of knowledge; no longer is the right answer all we are looking for. To successfully meet this challenge, teachers need to be able to do two things.

1. Describe what the student is doing or looks like when they are demonstrating a particular competency. For example, what does a student who is critically thinking look like? What are they doing? What does collaboration look like? How will I know if I see it?

2. Gather evidence of the competency. Rather than trying to answer the question, how do I assess critical thinking (for example), instead ask, how do I gather evidence of critical thinking? This slight adjustment in question opens up a field of possibilities for teachers.

Once you have done these two things, you are ready to design assessment tasks for your students. Let’s give it a try with a few examples. Keep in mind: try to always use words that your students can understand. If you do, you can share these expectations and descriptions with students enabling them to self-assess their own skill development. “I” statements have been used below to ensure that students can use these descriptors to assess their own level of competency.

Critical Thinking

What does a student who is thinking critically look like?
• I look for different perspectives on an issue.
• I examine the pros and cons of different solutions.
• I recognize the most important stakeholders.
• I evaluate which implications are more or less important.
• I evaluate the accuracy of the sources that I use.
• I make decisions that I can support with evidence.

What evidence will show that a student is thinking critically?

Remember: your evidence can be captured in a variety of ways. For all of the possibilities below students can provide a written statement, make a video, illustrate a comic strip, create a voice thread, etc. You could also interview students to get this information.

• Require students to make a decision and then describe the process they went through (e.g., what perspectives they considered, what arguments were most important, what sources were the most useful) to make that decision.
• Give students a position or decision and have them evaluate the strength of that position or decision.
• Have students complete a pros and cons or t-chart looking at the implications of different actions.
• Have students evaluate the feasibility of implementing a specific plan of action.

Some possible assessment tasks for critical thinking.

1. Have students draw a picture of the best environment for a particular local plant. Have them explain why this is the best environment. Students should compare this with another environment that they did not think was as good. (primary science)

2. Have students investigate four different organizations raising money to help the community of Fort McMurray deal with the raging fire in that region. Students have to choose the organization they would give money to, explain their reasons, and reference who would be most affected. (intermediate social studies)

3. Have students display data using two different bar charts with different scales. Students then explain how changing the scale affects how the reader understands the data. (intermediate math)

4. Give students three poems by different authors. Students are to evaluate the poems using criteria related to (a) effective use of literary devices, (b) ability to evoke an emotional response, and (c) ability to view an idea/person/event in a different way. Evaluations should include reference to specific parts of each poem and implications based on audience. (secondary English language arts)

Let’s try another one…


What does a student who is creative look like?

• I generate a variety of options, possibilities or solutions.
• I plan multiple pathways for reaching an end goal.
• I switch strategies when a challenge emerges.
• I make reasonable and new connections between different ideas.
• I reframe questions, problems, solutions, needs and possibilities to fit different situations or perspectives.
• I invent new ways of communicating ideas.
• I use my skills and talents in different ways and situations.
• I build on the ideas of others.
• I evaluate my ideas, solutions and products so as to improve and develop in the future.

What evidence shows that a student is thinking or working creatively?

• Have students generate multiple solutions, products, possibilities or ideas rather than just one. They can then evaluate the possibilities and make a choice.
• Partway through a project have students stop and evaluate how it is going. Are they on track? Were there challenges that came up that were unexpected? How were they handled? What changes did they make from the original plan?
• Have students create a two-column chart for a group discussion. In one column have students take notes regarding ideas/suggestions/questions that other group members come up with. In the second column have students note those ideas/suggestions/questions that they come up with. Have students use lines to show connections they made to the contributions of other group members in contrast to when they added a new idea themselves.
• Once students have learned a skill have them

Some possible assessment tasks to demonstrate creativity.

1. Give students an open-ended question and have them find different ways of solving the problem (e.g., using pictures, charts or graphs, algebra, trial and error, etc). (intermediate or secondary math)
2. Have students select two different concepts randomly from a bag (e.g., corn and rain). They are to identify how these are similar and create a metaphor or simile to show this. Students then draw a picture to show this similarity. (primary or intermediate English language arts)
3. Have students create a timeline for the seven major events leading up to the War of 1812. At each of the events have students identify an alternative action that could have been taken. Draw a picture and provide an explanation of how history could have been affected. (secondary social studies)
4. Have students create their own animal/insect. Their design needs to identify the structural adaptations that enable it to eat, stay safe, drink and move. Have students demonstrate how they came up with their ideas. As an extension students can design two different environments in which this new animal/insect could survive. (primary science)

As these examples for creativity and critical thinking illustrate, once you reorient yourself to looking for evidence that demonstrates how students come up with their answers rather than just the answers themselves, evaluating skill-based competencies for the 21st century become easier to imagine.

Ananiadou, K., & Claro, M. (2009). 21St Century Skills And Competences For New Millennium Learners In OECD Countries. OECD Education Working Papers, 41. Retrieved May 5th, 2016 from
Dede, C. (2010). Comparing frameworks for 21st century skills. In Bellanca, J., & Brandt, R. (Eds.), 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn (pp 51-74). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Wiggins, W., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding By Design (expanded 2nd edition). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.



Sheryl MacMath

Sheryl MacMath is an Associate Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC. She teaches courses in planning and assessment for both elementary and secondary teacher candidates, as well social studies and math methods. She works with teachers and candidates in the field to ensure she remains connected to the exciting best practices occurring in today’s Canadian schools.


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