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21st Century Literacy

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

A collection of cultural and communication practices.

We were thrilled in 2008 when the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in the United States defined “21st century literacy” as a complex collection of cultural and communication practices shared by a group. This gets at the core of many of the skills that are necessary to navigate an increasingly global workforce.

According to the NCTE, successful participants in the 21st century global society must be able to:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;

  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;

  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;

  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;

  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;

  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

Broken down into more bite-sized chunks, three main themes come out: Interpersonal Competency, Information Management, and Technology.

Interpersonal Competencies:

Build intentional cross-cultural connections. We can’t emphasize enough how much this leads to success in multicultural environments. See our article on the interplay between technical competence and Inter-Cultural Intelligence for an example of how technically competent teams without the ability to make these cross-cultural connections tend to fail after a short burst of success.

Solve problems collaboratively while simultaneously strengthening independent thought. Teams are increasingly intercultural, virtual, and inter-organizational. Within a large multinational, a team might be pulled together from different countries and a range of disciplines, experiences, and competencies. All this makes collaboration more important than ever. But a side-benefit of building intentional cross-cultural connections is that it diminishes groupthink. When people have links that extend outside their mono-cultural bubble, they are better able to think outside the box and capitalize on opportunities that nobody else catches


Information Management

Develop the ability to manage and analyze multiple streams of information simultaneously. With more information at our fingertips than ever before, processing that information and being able to filter out what is not relevant is key. We used to process tremendous amounts of information in nature, but we did most of it subconsciously. Now we have to consciously deal with multiple streams of information that may or may not affect our organizational strategy and shift our priorities. David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done’ has a great quotation on this topic:

Information overload is not the issue. If it were, you'd walk into the library and die. As soon as you connected to the Web, you'd just explode.
In fact, the most information-rich place in the world is the most relaxing: it's called nature. It has more varied horizons, more detail, more input of all sorts. As a matter of fact, if you want to go crazy, get rid of all your information: it's called sensory deprivation.
The thing about nature is, it's information rich, but the meaningful things in nature are relatively few--berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, maybe poison oak. There are only a few things in nature that force me to change behavior or make a decision. The problem with e-mail is that it's not just information; it's the need for potential action. It's the berries and snakes and bears, but they're embedded, and you don't know what's in each one. – David Allen & James Fallows, The Atlantic

Just as reading a single linear steam of information was a crucial aspect of literacy in previous centuries, the ability to process multiple streams is a necessary component of literacy in the 21st century.

Develop the ability to create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts. People who are used to managing multiple streams of information come to expect this in presentations. Learn to use sight, sound, emotion, and cultural touch points when you create texts, it will amplify your ability pique attention and be understood.

Technology Interaction:

Develop proficiency with technological tools. These are the tools that underlie the multiple streams, collaboration, intercultural connections, and multimedia texts that knowledge workers in the 21st century deal with on a daily basis.

The Ethical Implications of 21st Century Literacies:

Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments. Innocence/Guilt worldview influences shine out in the NCTE’s exposition of ethical responsibilities with a focus on “safe and legal” uses of technology, but they also address other issues, such as ensuring that the information shared considers all relevant sources, and that the use of information in new ways is matched by new concepts of right and wrong that can take into account the complexity of 21st century communication.

To begin your culture learning journey, Contact us; or get our mini-ebook: Inter-Cultural Intelligence: from surviving to thriving in the global space.


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