21st Century Skills – Back to School Basics for Our Changing Profession

Our family recently embarked on an educational journey when we put our son into an online homeschooling program. In my job as an interpreter, trainer, and advocate for our profession, my days are already focused on finding the most effective educational tools and resources for interpreters to do their work. Still, it was new information for me when I realized that embedded in most homeschooling curriculums are teaching strategies and resources to impart students with the recently coined term: “21st Century Skills.

After two seconds thought, it made complete sense. Any school curriculum seeking to be relevant and effective in positioning students for success in our modern economy has to address the utterly transformed labor landscape into which they will be graduating.

Two seconds more thought made me sit up straight and think, wait a minute, I need those skills too! In fact, our entire profession is desperately trying to find ways to help interpreters adjust to the rapid changes reshaping the very structure of how we do business.

This effort is often hampered by the fact that interpreting is a greying profession, with too few members of younger generations making their way into our field. A recent study on the interpreting marketplace found that more than half of interpreters in the US are 48 years or older, and only 6% are under the age of 28, “indicating that this profession is not one that is typically embarked upon by students fresh out of high school or college.”[1]

Interpreting is caught in tsunami currents of technological and social change that are sweeping away whole industries in a matter of years and replacing them with structures never before seen in human history. Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, authors of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in our Times, state:

This monumental shift from Industrial Age production to that of the Knowledge Age economy—information-driven, globally networked—is as world-changing and life-altering as the shift from the Agrarian to the Industrial Age three hundred and fifty years ago.[2]

In a similar vein, Michael Saylor, author of The Mobile Wave, asserts that we are in the midst of a societal transformation in which whole industries will go from the tangible to the digital. News and print media, the music industry, and medical care, are all examples of professions literally being converted to software, now existing as digital bits of information with no physical substance, relayed via an increasing array of mobile devices.[3]

According to Saylor:

“The transformational power ahead is the confluence of two major technological currents: the universal access to mobile computing and the pervasive use of social networks…Understand the wave, and you can ride it. Refuse to adjust, and you will be swallowed.”

But how then, do we “understand the wave…and ride it,” as Saylor says?

Most interpreters were educated in a time dominated by paper and pencil. We came into a profession where our work models required our physical presence to help facilitate communication between parties who spoke different languages. In a seeming heartbeat, all that is changing. Now we might be interpreting through a computer screen, on a telephone, over a video unit, or even using a smart phone application.

Enter 21st Century Skills.

The phrase refers to a growing global movement that seeks to identify and then train today’s students with the skills needed to succeed in an economy that has moved away from reliance on “routine and manual skills” to one “with high demands for complex communicating and thinking skills.”[4]

In addition to the traditional 3 Rs, Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic, this movement has identified the following broad skill set key to surviving in our changing world:

  • Information Literacy
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Collaboration and Problem Solving
  • Communication, and Responsible Leadership.[5]

The table below, taken from The Partnership for 21st Century Skills website, outlines the broad range of personal, technological, and cognitive skills identified as critical to excelling in this new Information Age. The website provides detailed descriptions of each of these more general categories, and they are worth a closer look.[6]


It doesn’t take too much digging to realize that these concepts are as relevant to the 50-year old practicing interpreter as they are to the 15-year old aspiring journalist.

In studying the skill definitions in more detail, two, in particular, stood out to me as critically important for our profession.

Under Communication, the Partnership states that students should be able to:

  • Utilize multiple media and technologies, and know how to judge their effectiveness a priori as well as assess their impact
  • Communicate effectively in diverse environments (including multi-lingual)

And under Media Literacy, it highlights the need to know how to create media products by:

  • Understanding and utilizing the most appropriate media creation tools, characteristics and conventions
  • Understanding and effectively utilizing the most appropriate expressions and interpretations in diverse, multi-cultural environments.

A quick perusal of recent interpreting conference themes from around the world reveals a profession actively grappling with the need to stay on top of the tsunami wave of change and not drown in it. All too often, we do this by talking only to and amongst ourselves, forgetting to lift our heads and scan the horizon for others who may be tackling the same issues.

As it turns out, we need look no farther than our local elementary school. The 21st Century Skills Framework offers our profession a surfboard from which to starting riding the wave in the direction we dictate, rather than being swept along powerlessly into a changed labor landscape we have no ability to effect.

As my son begins his homeschooling journey, I’ll be sitting right next to him, working on my own 21st century skills.


[1] The Interpreting Marketplace: A Study of Interpreting in North America, by Nataly Kelly, Robert G. Stewart, and Vijayalaxmi Hedge, p. 9, 2010, © Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

[2] 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, p. 3, October 2009, Jossey-Bass.

[3] The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything by Michael Saylor, Preface, 2012

[4] 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, p. 9, October 2009, Jossey-Bass.

[5] From Partnership for 21st Century Skills; http://www.p21.org/overview/skills-framework

0 thoughts on “21st Century Skills – Back to School Basics for Our Changing Profession”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Great piece, as always, Katharine.

    “Interpreting is caught in tsunami currents of technological and social change that are sweeping away whole industries in a matter of years and replacing them with structures never before seen in human history.” – indeed!

    Thank you, Teacher!

  2. Al Navas says:


    Thank you for this piece. It is great.

    If I may offer something new, an undercurrent that is about to sweep us from where we stand. A not-so-subtle change is happening right under us, and all around us. We will *have* to adapt, or we will be left behind.

    The Information Age, as we have known it, is entering a new act. It is the “Age of Context”. All we have to do is look around us, to realize that the following is true:

    “In the Age of Context, our personal technology gets closer to us than we ever dreamed it would. It will know us better than the humans closest to us know us. It will handle the minutiae of our lives without ever complaining or needing a day off.

    And it almost always will get it right.”

    (Source: Forbes, August 6, 2012)
    A book in the works by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, authors of the book “Age of Context”.
    Both authors are on Google+ and Facebook. Scoble is the Startup Liaison for Rackspace, and possibly one of the most important tech visionaries today.

    Not only will technology change, but it will change us, and it will change the relationship we have with our beloved gadgets. For the interpreter this means adaptation – and quickly doing so.

    Thank you for a provocative and very interesting article!

    — Al Navas

    1. Hi Al,

      Thank you for this comment and for sharing this resource. I agree with you. All signs point to a semantic web, or Web 3.0 and 4.0 where the integration into our personal, daily lives reaches the level you are describing. The work on Google glasses and the ubiquitous integration of the web into our physical environment (home, cars, appliances, offices, etc) are clear signs of what is to come. Information Age gurus also speak to the geometric increase in the pace change, so that our children will experience a degree of change in their lifetimes that dwarfs what our generations are experiencing. Can you imagine?

      I will definitely be on the lookout for the Age of Context!


  3. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Hi, Katharine!
    Very provocative! As a greying interpreter (gosh, 48 isn’t so far away….) in the profession, I agree that technology is somewhat of a dreadful beast in some areas. I’d like to say I’ve kept up with the times in general, but just thinking of doing interpreting other than in-person evokes memories of my over-the-phone days… back then, I had a friend who used the computer to take her notes. I never did, but if I were in a situation where I’m doing OTP (or over video), I can see that as a step forward for me, at least. The rest is yet to be explored, but I can say that having references at my fingertips with my Casio and smartphone is something I didn’t have back in the day.
    Where I see a ton of relevance to the technology discussion is in the networking and educational arenas. It’s pretty common to have a translator and interpreter know how to do research on the web, but things like webinars (rather than in-person teaching) and instant networking are definitely technologies that serve a purpose much greater than just having a web “presence”; it’s taking our skills and putting them on hyper-drive. I have a ton of respect for our greyer colleagues who translated without a computer, let alone the internet. They surely had amazing talent because they couldn’t just check a website and come up with equivalencies. In that respect, technology could end up being a crutch for us in some ways, but that’s another story.
    Thanks for your article!

  4. Kathleen says:

    Great article, Katharine! I love those “aha!” moments when we look around and realize that what we’re observing all around us applies so very much to our own profession. Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

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