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The Right Road

Boarding Schools Excel at Teaching 21st-Century Skills

Thanks to a constantly changing and increasingly technological economy, today’s children will face career choices that their parents can’t currently conceive. And yet, it is up to today’s adults to prepare students for these unpredictable futures. Thus policy researchers, business leaders and educational experts constantly seek to define the qualities needed for lifelong success in the 21st century. Such lists often highlight ways of thinking and behaving that have been traditionally called “soft skills” in the workplace. These learning priorities intrigue me because finding a best-fit school is about helping students identify environments that encourage all skills—classic and cutting edge—to prosper. 

One model that recently caught my eye is from Janna Q. Anderson, a professor at Elon University. Working in conjunction with the Pew Research Center, Anderson co-authored a report that identified the following as “most important life-skills” for young people in 2020:

  • The ability to concentrate.
  • The ability to do public problem solving through cooperative work. 
  • The ability to effectively search for information, then discern its quality and veracity, and finally to communicate these findings.
  • Synthesizing details from many sources.
  • Being strategically future-minded, through the practice of horizon-scanning and trends analysis.
  • The ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the message in the ever-growing sea of information.

 Tanmay Vora, an author and speaker about organizational leadership adds the following skills to this list:

  • The ability to learn constantly in a self-directed mode.
  • Social intelligence and ability to connect with people beyond geographic barriers in meaningful ways for collaboration.
  • Having an adaptive mindset to keep up with the pace of changes around us.
  • Interdisciplinary thinking
  • Critical thinking.

While secondary school is its own valuable experience, it is also where students gain the strong footing that will bring success in college and beyond. At age 14, many students do not constantly self-direct and focus their learning. Developmentally, their aptitudes for evaluation, synthesis, and communication of information are just emerging. Nonetheless, by high school graduation, the foundations of these learning patterns should be in place; the college experience then adds more layers of resilience and sophistication.

In the previous issue, I wrote about how independent schools are perfectly designed to reinforce a growth mindset. They are similarly suited to reinforcing these 21st-century skills because of the high frequency for project-based work and the emphasis on self-advocacy and building relationships. Boarding schools take these prospects to yet another level because learning opportunities occur day and night, every day of the week. For example, if students are interested in the topic of global entrepreneurship, they can discuss this not only during the school day, but also at dinner, during evening study hours, or almost any time. Dedicated faculty are similarly available for constant mentoring. When everyone is part of a community, living together with a common educational purpose, then the threads of learning can be picked up at a moment’s notice. 

At a boarding school, the heightened camaraderie of students and the constant engagement of faculty maximize the chances for teachable moments. As a result, I’ve heard college admissions directors say that they can easily identify applicants who are graduating from boarding school. These students approach the college adventure as purposeful individuals, confident in their strategies for learning, and looking to build collaborative relationships. They already have practice in building the 21st-century skills identified above and are ready to take on whatever comes next. 

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, ranging from day schools to boarding schools and from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for planning across different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at