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The 4 Cs are more than skills taught in school--they'll stick with students throughout their academic, professional, and personal growth

How the 4 Cs prepare students for the real world

The 4 Cs are more than skills taught in school--they'll stick with students throughout their academic, professional, and personal growth

As our world continues to become more connected through technology, today’s students have boundless access to a wealth of information. But, to effectively leverage these resources, students need to be able to make meaning of them.

According to educator Thomas Hoerr, the very notion of intelligence has changed. We no longer rely on the limits of our single mind to access the information resources we need to solve problems. Problem solving has always involved teamwork and cooperation. Today, however, open source programs, wikis, blogs, and other Web 2.0 technologies enable total strangers divided by space and time to collaborate.

Successful problem solving in the 21st century requires us to work effectively and creatively with computers, with vast amounts of information, with ambiguous situations, and with other people from a variety of backgrounds.

There will always be a growing need for people who can effectively analyze, problem solve, and work constructively with others. All of these actions require four competencies, also known as the 4 Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

In my experience, educators agree the 4 Cs are important, but have expressed concern for effectively putting them into practice. It’s not uncommon to encounter a series of isolated activities offered to students so teachers can check the box of one of the four competencies. The connection to the world beyond classroom walls is often missing.

If we don’t give learners an opportunity to gain these critical skills in grades K-12, they will struggle to navigate college and the workforce. To ensure students are prepared for life beyond high school, educators must proactively incorporate the 4 Cs throughout curriculum.

Critical thinking

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers and Achieve, critical thinking and problem-solving skills are two key areas in preparing students for college and career readiness.

Modern society requires us to be active critical thinkers. We must sift through a vast array of information regarding financial, health, civic and even leisure activities to formulate plausible plans of action.

In the workplace, employees must employ critical thinking to better serve customers, develop better products, and continuously improve themselves within an ever-changing global economy.

Students need opportunities to question data, consider different perspectives of issues, evaluate information and present their points of view with logical reasoning. Critical thinking begins in the early years and continues throughout life – it’s not reserved for a special population, time of day or location. Critical thinking is needed in all walks of life.

As educators, we must cultivate academic critical thinking mindsets within our students. Critical thinking enables students to take initiative, and exhibit persistence where they display ‘stick-to-itiveness’ as they engage in tasks and follow through until completion.

Cultivating a culture for thinking is imperative. I support a school-wide emphasis where all stakeholders understand its importance and use a shared language to promote its practice.

Mentoring Minds, a provider of K-12 critical thinking materials, recommends integrating nine traits of critical thinking across curriculum, where students learn to:

Adapt: I adjust my actions and strategies to accomplish tasks.
Examine: I use a variety of methods to explore and analyze.
Create: I use my knowledge and imagination to express new and innovative ideas.
Communicate: I use clear language to express my ideas and to share information.
Collaborate: I work with others to achieve better outcomes.
Inquire: I seek information that excites my curiosity and inspires my learning.
Link: I apply knowledge to reach new understandings.
Reflect: I review my thoughts and experiences to guide my actions.
Strive: I use effort and determination to focus on challenging tasks.

Adding to the importance of critical thinking, research into the success rates of college students and high school seniors has shown that students’ level of critical thinking is predictive of their grades or cumulative college grade point averages.


Summed up in ASCD Education Update, creativity, ingenuity, and innovation are the keys to success in the evolving global economy. Innovation and creativity are required for personal and professional success in today’s competitive workforce. To prepare young people for work and life beyond, educators must spark student creativity.

The following resources are recommended by the National Education Association for incorporating creativity in the classroom:

Critical and Creative Thinking – Bloom’s Taxonomy
Dan Pink’s Right Brain Discussion Guide for Educators
Mathematics and the Arts
Teaching Creativity
Intel: Visual Ranking, Seeing Reason and Showing Evidence Tools

Beautifully summed up by Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind, “In a world enriched by abundance but disrupted by the automation and outsourcing of white-collar work, everyone must cultivate an artistic sensibility. We may not all be Dali or Degas. But today we must all be designers.”


From remote work to online learning, technology enables us to connect through a variety of channels and communicate with people from around the world. The enablement of this global economy means individuals from diverse backgrounds and varying strengths must work together to resolve challenges.

We must apply this same mindset in the classroom, giving students ample time to collaborate with others and respect the knowledge, culture, and offerings of peers. Moreover, collaboration promotes confidence, helping students foster a sense of self-esteem and enabling them to develop healthy emotions and encourage teamwork.

Teachers are facilitators, responsible for modeling standards of behavior that guide students. A collaboration-centric classroom will have activities that invite students to work independently, with partners and in groups.

In an Edutopia guide, Mary Burns, a senior learning technologist, suggests five strategies to deepen student collaboration:

• Create learning activities that are complex.
• Prepare students to be part of a team.
• Minimize opportunities for ‘free riding’.
• Build in opportunities for discussion and consensus.
• Focus on strengthening and stretching expertise.

When students work collaboratively, they learn from each other – using each other’s knowledge and experiences to solve challenges.


Being able to express thoughts clearly and articulate opinions is essential to academic, career and personal success. Students must be equipped to process the sometimes-overwhelming amount of communication in their daily lives.

Communication is closely related to collaboration. If students are unable to communicate effectively, they will struggle to collaborate.

The National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE’s) 21st Century Curriculum Assessment Framework recommends twenty-first century learners develop the following competencies:

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology.
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally.
• 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.

In The New Division of Labor, Economists Frank Levy and Richard Mundane have described the new world of work in which the most desirable jobs—the ones least likely to be automated or outsourced—are those that require expert thinking and complex communication.

Educators must acknowledge the need for more than reading and writing. With the workforce constantly evolving, students must not only master academics, but also learn to communicate and collaborate in new environments, think critically and have the skills to create innovative solutions.

To effectively teach communication, we must transition from instructors to facilitators. The 4 Cs invite students to be active learners and thinkers who are able to ask questions, problem-solve, and investigate ideas. Students must be able to articulate what they are learning, and why.

In summary

We can’t leave the acquisition of 21st century skills to chance. Administrators, teachers and parents must accept responsibility for teaching our learners to think critically, complete tasks creatively, collaborate to overcome challenges and communicate ideas.

Thinking is active, not something that is done to a student. Cultivating an environment for thinking in our schools is imperative. I support a school-wide emphasis, where all stakeholders understand the importance and use a shared framework for critical thinking. When students see that the 4 Cs are valued throughout their school and at home, they are likely to thrive.

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