The partnership for 21st Century Learning, or “P21,” was founded in 2002, intending to bring together the business community, education leaders, and policy makers in order to, “position 21st century readiness at the center of US K-12 education and to kick-start a national conversation on the importance of 21st century skills for all students.” A key piece of work put forth by the partnership is The Framework for 21st Century Learning, a set of skills that all stakeholders agree are essential for success. For more than a decade, this framework has informed much of my thinking related to teaching and learning, assessment, the power in the college and career ready standards, and rethinking learning organizations to meet the demands of preparing young people to succeed in the 21st century. And as a friend recently reminded me, “We’re already well into the 21st century,” so we’d better get a move on!

My clear favorite among the sets of skills included in the Framework are the “4Cs” that make up Learning and Innovation Skills: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. Why are these most compelling to me? Because I believe if we intentionally incorporate opportunities for practicing these skills, they have the power to transform the quality of teaching and learning in all classrooms, and across all subject areas. Moreover, when embedded into our Core Instructional Model, they hold particular promise for promoting and achieving Academic Learning Time (ALT) by providing several powerful means to “actively manipulate content.” (Fisher, C. W., & Berliner, D. C. (Eds.), 1985) And according to a 2014 article by Susan Adams in Forbes1, among the most sought after skills by employers were the ability to work on a team, make decisions, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Let’s take a closer look at each of these essential skills highlighted in the P21 Framework.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

The process of critical thinking and problem solving can be activated by asking students to reason, either inductively, by moving from specific observations to broader generalizations, or deductively, using a “top down” approach to move from the general to more specific. Most notably, students will use deductive reasoning while testing or confirming a hypothesis.2 Students can also be engaged in systems thinking, or analyzing how the parts of a whole interact with each other to produce a certain set of outcomes or result. Opportunities to ignite higher order thinking, like analysis, evaluation, or synthesis, can be achieved by asking students to make judgments or decisions based upon evidence, arguments, claims or beliefs. Lastly, problem-based learning grounded in finding both conventional and creative solutions to unfamiliar problems can be a powerful way to incorporate teamwork and collaboration into any lesson.

Communication and Collaboration

Think about the necessity of these two skills in the successful navigation of your daily life, whether at work or at home. The authors of the college and career ready standards (CCRS) 3 had the foresight to include anchor standards for speaking and listening, encompassing comprehension and collaboration, along with the presentation of knowledge and ideas. With just modest attention to these standards across the curriculum, teaching and learning could be transformed into a series of events where students are given opportunities to participate in lively conversations, express their opinions, build upon others’ ideas, present information, and evaluate another speaker’s point of view. These skills are built up over time, ranging from a kindergartner’s ability to describe people, places, things and events, all the way through the twelfth grade where students are asked to present information, findings and evidence, conveying themselves clearly and logically. The obvious connection between successful communication and collaboration is underscored be perhaps another less often noted, albeit essential “C” – compromise – which is a skill that must be continually coached and practiced if students are to become successful team players.

Creativity and Innovation

Closely connected with the other Cs, creativity includes both thinking creatively, as well as working creatively with others. Related skills that foster creative thinking include adaptability, leadership, and teamwork. Building in opportunities for students to practice idea generation techniques, such as brainstorming or brainwriting, mindmapping, storyboarding, or visualization, 4 to mention a few, will bolster their abilities to create and innovate, while at the same time promote communication, collaboration, and problem solving. You can easily see how these processes interconnect, building exponentially the more students are encouraged to practice.

If you’re interested in exploring the ways that these skills can further be integrated into your instruction, you may want to check out the NEA’s Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs” – Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society. 5 It includes grade and subject specific examples that can help you achieve academic learning time with your students through the careful integration of the 4 Cs.