Education insights

Exploring the 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning

Learning and Innovation Skills, or the 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning include Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Creativity and Innovation, Communication, and Collaboration. If the 4 C’s sound familiar, it’s because they probably are. Most people learned many of these skills in school. So why are they called 21st-Century Skills? The answer is simple: they are the set of skills 21st century employers consider the most important skills in prospective employees.

Economists, human resource directors, and business leaders have examined the 4 C’s for at least three decades. What skills, they ask, do major industries and professions need in an employee or professional? In other words, what skills can we teach students that are “future-proof” no matter how quickly the world changes?

Every five years, the World Economic Forum interviews human resource and business leaders to identify the most important skills needed in an employee. According to their 2020 Future of Jobs Report, the ten most vital core skills needed in the coming decade are:

  • Creativity
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Complex problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Judgment and decision making
  • Negotiation
  • People management
  • Coordinating with others
  • Service orientation
  • Emotional intelligence.

While the list of vital skills will vary depending on who you talk to, there is a clear common thread across the board: any list of “future-proof” skills is always represented by the four categories of the 4 C’s. In the 20th century, career-specific skills reigned supreme in schools, universities, and professions. Today, however, students must learn skills to meet the changes of the new century and be the workforce of the future. As a result, educators must shift teaching methodologies to teach these learning and innovation skills.

The framework for 21st Century Learning

For many, however, modern teaching methodologies like the 4 C’s, collaborative learning, or project-based learning can sound like neglect of traditional curriculum . The reality is that no subject in the traditional curriculum is being replaced.

In fact, the 4 C’s are part of a larger educational framework whose foundation is the traditional curriculum: math, reading, writing, language arts, science, civics, history, languages, geography, and the arts. The 4 C’s were originally part of the Framework for 21st Century Learning from the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills. In this framework, the traditional curriculum is still the focus, and Learning and Innovation Skills, or the 4 C’s, are intended to be used to support it.

What are the 4 C’s?

While the 4 C’s may sound a bit vague, they are actually composites of real skills that are definable, measurable, and teachable.

Creativity and innovation

Creativity is a set of skills that enables learners to discover alternatives, brainstorm ideas, generate solutions, rethink existing paradigms, and create new knowledge. However, creativity involves more than just “thinking outside the box.” In the 21st century, creativity is overwhelmingly a group process that requires openness to new and divergent ideas, the ability to formulate useful feedback, the recognition of the limits of new ideas and the value of old ideas, and the capacity to use failure as an opportunity. Group creativity skills are just as important, if not more so, as thinking outside the box.

Critical thinking and problem solving

In the real world, problems do not have “right answers” conveniently printed at the back of the textbook. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving involves mastering skills that enable learners to define problems, pose questions, sort through information, evaluate evidence, weigh alternatives, consider different points of view, analyze arguments, understand complexity, and approach unfamiliar problems. Many of these skills have long been taught in the classroom in traditional courses like science, civics, history, and math, but the goal is to use them deliberately throughout the curriculum.


Communication is the set of skills that allows students to read, listen, interpret, speak, write, persuade, negotiate, argue, and master a large variety of media. Learning communication skills dates back centuries in subjects like reading, writing, oratory, and language arts. The difference, however, is that the 4 C’s put communication at the center of learning in all subjects, from language arts to algebra. A few ways to teach communication skills to students include encouraging activities that reinforce active listening, asking open-ended questions, fostering critical thinking and reflective learning opportunities, and modeling effective conversation skills when communicating with students.


In our complex and changing world, success requires that people work together. Most problems and projects in the 21st century workplace are multifaceted and multidisciplinary, requiring a diverse set of skills, knowledge, and backgrounds to bring to completion. Collaboration is the set of skills that enable people to collectively set goals, allocate resources, fulfill group roles, plan, manage time, make group decisions, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and build teams. Unlike other aspects of the 4 C’s, collaboration is a relatively recent structural innovation in K-12 education. Widely adopted in the 1990’s, collaborative learning was originally intended to enhance learning outcomes in the traditional curriculum. The 4 C’s also focus on developing a defined set of interactional skills that not only increase learning, but are also necessary skills in today’s workplace. A few ways to encourage collaborative learning include incorporating games into lessons, creating a safe space for class discussion, encouraging storytelling and brainstorming, and amplifying all student voices.

The 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning are here to stay

For proof of concept of the crucial value of the 4 C’s, we need look no further than the last 12 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the country, teachers and learners worked to master distance learning in classrooms entirely managed through technology. When we reflect back, 2020 will likely be remembered as “the Year of Distance Learning.” Simply meeting the challenges posed by a year of remote and hybrid learning became a crash course in the 4 C’s for everyone, from students and teachers to administrators and IT personnel.

The 4 C’s are fundamental skills educators must teach as they transition from a “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” style of teaching. They are the tools students use every day to meet the challenges of a changing classroom, even without the duress of a pandemic. They are an enduring skillset and are part of every student’s future.

Find out how LanSchool can help develop creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills in your classroom.  

Get in Touch

Contact us today to learn more about LanSchool licenses, features, and benefits.

Try LanSchool for Free

Ready to see how LanSchool can transform your school or district?