The 4 Cs of the 21st Century


When I was in high school, I had limited experience with 21st century learning. I did, however, get to use the computer to master my typing skills on All the Right Type and to create powerpoint presentations with large paragraphs about various topics.

I also remember cracking open what seemed like a century-old textbook to gain knowledge about the unit I was learning in the class. My experience with online learning, collaboration, and gaining knowledge through creativity and critical thinking was limited. However, when I did experience those things in class, that was when my passion and engagement for the topic sky rocketed.

I specifically remember my Biology 20 class. My teacher wanted us to learn about plants and organisms in a critically responsive way. He didn’t want us to learn information through our text book or absorb the content while he spoke at us. On the first day of class, he asked us what our ideas were for learning the content, and our eyes got a little brighter. We couldn’t believe he was asking us how we wanted to learn. Our class ended up deciding, through collaboration and questioning, that we wanted to do a research and inquiry project on finding out how much paper our school had used that year, and in turn, plant enough trees to make up for it. We had to break into smaller groups to research and plan. We were discussing the effects of carbon dioxide on the environment, calculating how much it would cost to buy and re-plant trees, designing posters and t-shirts to promote our idea, and making connections with local land owners. We were learning how to be critical, creative, and collaborative. By the end of the project, we went out and planted trees at a local farm, and we were SO proud of our work. We were also inspired to do more for our environment. The best part about the whole thing? We took charge of our own learning, and it went beyond the classroom.

Bethany Oxford (

There is no question about it – our world is changing, which means our learning and the way we teach have to as well. How can I, a teacher in the 21st century, effectively facilitate an environment that promotes engagement, critical thinking, and creativity, like the experience I had in my Biology 20 class? Well, first of all, I need to understand the goal. According to NCTE, the goal of teaching isn’t about relaying knowledge to students anymore, it’s about developing “active, successful participants in this 21st century global society”, who possess the 21st Century Literacies. These literacies include:

  • Proficiency and fluency in technology tools
  • Asking questions and solving problems collaboratively with others
  • Designing and sharing information with others around the world
  • Critically evaluating information
  • Creating and critiquing various forms of media

and finally,

  • responsibly and safely handling all of these types and forms of literacies.

The new definition of 21st century skills surround the idea of the 4 Cs. The 4 Cs, brought up by Thoughtful Learning, are:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Communicating
  • Collaborating

These points all fit into the Digital Literacies and 21st Century Literacies model. As teachers, these types of literacies need to be at the forefront of our teaching. Otherwise, like it says in Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0, the current ways of teaching will not “suffice to prepare students for the lives that they will lead in the twenty-first century.” This should encourage us to educate our students to be active, engaged citizens who desire life-long learning, instead of feeding them information in hopes that they gain some knowledge. They also remind us that “mastering a field of knowledge involves not only ‘learning about’ the subject matter but also ‘learning to be’ a full participant in the field”.

Learning About vs. Learning to Be.

When I think about “Learning to Be” a full participant in a topic or subject area, I think again of the 4 Cs . Here are some ways that the 4 Cs can be implemented in your classroom in a productive, engaging, and beneficial way.

1. Critical Thinking
Technology is integrated into everything we do. We have access to answering almost any question at our finger tips. With this relatively new territory, we need to teach students how to navigate it. Instead of taking these tools away or instilling fear in them, we need to teach them the skills of evaluating information and media and critiquing it. Guided Inquiry in the classroom is a great space for students to learn the skills of critically responding to information while they are engaged in online learning.

Genius Hour, a form of inquiry, is a way for students to take charge of their own learning while using technology tools to plan, research, and present, and all the while, teaching them about digital citizenship. Ed Tech Magazine says that “by using technology to explore their interests, students are less likely to be intimidated by it.” Aaron Warner, a middle years teacher in Regina, states that during Genius Hour, students are “mining for inspiration, practicing accessing and using resources, and recognizing the importance of having a plan”. In a recent article, he says that Genius Hour encourages “resiliency, problem solving, thinking outside the box”. Using these practices in the classroom not only develops critical thinking, but also ignites passion in students and allows them to develop the skills of the 21st century.

2.Creative Thinking
Creativity comes in many shapes and sizes, but unfortunately the classroom has a habit of stifling it. As facilitators of learning, we need to give students the opportunity to create in many different forms. Creativity doesn’t just look like painting or drawing… it’s giving students the chance to design, build, and make mistakes! A great tool for developing creative thinking, along with many other skills, is Maker Space. Danielle Maley, a primary teacher in Regina, uses Maker Space to develop creativity, along with problem solving and social development. In an article about Maker Space, she says “children, when they’re given time to just create or work on their own passions, have astounded me in what they can create”. Through the process of Maker Space, students are able to pose questions, solve problems, and reflect on their learning. Using the tool of Maker Space gives students a chance to think outside the box while they create and use 21st century skills.

3. Communicating
There are so many different technology tools to use in the classroom for developing communication skills in students: social media, blogging, podcasts, and e-portfolios (just to name a few). When integrating technology into the classroom, and using those tools for teachable moments, students are able to learn how to be effective digital citizens at a young age.

My personal favourite tool to use in the classroom is Seesaw. Students are able to not only document their work for their families to see, but also demonstrate their learning, voice their thinking, communicate effectively through oral and written tasks, as well as “develop deeper level thinking”.

Another effective tool to build communication is through blogging. The idea of students taking their writing and learning online can seem daunting for teachers, but by preparing students through lessons on digital citizenship and safety, it gives them a safe space to learn about online tools while they are guided in the classroom. It allows students to grow up knowing how to keep a positive online presence and use their voice for good. When students are given the responsibility of using online tools for their learning, they take ownership over it.

4. Collaborating
This is my favourite one out of the 4 Cs. I believe that students need time to collaborate and work with others. They are able to develop problem solving skills, feed off of others’ creativity, feel supported and encouraged, and build relationships with those around them. We need to give students the space to work with others and prepare an environment that not only allows it, but encourages it.

Not only do students benefit from collaborating with others, but adults do too. In my experience with ECI831 so far, each one of the 4 Cs is present in the course, but the part that I love the most? Meeting with my classmates and teacher every Tuesday to collaborate and learn from each other. Similar to the Terra Incognita project of the University of Southern Queensland, when we break off into small groups and have time to share our opinions and thoughts, we are building our online community. As humans, we thrive when we are in community with others. Think of the best moments in your life. They usually involve other people.

Collaboration = Community.

As an educator, I see it as my duty to teach the 21st Century Literacies just like I would with reading and writing. These skills aren’t just suggestions for the classroom, they are skills that all children need to learn.

What are some ways that you are instilling the 21st Century Literacies in your classroom in a safe and beneficial way? What are some effective tools that you use in your classroom that encourage these skills? As educators, let’s work together to share ideas and come up with plans to demonstrate these literacies in our classroom, and in turn, modelling to students what it looks like to think critically, be creative, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively.

It’s important that students know how to be effective citizens who understand the 4 Cs, and maybe one of these days, I’ll teach them the tricks of All of the Right Type too, just for old time’s sake.


9 thoughts on “The 4 Cs of the 21st Century

  1. This is such a great conversation starter- incorporating the ‘4Cs’ to build a community of engaged learners. I’ve always admired how you incorporate technology in your class, like how you use your class Twitter account. I think that it is important to constantly change it up and incorporate the newest technology with our students- staying relevant helps hold student interest. Do you have suggestions for ways to help educators ‘keep up with the times’?


    1. Thank you! I love capturing my classroom’s learning on Twitter for others to to see and engage in. As for keeping up with the latest technology, I would suggest following Ed Tech podcasts that review the latest apps and tools, following blogs, following the #edtech hashtag on Twitter, and also reading Ed Tech articles! I use Feedly to follow all of my favourite technology blogs. Hope that helps!


  2. I love your real world examples of how you use the 4 C’s. I sometimes think that teachers are afraid to hand over the creativeness to students and allow them to make mistakes. That is where they learn the most. Maker’s Space is a great example of that.
    I have two grade 6 teachers that are getting their students to design their own haunted house, write a description of it, create an advertisement for it, and then create a replica model of it so try to sell to potential customers. So many cool creative aspects that involve the 4 C’s and bringing in an interdisciplinary approach to reach curriculum outcomes.


  3. Thanks for sharing the 4Cs! I have seen it before but totally forgot. Such as succinct way to capture the skills of 21st century learners. I also love how you used examples from our school division. It is great for others to see exemplars of how teachers are using tech integration and passion-inspired learning in their classrooms. Great post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.