4Cs of 21st Century Learning

Key competencies can be identified on the basis that they make a measurable contribution to educational attainment, relationships, employment, and health and well-being outcomes Learning and innovation skills are increasingly recognized as those that distinguish students who are prepared for more complex life and work environments in the 21st century from those who are not. A focus on the 4C’s of 21st Century Learning: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and Innovation are essential to prepare students for the future.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking in the 21st century is described as the ability to design and manage projects, solve problems, and make effective decisions using a variety of tools and resources. It highlights the challenge of designing educational experiences that address local issues and real-world problems for which there may be no clear answer. Thinking critically requires students to acquire, process, interpret, rationalize, and critically analyze large volumes of often conflicting information to the point of making an informed decision and taking action in a timely fashion.

Digital tools and resources can support the process of critical thinking, particularly when used to create authentic and relevant learning experiences that allow students to discover, create, and use new knowledge. The knowledge and digital era is demanding people with higher order thinking skills: the ability to think logically, and to solve ill-defined problems by identifying and describing the problem, critically analyzing the information available or creating the knowledge required, framing and testing various hypotheses, formulating creative solutions, and taking action.


Communication in a 21st century context refers not only to the ability to communicate effectively, orally, in writing, and with a variety of digital tools but also to listening skills. Many international frameworks include information and digital literacy in the concept of communication (e.g., the British Columbia Ministry of Education’s Cross-Curricular Competencies). Other frameworks, such as P21, have distinct information, media, and technology skills. Some jurisdictions (e.g., England, Norway) include information and communications technology (ICT) skills with literacy and numeracy as foundational curriculum. Digital tools and resources represent a new realm of communications interaction in which the ability to navigate successfully is essential for success in the 21st century. Each tool has its own rhetoric (e.g., an effective blog post is different from an effective tweet or persuasive essay). The issue is not just learning to use new communication tools but mastering many forms of rhetoric – a more challenging task.


Collaboration in a 21st century context requires the ability to work in teams, learn from and contribute to the learning of others, use social networking skills, and demonstrate empathy in working with diverse others. Collaboration also requires students to develop collective intelligence and to co-construct meaning, becoming creators of content as well as consumers. New skills and knowledge are necessary to enable team members to collaborate digitally and contribute to the collective knowledge base, whether working remotely or in a shared physical space.

Creativity and Innovation

Many studies demonstrate the importance of creativity for social development, the ability to compete in business, and the ability to generate economic growth. PISA 2012 results note the connection between high academic achievement, problem solving, and creativity. Creativity is often described as the pursuit of new ideas, concepts, or products that meet a need in the world. Innovation contains elements of creativity and is often described as the realization of a new idea to make a useful contribution to a particular field.

Creativity includes concepts of economic and social entrepreneurialism and leadership for action. Creativity in schools gives students experiences with situations in which there is no known answer, where there are multiple solutions, where the tension of ambiguity is appreciated as fertile ground, and where imagination is honoured over rote knowledge.

© 2021 | Joseph D'Addario

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