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Communication Skills | 21st Century Skills

What Are the 4 C's of 21st Century Skills?

March 26th, 2024 | 9 min. read

Brad Hummel

Brad Hummel

Coming from a family of educators, Brad knows both the joys and challenges of teaching well. Through his own teaching background, he’s experienced both firsthand. As a writer for iCEV, Brad’s goal is to help teachers empower their students by listening to educators’ concerns and creating content that answers their most pressing questions about career and technical education.

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As a middle or high school career readiness teacher, you likely need to teach 21st century skills as part of your curriculum.

While all twelve of those skills are necessary to teach, the "four C's" are often considered to be the most important. 

The four C’s of 21st Century skills are:

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication

These four skills are essential for modern students to succeed in school and the workplace.

They often make the biggest impact in terms of setting your students apart when applying for positions and starting their careers.

In this article, you'll discover what each skill entails and why they are so important to teach.

You'll also be able to download a free guide on how you can teach the 4 C's of 21st Century skills in middle or high school courses.

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1. Critical Thinking


Critical thinking is the practice of solving problems, among other qualities.

In addition to working through problems, solving puzzles, and similar activities, critical thinking also includes an element of skepticism.

This is important in the 21st Century because it’s harder than ever to verify accurate information (mostly thanks to the internet).

Critical thinking empowers students to discover the truth in assertions, especially when it comes to separating fact from opinion.


With critical thinking, students don’t just learn a set of facts or figures. Instead, they learn how to discover the facts and figures for themselves.

Through asking questions, learners become engaged in the world around them. Then they can help spread their knowledge to their peers, helping others to think critically, too. Students sharing the knowledge they've mastered with others might be the most important aspect of developing critical thinking skills.

Whether they learn how to think critically from spending time online or simply asking “Why?” in everyday life, this skill prepares students for a life of independence and purposeful thought.

Still, critical thinking is just one of the four C’s in 21st Century skills.

It works just fine when students use it alone. But when students combine it with the next skill, the sky is the limit to what they can achieve. 

2. Creativity


Creativity is the practice of thinking outside the box.

While creativity is often treated like a you-have-it-or-you-don’t quality, students can learn how to be creative by solving problems, creating systems, or just trying something they haven’t tried before. 

That doesn’t mean every student will become an artist or a writer. Instead, it means they’ll be able to look at a problem from multiple perspectives — including those that others may not see.

Creativity allows students to embrace their inner strengths from big-picture planning to meticulous organization. As students learn about their creativity, they also learn how to express it in healthy and productive ways.

More importantly, they also become motivated to share that creativity with others. Just like with critical thinking, that makes creativity contagious.

When a student creates an interesting or innovative solution to a problem, the next student can become inspired to try something similar.

That’s not to say every single creative endeavor will be a ringing success. Students will fail at some point, and some of their ideas simply won’t work. But that’s okay.

The point of creativity is to encourage students to think differently than convention demands. They don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. Instead, they can figure out a better way.

Students don’t have to embrace their creativity alone, either. In fact, creativity works best when combined with the next 21st Century skill.

3. Collaboration


Collaboration is the practice of working together to achieve a common goal.

Collaboration is important because whether students realize it or not, they’ll probably work with other people for the rest of their lives.

Virtually every job requires someone to work with another person at some point, even if it’s for something as simple as what to get for lunch.

Practicing collaboration and teamwork helps students understand how to address a problem, pitch solutions, and decide the best course of action.

It’s also helpful for them to learn that other people don’t always have the same ideas that they do. In fact, as students practice collaboration more and more, they’ll learn that they have almost none of the same ideas that others do.

This can affect students in one of two ways. First, it could discourage them since nobody seems to agree with them that often. Second, it could embolden them because they realize they’re bringing something unique to every conversation.

As a teacher, it’s crucial that you encourage students to look at themselves through that second lens. That way, students learn that they should speak up when they have an idea.

Even when their ideas aren't the best suited to the problem, speaking up and sharing their solutions can help them when collaborating with others.

4. Communication


Communication is the practice of conveying ideas quickly and clearly.

Communication is often taken for granted in today’s society. After all, if you say something, that means you conveyed an idea, right?

But in the age of text-based communications — including texting, emails, and social media — it’s never been more important for students to learn how to convey their thoughts in a way that others can understand them.

That’s because text-based communications lack tone, which is critical to understanding the context of someone’s words.

Still, even in situations where vocal tone is available, students need to learn how to communicate effectively. That includes minimizing tangents, speaking directly to an idea, and checking other participants to make sure they’re engaged.

Reading an audience — even if it’s just two other people in a group discussion — lets students determine whether they should keep expanding on an idea or wrap up their point. Their audience could even be their family at Thanksgiving dinner.

The point is that as students practice communication, they become better at efficiently conveying an idea without losing their point—or their audience.

When they master the art of effective communication, students can streamline their ideas and make a positive impression on those around them.

Still, it’s important to note that communication isn’t enough on its own to help students with 21st Century skills. To really succeed, students need to use all four of these skills together.

How Do the Four C’s Work Together?

The four C’s of 21st Century skills work together as a system to help students comprehensively understand subjects and navigate living and working in the 21st century.

Because each of the four C's are general skills that help students throughout their personal and professional lives, they are essential qualities that people need to succeed in a wide range of situations.

Each of the four C's cover interrelated concepts paramount to being an educated person:

  • Critical thinking teaches students to question claims and seek truth.
  • Creativity teaches students to think in a way that’s unique to them.
  • Collaboration teaches students that groups can create something bigger and better than you can on your own.
  • Communication teaches students how to efficiently convey ideas.

Combined, the four C’s empower students to be discerning people capable of expressing themselves and working with others to find insightful solutions to everyday challenges.

When working together, learners who have mastered the four C's of 21st century skills have ability to make a profound impact on both their professional workplaces and their communities.

How Do You Teach the Four C's of 21st Century Skills?

Now you know what the four C's of 21st Century skills are and why employers want new hires to have them.

So now you're probably wondering how to teach 21st Century skills in your daily middle and high school classes.

Click below to get your free guide on teaching critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication!

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