P21 Research Series Offers Advice on 21st Century '4Cs'

A national non-profit that promotes the precepts of 21st century learning in K-12 has released a set of reports that examine how to embed the 4 "Cs" into the classroom and assess the impact. The "4Cs" series from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning encompasses research on creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. P21, as it's known, developed a widely adopted framework for learning that lays out the components required for teaching and learning, including the 4 Cs, which it considers "essential" to preparing students for the future.

Each report covers current research on the topic, profiles of successful interventions, assessments and recommendations. They were written by members of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut and edited by P21 Executive Director Helen Soulé.

Creativity, for example, distinguishes a person who can only look up information on a smartphone from the person who can "use that knowledge in creative ways to produce valuable outcomes and solve complex problems," the authors wrote. The report noted that creativity can be "enhanced" in the classroom by promoting "sensible risk taking and creative expression." Even in an environment where high-stakes accountability testing constrains what goes on in the classroom, those constraints "don't necessarily kill creativity," the report stated. "Rather, they provide situations that often necessitate creativity. Educators and instructional leaders who recognize this will be in a better position to respond creatively to the everyday constraints facing schools and classrooms."

Critical thinking is frequently defined, according to the report, as "reflective, analytical and evaluative skills" used for problem solving and reaching conclusions. And it can start in elementary school with explicit instruction where students are told that's what they're learning and shown how it's done through modeling of the "sub-skills." Then in middle schools and high schools, the critical thinking activities should be "integrated into instruction across the curricula" the report explained. The report recommended that assessment of these skills be performance-based or assessed within the context of real-world scenarios.

Collaboration is a topic that needs more research. Even definitions are hard to come by, the authors said. The traditional definition of students working in a group doesn't suffice. "Students working in a group may not be collaborating, and students who are collaborating may never be in the same room together." In fact, the report added, schools need to decide if the goals for this outcome should be focused on collaboration as a process, an outcome in its own right, or a combination. Also, educators "should expose students to a mix of collaborative and non-collaborative learning experiences" and figure out which approaches will optimize learning.

Communication is a broad competency, covering oral, written and nonverbal communication skills; effective listening; the use of technology for communicating; and being able to evaluate the effectiveness of communication efforts. The authors pointed out that teaching communication skills has long been focused on addressing the needs of particular populations of students or helping teachers avoid bias when communicating with students. Now it's growing beyond that to incorporate online learning, student-to-student communication, early-year friendship skills and other areas that are still being researched. One recommendation made in the report was that "future study should include the development of communication assessments aimed at K-12 students, as well as more research on interventions concerning the teaching of communication skills to all students, not just those with disabilities."

"Our goal with these research briefs was to determine what we really know about helping students develop these critical skills, and the good news is that the research base on enhancing students' 21st century competencies is rich and thriving," said lead author Jonathan Plucker, a professor at U Connecticut, in a prepared statement. "Though more research is needed in certain areas, we found considerable evidence of strong conceptual, intervention, and assessment work that can guide our efforts to foster creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication in our children."

P21's Soulé encouraged educators to turn to the reports to learn new methodologies for bringing the 4Cs "to life" in their schools and classrooms." "These briefs provide insight into what the research tells us about best 4Cs practices and will inform and inspire educators so that more students are able to reap the benefits of a 21st century learning experience."

The four reports are available on P21's site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.