The role of education is to prepare students to become active, successful, and contributing members of society. Surprisingly, the prevailing school model practiced today was defined in the mid- to late-1800s in response to a society immersed in the Industrial Revolution. Because most work involved manual labor, rote learning and lecture-style teaching was sufficient. In today’s knowledge economy, technology has redefined the skills needed to prepare students to be productive workers.

As our global, interconnected workforce has changed from industrial to service-based, employers are finding gaps in skills and looking for young professionals who possess an agile mindset to think strategically. At the same time, today’s students are digital natives who learn and function differently in our technology-rich society. The standard education method has not changed to teach a broader set of skills that today’s employers are looking for to drive innovation.

21st Century Learning Model

21st Century Learning encompasses a broad set of knowledge and skills critically important to enable flexibility and adaptability. It turns the focus on mastering skills such as analytic reasoning, complex problem solving, and teamwork. Instead of concentrating on the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), the emphasis is now on teaching the four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

The Four Cs of 21st Century Learning

Critical Thinking

The ability to analyze how parts of a whole interact with each other to produce an overall outcome is essential. In addition to affecting how well a person makes judgements and decisions, critical thinking impacts the effectiveness of reasoning and problem solving.


To accurately transfer information from one place to another, communication requires two key elements. First, a person must articulate thoughts and ideas through verbal, nonverbal, and written methods. Second, effective listening is needed to interpret meaning and understand knowledge, values, attitudes, and intentions. Communication skills also include the use of various forms of media and technologies and the ability to evaluate their impact.


Collaboration takes place when a group of individuals work together towards a common goal. Because each person comes to a group with a different knowledge-base and perspective, it is important to learn how to work effectively and respectfully with diverse individuals. Relying on the concept that everyone on a team shares responsibility for the outcome, individuals need to become flexible, make compromises, and value contributions made by others to achieve a successful outcome.


Creativity, the inception of a thought and demonstration of originality, is quickly emerging as a skill crucial to the future of work. Some recent studies predict that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will change the workplace by displacing up to 30% of workers worldwide by 2030. As one of the few skills AI cannot be programmed to express, creativity will become increasingly important to advancing goals and progress. Fortunately, creativity is being re-defined to reach beyond artistic expression to an ability to problem solve – it’s a skill that can be strengthened through the application of different idea creation techniques to form new ideas.

How Can We Support a 21st Century Education?

To best prepare students to thrive, 21st century learning models, standards, assessments, curriculum, instruction, professional development, and learning environments must all be aligned. Regardless of budget, educators can support 21st century learning by considering and incorporating the following three elements:

Project-Based Learning

A shift to project-based lessons is needed to give students exposure to learning in relevant, real world contexts. As they work with real world data, tools, and experts, students become actively engaged in solving what they identify as meaningful problems with real consequences. Innovative learning methods that integrate the use of supportive technologies, inquiry- and problem-based approaches, and higher order thinking skills emerge to further prepare students for the workplace.

Flexible Learning Spaces

Reflecting the shift to project-based learning, the amount of lecture-style teaching is being reduced to make room for collaborative group work, individual focused learning, and discussion-style activities. To accommodate the frequent changes of learning modes and tasks throughout the day, classrooms can incorporate a combination of mobile and tiered furnishings with a variety of seating options. Based on your school’s education goals and the space available, an experienced consultant can help you develop a solution that maximizes the flow of information and ideas between students and educators.

Large learning environments can host multiple learning styles simultaneously by being divided into designated learning zones. It’s not unusual for a large space to be broken into areas for quiet focus, group collaboration, teacher-led instruction, and makerspaces. The latter of these provides a range of learning tools that students can interact with and manipulate to gain a deeper understanding of the lesson.

To reduce distractions to adjacent zones, a variety of different pre-engineered modular walls can be installed anywhere within the space. Featuring acoustic privacy and options for glass, solid, or technology-integrated walls, modular construction minimizes the volume in an area while providing varying levels of visibility into the other zones. Modular partitions can also be reconfigured at a later date as needs evolve.

Technology integration

The integration of technology into flexible spaces helps keep students engaged. When applied properly, technology such as computers, mobile devices, and digital displays can complement the curriculum by assisting students as they gather information and share content. Utilizing intuitive AV equipment, teachers can take advantage of video and audio conference systems to supplement instruction with recorded lessons and demonstrations. These collaborative tools also facilitate viewing of a specific lesson multiple times or at a later point in time. This encourages students to become self-directed learners and leads to becoming lifelong learners, a trait that makes them stronger leaders.

Changing the Classroom Culture

To be successful in the 21st century, students need the knowledge and experience of self-directed and project-based learning, and to be able to effectively collaborate within diverse groups. Traditional methods of education do not nurture the development of the skill sets needed to be successful knowledge workers. When academic institutions combine flexibility, technology, and hands-on experiences, a 21st century learning culture can thrive.