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How to incorporate 21st-century skills into the classroom

Timothy MugabiOctober 24, 2019

Three students working together in the classroom

The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, so much so that jobs that existed for decades are disappearing by the day. This means that we, as educators, are responsible for equipping our students with the skills they need to thrive in the employment market they’ll be entering. These are collectively referred to as 21st-century skills. And while there are many definitions for what these are, everyone agrees on the following four areas:

  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

These are the “Four Cs” of education.

Making sure that our students are competent in these skills will increase their confidence and desire to learn. That will give them a far better chance of being productive, contributing, and, most importantly, fulfilled members of society.

So, with that being our motivation, let’s take a look at each of these skills in turn, as well as ways to incorporate them into the classroom.

two students talking together while working on their homeworks
Photo: Google Edu


Communication refers to a student’s ability to successfully deliver and receive messages. This involves speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. It’s pretty easy to take this one for granted, as students read, write, listen, and speak on a daily basis. But it’s important to find a way to push them to develop these skills. Strong communication skills are becoming increasingly important in a society where there’s a demand from all directions for our attention. Students who are able to cut through the noise and successfully deliver their intended message are highly prized in the workplace.

One of the best ways to do this is to arrange your lessons and activities so you’re talking as little as possible. As educators, many of us fall into the trap of just talking at our students. Who can blame a teacher with a class of energetic, restless students and a ton of material to get through? It’s tempting to cover everything as quickly as possible. However, you should instead offer opportunities for your students to speak, both with you and among themselves, throughout your lessons and activities. You can achieve this by simply asking questions, as well as giving them short discussion-based tasks in the middle of a lesson.

Most importantly, teach your students the importance of listening to each other. Make it one of your main class rules. Sure, they have to listen to you because you’re the teacher, but be sure to hammer home that they should listen because it’s polite and respectful, not because you say those are the “rules” of your class. Get them to acknowledge how frustrating it feels when they’re not listened to, and they’ll see more value in this skill.

Student using tablet
Photo: Google Edu

Critical thinking

Critical thinking may sound a little imposing and complex, but it simply refers to the process of students applying what they learn in class in meaningful and creative ways beyond the surface level. It also means being able to assemble your knowledge in order to form reasoned opinions and make judgments.

Comparison and categorization activities are two simple yet effective ways to practice critical-thinking skills. For example, if you work with younger children, you could give them a list of animals and ask them to rank them by size, appeal, or scariness. Some of these are objective measures — there’s no denying that an elephant is bigger than a mouse, for example. However, which of those two animals is scarier (or cooler) is subjective. and up for debate.

Another way to encourage critical thinking is to ask students lots of hypothetical questions to engage their imagination, especially when you’re introducing a new topic for the first time. Here are two of my personal favorites that never fail to get students involved and evoke a few laughs: “You have three wishes … What are they?” and, perhaps the more apt choice in this current superhero-crazy climate, “if you had a superpower, what would it be?”

When developing your students’ critical thinking skills, your goal is to get to the “why” of things rather than merely the “what.”

Teacher with her student discussing around a table
Photo: Google Edu


As the saying goes, teamwork makes the dream work. And that’s what collaboration is all about: developing a student’s ability to work with others. Naturally, the most effective way to do this is by holding group activities. However, it’s also important to mix things up as often as possible so students don’t get used to working with the same people all the time.

For example, consider having your students work in groups of different sizes or allowing them to form their own groups. Also, it’s important for your development as well as theirs to experiment with homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping: putting them into groups with students of a similar level as well as those of mixed ability.

An often overlooked benefit of collaboration is its ability to improve a student’s conflict resolution skills. Students aren’t always going to get along, especially when they get out into the real world. Now, while shouting at — or worse, hitting each other — is unacceptable in the classroom, doing so is considerably worse when you’re an adult. Forget a time out — they could find themselves out of a job! Regular collaboration will inevitably lead to conflict. And that’s arguably a good thing because it gives students a chance to practice getting along with a range of people in a range of scenarios — under your watchful eye, of course.

Furthermore, let’s not forget that collaboration often leads to inspiration. Having the chance to work with their peers, students may come to find that they like a fellow student’s way of doing things. Steve Jobs didn’t do his best work until he met Jony Ive, for example.

Boy with paint on hands
Photo: Sharon McCutcheon/Pexels


At last, we come to creativity, which refers to encouraging students to use their imagination so they can express themselves in different ways and create new things. It wasn’t too long ago when this simply meant getting out the coloring pencils and getting them to draw a picture or make a poster, or getting out a bunch of popsicle sticks and glue for them to create a maze. Now, with computers and other devices being commonplace — as well as many, if not most, students having their own smartphones — the variety of options is endless.

You can get your students creating things across a range of media formats. This could include recording video blogs, podcasts, panel shows, infographics, slideshows — you name it. Moreover, when referring to 21st-century skills, some like to throw in computer skills as a fifth “C,” so utilizing technology in the classroom is an added bonus (although I’m sure you’d agree that they get plenty of practice already!).

In short, creativity gives students a chance to be themselves. If they can find a way to do that in the classroom, it’ll give them a much better shot at doing it in the future.

Developing 21st-century skills is essential! 

Finding ways to incorporate 21st-century skills in your classroom is vital for empowering students and providing them with the adaptability they need to make it in today’s fast-paced world. These skills help to make students more cooperative, bring out their curiosity, and increase their motivation to learn more, producing lifelong learners in the process.

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Social Emotional Learning

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