Integrate 21st-century skills into lesson plans with project-based learning.

Employing 21st-century skills can feel like a nebulous concept in the classroom. Distilled down to the four Cs -- creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking -- these are essential tools students must cultivate to thrive in the complex, challenge-riddled contemporary world. Students must be prepared for careers that have yet to be invented. They must be prepared to experiment and to take risks in order to innovate. Despite this, many teachers feel that integrating these skills into their planning practice detracts from covering traditional content.

At Quest to Learn, we have found quite the opposite. Intentionally designing 21st-century skills into inquiry-based approaches like project-based learning deepens student learning and has the potential to transform teacher practice. We use a game-like learning approach that takes its pedagogical roots from project-based learning. Students are dropped into complex problem spaces that require unlocking new knowledge and skills to solve.

For example, on the first day of a recent seventh-grade ELA mission (the Quest to Learn term for a unit of study) called “Shakes It Up,” students listened eagerly as their teacher divulged details of the next trimester-long project. Their goal was to make Shakespeare more accessible for a contemporary audience. Students would be working in groups to remix Macbeth using digital media tools, enlivening passages from a centuries-old text using contemporary mashup practices.

During the eight weeks of the “Shakes It Up” mission, students had many opportunities to develop 21st-century skills as well as deepen content knowledge. Students first had to understand the language in order to translate it and make it their own. They used choral reading and improv games to explore and activate the text. Then they analyzed the role of the audience to discuss how people interpret meaning based on the way it is communicated. Students created causal maps to examine a play as a system and understand the relationship among its parts. After mastering their chosen passage, students worked collaboratively to create their own interpretation: a remixed version, a digital audio, video, or graphic mashup to exhibit at the student-run Shakespeare festival.

As our curriculum teams brainstorm missions and backwards design lessons, we have found that asking the following questions helps us surface the four Cs naturally:

Is there a powerful “need to know?”
What is their explicit reason for learning? What are they working to solve? What is the big question they are faced with? How is it connected to the real world? Is it relevant to the student?

If students are faced with a compelling need to know, they will want to think critically to enhance their understanding of the problem. This sets the foundation for engagement of the four Cs throughout the project.

Are students taking on authentic roles to solve real-world problems?
Are students working together or individually? How do you build in time for feedback and peer-to-peer learning? Is the problem connected to their interests and daily life?

If the problem feels relevant, students will seek connections between ideas and use them to creatively design new solutions. Giving each student a specific role in that process prompts them to learn how to communicate effectively both with their peers and with the audience they're addressing.

Are you building in structures for student-led inquiry?
Are students being guided towards a solution through exploration, question-building, and experimentation? What are some scaffolded learning opportunities you can design to help students ask good questions? Are you building student choice into your design?

Having students guide the learning and form the questions by which they will learn demands critical thinking. It allows the students to own their learning and helps them refine the process that works best for them.

Is there a meaningful integration of technology?
Does the technology you're using complement the learning? Have you thoughtfully reflected on all possible digital or non-digital tools that would support student learning? Will you offer students a choice in the technology they can use?

Just because you're using tech does not mean your students are practicing 21st-century skills. In fact, offering them a choice of tools is a much better option for exercising their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills while encouraging their self-expression. Have them decide and defend what the right tool for the job is.

I challenge you to see the four Cs not as another piece to add, but as a new tool, a power boost, and an additional lens to help you reframe and reflect on student learning -- and, equally important, your own craft as an educator.

Liza S.

Liza is responsible for designing and supporting the successful implementation of game-like learning materials and activities for middle and upper grades at Quest to Learn in New York City. With a deep interest in the intersection of learning, making, and games, she has taught game design in Abu Dhabi and New York City, as well as led numerous soft circuit and computational craft workshops for a range of ages and skill levels. Currently, she teaches in the MFADT program at Parsons The New School for Design and facilitates creative collaboration between teachers and technologists with EDesign Labs.