The four C’s of 21st century learning

I hear it all the time. School districts and teachers are under pressure to create successful students. While certainly a child’s personal growth and development is important, I know the real motivation is much larger: the need to remain competitive and innovative in the global economy.

Photo - Kids sitting in Cozy CocoonOver the years, the U.S. has fallen behind. Success in global trade and internet commerce has distanced us from other nations. Many feel our weakness can be traced all the way back to our education system—which has also dropped dramatically in international rankings. As a result, policymakers have put an emphasis on standardized testing and holding schools accountable in order to try to solve the problem.

But leaders in technology, science, engineering and other fields have a different view. They see firsthand the weaknesses of a new generation of employees and know that our old, industrialized approach to learning and rote memorization isn’t creating the necessary results. What we need are creative thinkers and problem solvers—people who can collaborate and communicate to deliver new, innovative solutions. That’s why organizations like The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) are encouraging policymakers to turn our old style of learning upside down to focus on the four C’s: Collaboration, Communication, and Critical Thinking—all of which lead to Creativity.

Recently, I traveled to Alabama for the P21 Strategic Council meeting, and while there, had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Ignite Innovative Education Summit held by P21’s partner, Destination Imagination. Hosted in collaboration with the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the Summit brought together a diverse group of educators and business leaders to focus on ways to transform education. Almost every presentation I attended revolved around the four C’s approach. Each one reinforced the idea that these four lessons cannot be learned from the traditional textbook or taught through lecturing and independent assignments. These are lessons that must be experienced—learned through action-based activities that require group interactions.

Action and Interaction-Based Activities

Instead of only learning through individual-focused activities, students need opportunities to learn through action and interaction. These types of activities develop a more well-rounded individual who is ready to take on the real, everyday challenges faced in the workforce. And this isn’t just a theory—studies have proven that richer results come from these opportunities and interactions.

One of the speakers at the Summit discussed a study where an adult and child tossed a ball alongside each other—an example of “parallel play”. Another adult and child sat in a different room. These partners tossed the ball to one another—an example of “collaborative play”. After playing, in both cases, the adult pushed a sheet of paper off their desk and acted as though they couldn’t reach it. The reaction of the child in each scenario is astonishingly different. The child who had been engaged in parallel play tended not to help, but the child who had been playing collaboratively picked up the paper for the adult.

Collaboration not only creates a social, personal connection, but it also leads to a deeper development of skills, such as empathy. The same goes for activities that promote communication and critical thinking—they promote a different style of learning, and often help children develop skills and experience things they don’t traditionally learn in the classroom—confidence, trial and error, respect for differences, and most of all, creative problem solving.

Structured vs. Unstructured

I believe creating structured classroom opportunities for these types of activities is important, but I also think it’s critical to provide unstructured activities that encourage collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity outside the classroom as well. Unstructured play is a great way to give kids the freedom to determine their own challenges, solve problems that arise naturally, and interact on their own terms. The right play structures can promote these types of interactions and reinforce what is taught in the classroom. Some of our newer play products such as the Unity® Collection, PlayCubes, PlayForm 7 and Branch Out are all designed to be open-ended and have undefined paths of play. These products encourage kids of all abilities to work together, create new ways to play, connect with their peers, and challenge their own ability.

Playworld Takes on the 21st Century

As a member of P21, Playworld is committed to helping children develop 21st century skills. Our resources and research in these areas have inspired us to create new unstructured play activities. I personally will continue to explore ways in which Playworld products can aid the greater efforts of schools and policymakers in developing more innovative, well-rounded students.

Looking to provide unstructured play opportunities that foster the four C’s? Contact us to start the conversation.

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