George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

The Skills Colleges and Employers Are Looking For

How to foster the skills your students will need throughout their education and beyond.
Students work together to develop 21st-century skills.
Students work together to develop 21st-century skills.
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At a conference on innovative teaching and learning, I attended a memorable panel conversation about the skills that students should develop by the time they start college or enter a career. The panel was made up of men and women who headed large and small businesses, and the skills they wanted incoming employees to have were:

  • Communication for internal and external clients
  • Empathy
  • Collaboration
  • Problem solving
  • Initiative
  • Strong work ethic

A 2015 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers confirms the importance of these skills. Yet it seems that young people are often not masters of these skills when they graduate high school. How can we ensure that high school graduates are highly proficient in these key career skills?

Collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, sometimes called the three Cs, can be fostered in K–12 environments: Students already work in teams, give presentations, write papers, and solve complex challenges. Innovations in teaching and learning—including STEM/STEAM, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and design thinking—also enhance these skills. And traditional education includes opportunities for Socratic seminars, labs, literary analysis, and studying complex mathematical formulas and scientific hypotheses.

Teachers provide these experiences in school, but colleges and business people continue to say that young people lack a grounding in the three Cs. The reason for this puzzling disconnect is best expressed by students. I’ve interviewed many students across the U.S. in all kinds of schools, asking them to define and describe communication, collaboration, and problem solving.

In classrooms where good collaboration took place, students would say that people were positive and did their work. But they could not describe the behaviors they demonstrated that could be replicated each time they worked in teams. The same vague responses were shared regarding good communication and problem solving experiences.  

There were some students who could give clear definitions and provide concrete examples of their practice. Their classrooms and schools shared common practices, described below, so that students understood the three Cs as well as they did the rest of the curriculum.

Common Language

Students and educators need to share a common language that describes the three Cs in concrete behavior. These descriptors become the guide by which students monitor their actions and those of peers and the adults—everyone is held to these behaviors. For example, communication can be described concretely as:

  1. Listens to others, fully present to others’ meaning.
  2. Seeks to understand before being understood.
  3. Encourages through verbal and nonverbal cues.
  4. Expresses ideas and questions in clear and concise language.
  5. Uses pitch and tone to express thoughts in an appropriate manner.
  6. Is mindful of communication skills when having difficult conversations.

Sometimes teachers or staff develop the first draft of the behaviors. Then students propose revisions in language that makes sense to them. The resulting description charts are best posted on all walls so that they can be seen and used by everyone. Introduce one chart per skill, and gradually add the other Cs during the year.

Intentional Coaching

Being intentional is key to learner growth (see my new book, So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation). Use your charts to dialog with students about their work. For example, chemistry teacher George Hutcheson would move between student teams to monitor their progress on a project-based learning experience. He redirected students toward the assignment when needed by having them reflect on their collaboration. He also gathered project leaders from each team to discuss their responsibility to keep everyone on task and contributing—both of which are collaboration skills.

Practice Reflection

Students need opportunities to reflect on their use of the three Cs. For example, Jennifer Dyer, a French teacher, would start a lesson by having students work with partners to reflect on and discuss the behaviors from their chart that they felt were important to the work. At the end of a lesson, the students evaluated their success with the skills in completing the work. Use reflection before and after activities that require students to practice the three Cs, such as after protocols. Five minutes in total for reflection is time well spent.

The Fourth C: Citizenship

Leadership comprises the three Cs and is exhibited through being a participating citizen. Becoming an active citizen requires thoughtful practice of the Cs in connection with involvement in communities both local and farther afield. A great example of teachers and students growing a culture of deeper learning through 21st-century skills is Isle of Wight County Schools in Virginia. Check their twitter hashtag, #IC5Cs, for a wealth of shared practices and experiences.

Being intentional with developing 21st-century skills is the only way that students consciously grow the skills. Imagine a class of students who develop a deep understanding of these four Cs from kindergarten to third grade. Now picture them as high school seniors after more years of practice. These amazing citizens could transform expectations in college and the workplace.

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John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Teresa,
That is so wonderful to hear. I will share your thoughts with the teachers and administrators that I coach and support. They have a powerful vision for students, and are actively working towards developing the key skills that will give their students an incredible edge in college and career opportunities. By the time that you grandchild practices and experiences these skills from 1st grade through 12th, a new master Jedi of global survival skills will skillfully navigate a bright future :)

Pablo Coppola's picture

Larry you bring up a great point. It's essential to progress with every generation coming through and stay cutting edge with the way students think. Not to mention, the amount of resources we have to collaborate and grow as professionals is endless. I work with a non-profit musical organization where a generational gap exists. The older, more established supervisors want to hire youthful employers to connect with the students yet fit them in a box where they inhibit their creativity, growth and exuberance. What type of skills are you referring to fit within the 21st century workspace?

nmendi07's picture

This is great. I also use collaborative learning in my class, with discussions, projects, etc. What I never thought of doing before, was reflecting on the collaboration. I feel like these skills are essential to prepare our kids for the future (21st century skills), but doing the minimal will only expose them to it. Perhaps being able to start dialogue about how these skills are essential for success can contribute to the retention of the skill.

nmendi07's picture

You mentioned integrating the four C's as early as kindergarten. How do you suggest tracking or assessing these integrations at such a young age. For example, the CCSS requires kindergarteners to be able to comprehend and collaborate. Specifically, one example is how they should be able to "Ask and answer questions in order to seek help, get information, or clarify something that is not understood" (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.K.3). How do you suggest a teacher might track their use and improvement in the four C's, while they are still being taught to communicate their needs effectively?

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

That's a great point. Taking time with students to actively reflect on the specific collaboration skills they are using helps them become mindful of their practice.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Teaching and coaching the 4Cs at each grade level should be developmentally appropriate. In one elementary school I work with, the kindergarten teacher uses Morning Meetings as a starting point. She has students focus on practicing basic listening and using kind words with each other during group work. These are important foundations for deeper use of listening and communication. The kindergartners in her room show patience and willingness to help at this time of the year. The standards at primary level can sometimes take the year to develop. The key is to give students frequent opportunities to be mindful and think on their practice. Another teacher uses the ClassroomDojo app to give feedback to students when they are exhibiting the behaviors of collaboration or communication being worked on.

nmendi07's picture

I've heard of ClassroomDojo, but have never attempted to use the tool. I was thinking that most collaboration and communication progress made in class can be overlooked at times, depending on the content you teach. As a new teacher, I'm still learning all the correct terms for things and the different concepts we're supposed to be aware of. One thing I had recently learned about through one of my classes online was the idea of integrating language arts into other-content teaching. For example, in a Social Studies classroom setting, most forms of lessons are done lecture-style. It would be great to incorporate the 4-Cs into this setting, but I think the issue is being able to track all the active progress being made. You mentioned that being conscious and intentional with your teaching of the 4-Cs is a good way to grow the skills.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

It's good to start small, where you feel comfortable. In this article I provided a link to a resource of protocols that help students work collaboratively on content, and communicate effectively: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/strategies-for-inquiry-based-learning-john...
Provide students a list of specific behaviors that describe the skills. For example, communication could be broken down to:
listening, non-verbal cues, kind, and encouraging. Place the list on the wall and have students reflect on their practice of the list after doing a protocol and 1-2 times a week. :)

nmendi07's picture

Thanks for the resource! I think teaching middle school makes it easier to track the effective use of communication and collaboration. You mentioned creating a list to post somewhere in the classroom. I think this would be a great idea. I find that my students tend to always refer to those little help charts that I post up around the classroom, a lot. I'll try this out with the communication skills, maybe even have them create their own posters to share.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Glad to help. Good idea about having the students co-create the behaviors that demonstrate good communication. Have them reflect on the chart at least once a week (2 minutes). What get's reviewed is seen as important. What's ignored is just a poster on a wall ;)

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