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.

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.

About the Author
Share This Story

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an entusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Great article, John! I have already read your book, So All Can Learn, and this article reinforces the many excellent suggestions and strategies outlined there. May I offer a fifth C? I think Creativity must be equally emphasized in school. This is the vital engagement, inspirational, choice and voice learning component that you also talk about in your book. Passion, purpose, and meaning has to be at the forefront of all those conversations, collaborations, and critical thinking, or else no real student investment occurs.

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

Thanks Robert. I completely agree about Creativity. If I were to write a follow-up article, Creativity could be the entire focus. I'm glad that you like So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide to Differentiation. It was a passion and dream come true to write, based on the many teachers I've seen and worked with.
By the way, I've started reading "A Teacher's Inside Advice to Parents" I love the premise. Helping teachers be empowered and aware of how the needs of students are influenced by what happens to them outside of the classroom is a timely book. It's Differentiation in action with families!

Larry's picture
Owner of ThrivEdge - Academic, Success, Career training

A problem today is that people are still thinking like 35 years ago - one day you'll learn that, one day you'll understand Too much of k-12 is focused on other than academics and what skills and attitudes are needed for the work place in favor of some notion of what should exist in a good society (everyone gets a trophy, avoid conflicts rather than learning to work thru them). We need to learn many skills and attitudes sooner since employers are looking for those who can hit the ground running and though they are willing to train employees (they spend a lot of money for this) they need those who are prepared with habits, skills, attitudes beyond a degree or something completed after high school read to work with good work skills. Too often what they find is new workers who lack too many of the skills needed for the 21st century workplace who have been fed attitudes of equality but not competition, don't tolerate offenses vs. learning to handle conflict and communication, etc. Not many are telling students what they need to succeed in today's world since even colleges are still working like we were in the 1960s - get a degree and you are set. You need more than education and knowledge for today's and tomorrow's worlds though you do need both of these. Its not just the college debt that is a weight on many graduates but the lack of needed skills and how to get them before you start working. I explained a lot of this to a young woman who was getting a business degree and she said - won't I eventually learn all this.. Yes, you might by age 35 but getting on this now puts you head and shoulders above most others - you need an edge since there are so many getting degrees after high school, or some other kind of completed higher education training. These are now more the norm so you need what employers are looking for beyond a degree

Teresa Weaver's picture

A member of my local school board forwarded your article to me. Your mention of the Isle of Wight County schools in Virginia was appreciated. I graduated from high school in Isle of Wight in 1972 and my children were educated here and now our oldest grandchild is in first grade (the fourth generation of our family to be educated in Isle of Wight). It is a wonderful school system that is doing great things for our students. I am currently a middle school librarian in an adjoining school division but am so thankful that my grandchildren are attending Isle of Wight County Public Schools.

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

Hi Larry,
Your conversation with the college student who thought that she would learn 21st century skills on the job is an important example. For the students that we teach in K-12, how much more of an edge can we give them by developing those skills before college and career opportunities? Alot :) The time on these skills can be placed seamlessly into the curriculum work. Thanks for sharing.

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 :)

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.