The Future of Education: The 7Cs, 3 Rs, & 3 Ms of 21st-Century Learning

I remember taking an online course about 21st-century learning about a decade ago about when MySpace started fading, so 21st-century. So it’s been spoken of in numerous courses, books, and diatribes, so what could I possibly add (other than my sparkling wit and charm, he said sardonically). I suppose I just wanted to add my two cents to how it has been effective for me as well as what other traits I find essential (ooh, look he added some more confusing letters).

There is a reason the quality of our 21st-century instruction now will be a determining factor in the achievements of the leaders of the future. So if we don’t address and instruct about the coming changes that will arrive through technological, civil, or environmental means, our students will be the ones to suffer. So we need to cast off the anchor of our former ways of thinking, raise our sail of innovation, and set forth on the 7 Cs of 21st-century learning.  Are those enough nautical puns to tide you over or have I veered off course? Okay, I promise there will only be one more, perhaps near the end-back to the task at hand.

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Why We Go Exploring

Why are we worrying about this when teachers have so much other content to deal with. But that’s just it. There’s a reason content isn’t one of the 7 Cs. Don’t think for a moment I’m saying there aren’t essential academic skills that all students should possess whether that is basic multiplication, determining meaning when we encounter new vocabulary, reading a map, or tying our shoes. I want my students and my children to know these things (and even cursive which has recently been deemed non-essential).

There are circumstances though in which all of these are moot. In complex math and science, it’s the computer that performs basic arithmetic while the person is responsible for the higher order problem-solving. There are students with visual or other impairments who will never read a book or a map in a traditional way, but screen readers, GPS, and other technology make them capable of wholly participating in related activities and discussions.

It’s not that the traditional subject learning including the arts, economics, and civics aren’t still important. They certainly are. It’s simply that in a world where basic facts can just be Googled, the act of memorization is a less crucial skill. In truth, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy (first published in 1956), it was never a very important part of real in-depth learning. Never before have there been learners like today’s students. Technology is progressing exponentially fast. We enter a new paradigm where we must prepare students for a world that doesn’t yet exist and we are unsure of what it will require.

New Paradigm

This year’s graduates were born in 2000 at the onset of a new millennium, and it wasn’t that long ago that they were in kindergarten. The internet was already ubiquitous then and they were likely already familiar with the latest technology like YouTube, iTunes, and the PlayStation. Even so, MySpace and Internet Explorer still reigned while the first iPhone was years away. So if you had tried to focus on teaching those kids how to program in Flash and create apps for their Motorola Razr, those would be meaningless skills now as they graduate. Now smartphones are in everyone’s pockets and Flash is nearly dead, so how can we know what tools and content to teach kids about for the coming century. Should we dig deep into mixed reality, or will that also be supplanted by the chips that will become directly implanted in our brains?

Is teaching tech or Tolstoy as meaningless as training students in blacksmithing? And, if so, then what should we instruct? It is not that content-specific information is less important, but no real-world problems are solved in subject-specific isolation. Students must be trained to solve open challenges and find both the problem as well solution since half of the struggle in life is figuring what needs improvement/fixing in the first place. Students must learn to be comfortable solving the kind of ill-defined problems they will encounter in the real world. They must be willing to confront the ambiguity head-on and recognize and analyze what they face and be at ease finding creative solutions by communicating with their peers.

A classroom needs to be a laboratory for exploration and no longer worksheet and scantron factory. Some contrarians may argue that this is only furthering the globalism that is hurting some people, but it would be more detrimental to ignore those changes than to prepare for them. We need to instruct more in skills and character necessary for success not just for future careers, but also to create better human beings as part of a better society. So let’s dig into which traits will remain essential.

Diving Into The 7 Cs and Beyond

Framework-copyrighted.pngInto that challenge of addressing future-learning comes the exploration of global skills that will be necessary across all fields and enterprises in this new world. Those discussions ultimately lead to the recognition of the 4 Cs which would evolve into the 7 Cs of 21st-century learning all spearheaded by the Partnership for 21st-Century Learning. The expansion to 7 included the inclusion of the additional life, career, and media skills, all of which are identified as the most important in modern education. There has been some disagreement about what words should be used to connote those skills, but I am using those found in the book called 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. The other terms, as I will show actually fit inside other skill areas. You will also note that of the 7 Cs, not one them is content. Again, it’s not meant to demean content, but rather that the necessary skills are supposed to be applicable across content areas.

  • Critical Thinking-This is all about creating open challenges for students that require research and analysis of information along with problem-solving and analytic thinking.
  • Creativity-Being innovative will continue to be a key driver, and, yes, you can teach creativity. By giving opportunities and environments that allow students to be curious seekers of new knowledge, we lead them to exercise their creative muscles. For the future, they will need to design creative solutions, tell artful stories, and curate a collection of designs in their new world.
  • Communication-The quality of your ideas is meaningless if ‘you no talk no good’ because communicating your purposes to others is an essential part of determining the success or failure of an endeavor. This includes the ability to craft and analyze the information you give and receive. In a modern context, it also pertains to media literacy.
  • Collaboration-Even if you develop an incredible initial concept, you will need a team of people to help bring it to life. Do you play well with others? Even if you are in a leadership role (or perhaps especially) you need to be able to connect, cooperate, compromise, and build community. That’s 4 more Cs just in this 1 area.
  • Cross-Cultural Understanding-Since the creation of the internet, the world has become a much more connected place and the future will require your students to be able to interact in that space. This is about global citizenship that spans across diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and ideas. The UN Sustainable Development Goals will play a large role in guiding you here.
  • Computing Technology-While the technology is certain to change, a basic understanding of troubleshooting and logical program creation and design will always be important. It’s even more crucial that students learn how to navigate in a world of electronic information and how they can become positive digital citizens.
  • Career Learning-This area encompasses many of the job and life skills that have always been crucial. That means everything from setting and achieving goals, managing time, being organized and effective, and dealing positively with workplace challenges. It also entails self-reliance and self-care. One of the most important parts of career learning and life is cultivating the concept that you are a lifelong learner.

Character & Environment

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In looking beyond the essential skills we begin to think about both the type of person we want students to become to succeed and the type of environment we need to create to make that learning possible. The 3 Rs (not my idea) are character traits that we hope to consistently encourage and the 3 Ms (my idea) are the way we make our classroom effective in those efforts.

The 3Rs

ADE STEM.004.jpegMuch of the 3Rs are about redefining failure, something all people seem to struggle with. Many major workplace failures are the result of employees being unable or unwilling to admit to their superiors that they are struggling behind schedule, or think an idea is bad. If you want to know why a terrible or offensive ad made it to your tv, it is likely because the few people who may have noticed it didn’t feel empowered to say so. In education teachers often point to the Edison example of how he failed at finding appropriate light bulb filaments 100 times before he succeeded or how Michael Jordan was put on the JV team. Even though both are part of far more complex stories they do illustrate that fortitude is essential for success.

Our students need to know that it is only through wrong answers and mistakes that learning happens. If we were always right it would mean we already know everything and instruction is meaningless. The problem is that it requires a great deal of confidence in what you do know to admit what you don’t. Also, how can one be expected to fail well if it’s not modeled for them? It’s not that students are incapable of this. We see it as we watching them play a video game where Mario falls 8 times, but they try a 9th time just to jump a half-second later as they iteratively learn. Then it isn’t game over but rather try again with experience.

  • Resilient-As I said a student must be able to withstand failing as well as scrutiny from others for the choices that led to their decision. This is that grit that is so often lauded as being an essential component of success. Being resilient refines in the fire of scrutiny so that you can either quickly abandon failing efforts to move on to something more effective or be more capable of defending your choices.
  • Reflective-To achieve anything worthwhile you must be able to honestly self-reflect both on your successes and failures recognizing that in both criticism and accolades you still have room to grow and improve.
  • Risk-Taker-By being resilient and reflective you will be more willing to take educated risks and it is in those outside-the-box risks that you will have the best opportunity to innovate.

The 3 Ms

One of the main reasons I felt compelled to add to the requirements for quality modern instruction is that, though it addressed the skills we should teach and the character traits embedded in those skills we should try to foster, it didn’t address what the classroom that does this should really look like. I could have addressed a number of important traits evident in quality classrooms like openness, rigorous, positivity, and honesty. In the end, though I kept going back to 3 ideas that have remained as my polestar on my journey as a teacher My educational raison d’être has long been that learning should be motivating, meaningful, and made for everyone.ADE STEM.003.jpeg

  • Motivating-All people innately love learning until they’re bludgeoned and bored to the point of giving up. Making learning motivating isn’t just about it being fun and engaging or giving stickers and getting good grades. We need to make the learning intrinsically motivating by giving students a voice, helping them set clear goals, and making it challenging. Challenge and struggle are important because nothing that is too easy seems worthwhile. And then, in the end, you can make learning playful, social, and exploratory too.
  • Meaningful-Why is this important should be a welcomed question. Students want to connect learning to their lives in a meaningful way. Let them solve real-world problems and don’t stymie any solution as unrealistic. Boyan Slat was a teenager when he came up with his idea to clean the Pacific Garbage Patch. Allowing an element of choice and creating a learning community where students celebrate each other is an important part of this.
  • Made For Everyone-This is an important piece to me as I work with students with disabilities. Yes, this may mean incorporating accessibility tools, but it also includes differentiating instruction so that each student is capable of being challenged and achieving success. So much of 21st-century design is related to Universal Design for Learning. If you’re neglecting certain learners for the sake of expediency then you are doing your whole school and local community a disservice.

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So how do you make all of this happen in your classroom with all the other constraints and burdens you have as a teacher. In one sense I would have to say I don’t know since it depends on your school, your students, and your comfort with taking those risks yourself. I will tell you though what it looks like for my students. It is an open environment where students can learn by doing and learn playfully with and embedded choice and differentiation. In math, it’s not about worksheets but about open 3-Act problems to be solved. In literacy, it’s about exploring characters and ourselves and relating it to physical or digital projects that demonstrate understanding. It’s about mastery more than grades. I will share example lessons in some upcoming posts, but for now here are some resources to help you begin.

Overall creating effective modern instruction requires many of the same skills in the teacher we discussed as necessary for the students. The kind of resilience and flexibility that are a rare combination. Don’t be put off though as you can begin in small ways with a few more open lessons or allowing a few more options for student assignments. There are also a number of technological tools that can help. Students can virtually design ways to address pollution or simulate the interactions of world governments. In the end, it’s all about a willingness to change, a willingness to give up control, and a willingness to dive into the 7Cs and explore with your students.

20 thoughts on “The Future of Education: The 7Cs, 3 Rs, & 3 Ms of 21st-Century Learning

    1. That’s a broad question (for a large state), but Cue ( and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills ( partnered with CA.

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