news and events

Reframing the 4 Cs: 21st Century Mindsets

When we began thinking about digital badging to enhance student employability in today’s workforce, it was clear that we needed a clear framework from which to translate what skills today’s employers need to how universities might teach and identify them. To help us explore and define these skill sets, we reached out to researcher Lisa Grocott, Dean of Academic Initiatives at Parsons The New School for Design. Lisa has spent years building curriculum on learning and growth mindsets, so we asked her to help us think through how to frame this challenge. The following is an excerpt from her analysis on how learning mindsets shape a student’s success in the workforce. (Lisa also arranged for her graduate students to run design sessions considering how to use badges in the bridge from college to work.)


The Issue

The 4Cs are an oft-touted benchmark in education – the four key soft skills that today’s graduates need in order to be competitive and competent in today’s workforce. Literature on 21st century learning emphasizes collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication. Yet how do we make sense of the difference between teaching the range of applied skills needed for workforce readiness and problem solve and the more elusive notion of learning mindsets that enable 21st century success?

In our conversations with employers and universities it is clear that both agree that skills like critical thinking and communication are vital to recent graduate’s employability and success in the workforce. Yet we have noticed there are subtle, and sometimes glaring, differences in what an employer thinks “critical thinking” is versus how a university defines it.

DigitalBadges11For more than a decade we have accepted that 21st century skills are essential for students’ future thriving. Yet we still struggle to locate these trans-disciplinary skills in our curriculum and match them to the specific skill sets employers are seeking. For these reasons, we thought it might benefit both higher ed institutions and employers to frame the traditional 4Cs as “21st Century Mindsets” with descriptions that personify each instead of a set of skills without context on how to embody them. If we zoom out from discrete skills we can see that the skills employers seek can be represented by the mindsets students bring to how they learn, think, make and act. A student’s mindset for learning can shape their capacity to acquire new skills, so we believe that re-framing the 4Cs into mindsets that can be “tried on for size” rather than the abstract concepts of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication will benefit students, universities and employers alike.

21st Century Mindsets

Below we outline mindsets for 21st Century learning that take into account new contexts for learning and new interpretations of knowledge. Each mindset is not meant to map 1-to-1 to one of the existing 4Cs, but rather each mindset is meant to be interdependent, with the four mindsets together encapsulating the overall skillset invoked by the 4Cs. We also recognize that different fields put a premium on certain mindsets over others, yet a student’s capacity to be creative is compromised if he is not able to lean in to his own unique potential. Additionally, we’d like to challenge higher education to expand beyond its bias toward critical thinking and embrace a more holistic understanding of the learning mindsets that will ultimately lead to personal and professional fulfillment.DigitalBadges8

The following are some of the questions that led us to this thinking beyond skills to mindsets:

  • How might we connect educational literature on 21st Century skills to the psychology and business literature on mindsets?
  • How might we characterize mindsets that help citizens, companies and communities thrive?
  • How might the 4Cs be grounded by personal and professional goals that promote mindful development?



The mindset that frames our experiences.

The motto of this mindset would be: Strive to Grow.

This is all about fostering a growth mindset, getting gritty and developing meta-cognitive skills that promote the capacity for lifelong learning. With an emphasis on educational psychology, the mindset seeks to build resilience in students leading them to:

accept the challenge;

overcome personal setbacks;

persevere over time;

seek out feedback;

be inspired, not thwarted, by the success of others.




The mindset that shapes how we interpret the world.

The motto of this mindset would be: Ask Questions.

This is all about an expansive notion of what it means to be a critical thinker in a diverse, complex, ambiguous, uncertain world. This mindset fosters the value of being open and inquisitive, of exploring and critiquing. With an emphasis on the philosophy behind a liberal arts education this mindset promotes higher order reasoning:

calling out the importance of recognizing bias;

deep analysis;

embracing plurality in the search for disclosing new perspectives.




The mindset that drives our performance.

The motto of this mindset would be: Learn from Doing.

This is all about being creative and putting your ideas out into the world to make things happen. With an emphasis on design thinking and entrepreneurial mindsets, the bias here is to learn from radical prototyping and show-don’t-tell. By seeing possibilities, being adaptive, and accepting ambiguity the mindset cultivates the capacity to:

take initiative;

be speculative;

assess risk;

iterate reflexively;

fail better the next time.




The mindset that determines our impact.

The motto of this mindset would be: Have Conviction.

This is about more than having an understanding or a creative idea, this is all about showing up, collaborating with others and getting things done. With an emphasis on community organizing and civic engagement, this mindset is about finding empathy, respecting others and being a leader.

In being solution-oriented and scanning for opportunities we see more than just potential we nurture the conviction to act with purpose and create meaningful impact.



Have you thought about reframing the 4Cs in other ways?

What framing is most helpful for how you think about preparing students for the workforce?

What have we missed here?