How to Improve Collaboration, Communication, Creative and Critical Thinking in Students

Critical thinking, communication, creative thinking, and collaboration are vital in the workplace, at home, and in virtually every interaction your students will have. Yet today’s teaching styles consistently fail to help students master these “four Cs.” The right curriculum can overcome this deficit, helping your students prepare for the real world while still meeting or exceeding curriculum goals.

Why the “Four Cs” Matter

In the midst of pressure to exceed district standards, to please parents, and to entertain students, it’s easy to lose sight of the real purpose of education. A good education is about preparing students to enter the world. Students should leave your classroom with a cornucopia of skills they can use no matter what direction their life’s path takes.

Critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creative thinking serve students all day, every day. That’s even truer when they hit adulthood. Consider a common dilemma: a fight with a spouse. A person who can think critically about their own behavior, engage in creative problem-solving, communicate well, and collaborate to find solutions will be better equipped to resolve the problem and have a happy relationship.

Here’s another common dilemma students might face: dealing with a medical bill they don’t think they owe. Critical thinking skills help students research the bill and synthesize the information. Collaboration and communication are vital for working with a medical office. Creative thinking can help devise a number of plans for paying the bill—or for disputing it if the medical office isn’t responsive.

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How Typical Teaching Styles Fail to Teach Critical Thinking and Other Vital Skills

Parents, professionals, friends, relatives, and everyone else must master the four Cs. Sadly, traditional teaching methods fail to teach them.

Much of the way educators teach is about asking students to passively accept information. That’s anathema to critical thinking. Students who spend long days sitting at desks rarely get a chance to collaborate with others. They may spend all day only as inactive recipients of a teacher’s words. Creative thinking—such as thinking creatively about how to manage their own boredom—may even land them in trouble.

How to Incorporate the Four Cs Into the Classroom

Life doesn’t offer students separate critical thinking or collaboration moments. Instead, students must constantly use these basic skills. Therefore, the best lesson plans are those that incorporate the four Cs into the daily curriculum—not those that segregate them as separate parts of the day. How can teachers do this? Here are some simple strategies.

Creative Thinking

  1. Encourage students to ask questions about what they learn and even to say they disagree with their teachers.

  2. Present students with complex problems that require creative solutions, not simple questions that demand rote memorization.

  3. Allow students to move around during the day and encourage them to use a variety of methods to learn. For example, spend time outside when discussing biology, or use baseball and basketball to demonstrate simple physics.

  4. Rather than giving students worksheets, give them projects. To whatever extent possible, encourage them to develop their own projects.

Critical Thinking

  1. Begin your lessons with a question, and explain to students how your lesson will solve that question.

  2. Encourage students to disagree with you as long as they are respectful.

  3. When students disagree with you or are frustrated, urge them to document their own opinions. A student who wants longer recess time might do a project researching the scientific benefits of research.

  4. Incorporate information relevant to students’ lives into your lesson plan. You might talk about climate change, encourage students to debate an upcoming election, or help students find reliable sources for researching a proposed school policy change.


  1. Give students plenty of opportunities to work together on their own terms. Group work is great, but self-selected group projects are better.

  2. Encourage students to work through conflicts on their own, but give them the support and resources they need to accomplish this goal. Offer them tips, questions, and a safe place to discuss their disagreements.

  3. Urge students to collaborate outside of the classroom. Can they interview an expert for a paper? Work with a sibling to solve a family challenge? Negotiate with mom and dad for a small change in family rules? Encourage these endeavors, and talk to parents and caregivers about how they can encourage them, too.


  1. Don’t rely solely on group work and conflict management to teach students communication skills. Communication strategies such as negotiation, apologies, and effective advocacy must be taught. Students must experiment through trial and error. Provide a safe space for them to do this by allowing friendly conflict.

  2. Encourage students to get involved in community issues. They might write an op-ed, lobby a politician, or author a persuasive blog entry. When appropriate, encourage students to go to school board meetings and share their views, or to attend state legislative days.

  3. Don’t demand silence during the day. It’s reasonable to expect students to be orderly and to avoid interrupting, but shooting down their questions or penalizing them for excitedly sharing ideas shuts down communication. Instead, teach them the appropriate way to communicate by telling them not to interrupt, to be friendly and succinct, and to avoid talking over others.

Teaching the Four Cs: Lesson Plans That Get Results

Project-based learning (PBL) lesson plans incorporate learning into students’ daily lives. These lesson plans are built upon a strong four Cs foundation. Some strategies for PBL learning include:

  1. Getting students involved in a community project. For example, you might ask students to plan a volunteer project, write about why that project is a good idea, and then work together to get the community involved.

  2. Helping students lobby for an issue they care about by writing their legislator, attending local meetings, or penning an op-ed.

  3. Asking students to collaboratively develop a list of potential class projects, then doing their favorites from the list.

No matter what your students do with their lives, they will need to think critically and creatively. They’ll need to work with others and effectively communicate. Project-based learning is one of the most effective ways to help your students master these skills. This pedagogical style teaches students in a real-world context, rather than forcing them to memorize information divorced from their real lives. It’s fun. It works. It can be adapted to any educational goals. It might even reignite your students’ love of learning and your passion for teaching.

Ready to harness the power of PBL in your school?