The 4C’s: How Teachers Use iPads to Support 21st-Century Learning

Each spring in their Skills for Tomorrow class, the fifth grade engages in an exercise in empathy. Following the model of NPR’s StoryCorps project, students pair up and share significant life stories and experiences. Then, with the help of an iPad and a choice of apps, students retell their partner’s story using images, video, and words.

As they work on this project, students leverage technology as a tool for creation, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking – four skills commonly known as “The 4C’s.”

The 4C’s grew out of The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a national coalition of business, education, and policy thought leaders. They spent years exploring and debating which “Learning & Innovation Skills” students would need to succeed in a modern world. They reached “near unanimity” on these four, explaining:

In an increasingly complex, demanding and competitive 21st century, students need to learn more than the 3R’s they are tested on in school. It’s time to help them go “above & beyond”, by embracing the 4Cs – communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

These 4C’s – which sync beautifully with our Attributes of Tomorrow’s Leaders — form the framework for how TVS middle school teachers think about technology in the classroom, particularly how we utilize our 1:1 iPad program in grades 6-8.  

As we develop lessons, units, and learning objectives, we ask this question: How can we use technology to help students communicate more effectively, collaborate in dynamic ways, exercise their creativity, and hone their critical thinking skills?

The iPad is one of many tools we use to support student outcomes. As Bill Gates reminds us, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” In the hands of gifted TVS teachers, the iPad enhances our efforts to strengthen students’ mastery of the 4C’s.

Here are some of the ways our teachers use iPads to create a dynamic learning environment for students.

Communication & Collaboration

  • The iPad allows students to stay in touch with their teachers, turn in homework online, check their progress, receive feedback, offer feedback to peers, and ask clarifying questions. Students can study together from home and even collaborate on projects from different rooms during study hall. The “airplay mode” allows students to instantly project their work onto the screen for the entire class to see, building community and shared knowledge.
  • Teachers use Canvas and apps such as Remind to stay in touch with students and answer questions “after hours.” Math teacher Mrs. Knudsen shared, “For each lesson, I record a ShowMe video of myself teaching the material as I taught it in class, providing reminders about the content, and working through example problems. I then generate a QR code that links to the ShowMe video for students and parents to access as needed.  The QR codes are photocopied onto all worksheets and study guides. The links to the videos can also be found on Canvas.”
  • Science teacher Ms. Hansen notes that iPad-enhanced discussions and brainstorming sessions – using apps such as Padlet – benefit students who may not feel as comfortable speaking up in class. “It takes away some of the ‘everyone is staring at me’ feeling.”
  • Science teacher Ms. McNabb describes how technology can improve group data sharing and analysis, “Students can be working on labs and gathering data all on the same document through Office 365. This in turn allows all students to process through analysis of data and share those thoughts together in order to draw conclusions about the natural world.”
  • Science teacher Ms. Frey explains how the iPad supports student collaboration during their culminating Eco Awareness project: “This large project requires the group to divide up research and writing components along with maps, graphs and poetry. The students will email, airdrop and use Canvas IM to communicate and pass notes throughout the group. This can be done from study hall while they are in different rooms or from home.”
  • In Global Studies, Mr. Churchward’s students use their iPads “to communicate with people outside of the TVS community through Skype, Dropbox, and PenPal Schools. Through our global exchanges, students collaborate with other students around the world.”
  • In English and Humanities, students utilize programs such as Google Docs, Quip, and WordPress to collaborate on stories, essays, and other writing projects in real-time.


  • Ms. Frey writes, When my students are working on a ‘research and teach’ activity, the iPad becomes a major player in creativity. They create Prezis, PicCollages, iMovie, time-lapse videos, and even 3-D models of their living organism. When the students present their informative creations, the whole class is engaged.”
  • Ms. Black shares that in her art class “students engage in the act of creativity while using their iPads for digital imaging. Students not only capture creative images using the camera from their iPads, but they also use editing apps to alter their images. There are several great apps to use for editing images. One in particular, that allows a variety of tool kits to use while enhancing their ‘point of view’ image, is the Adobe Photoshop Express.
  • In English, Ms. Adams takes her students on “virtual field trips,” adding context to the literature they are reading; in the Broadcast Journalism Selective, students use their ipad to write, film, edit, and produce new podcasts; and in music, students use iMovie and GarageBand to produce music videos.
  • In Drama, students use the iPad to create movie trailers based on Shakespearean idioms, collaborate on play-writing, and explore costume design using resources such as Pinterest.

Critical Thinking

  • Mr. Churchward writes, “In Global Studies, we use the iPad to think critically about the world, its trends, and global issues and their solutions. To achieve this, we use various tools and methods such as Google Earth, the Global Oneness Project, interactions with global communities, etc. Online presentation tools such as Nearpod allow our students to think critically and express themselves through a variety of means while also learning content related to a specific topic.”
  • In math and science, teachers use apps to explore graphs, show how 3D figures fold and unfold, rotate 3D objects, and examine the scale of the universe.
  • When teaching research skills, many teachers provide pre-selected websites and then show students how to evaluate the types of information each site provides as they determine which data is most relevant to the task at hand.
  • In humanities, students use the iPad to annotate texts in preparation for class discussions and papers. Dr. Wood writes, “My eighth grade students work with their iPads every day. They use them to access Canvas, download and annotate documents, search the internet, write papers, create presentations, take pictures, record and edit videos — and more besides.  By simply opening a browser, they can access powerful web tools to promote critical thinking. Last year, we used Rationale to plan and evaluate arguments, which they then turned into full essays. This year, we’ll use WriterKey to write and revise essays, with targeted feedback from the teacher. We’ll also use HSTRY to summarize and organize their class notes on a rich and flexible timeline.”
  • Humanities teacher Mr. Sahs adds, “Students can read and write in a moment’s notice. This, in turn, supports critical thinking, because we can break down the writing process and give immediate feedback through material sharing. The immediate feedback loop, and opportunity for students to rapidly revise, allows them to improve their writing and analysis skills more quickly.”
  • Spanish teacher Ms. Munson shares, “Students can delve deeper and engage in cultural explorations while using the technology provided by their iPads. By having access to Google Earth and various reputable websites, students can research Spanish speaking countries and cultures to learn more as well as compare and contrast them to our own. Sometimes the research results in student presentations, and sometimes it results in an in-class discussion as a pre-reading strategy before we read the classroom novel that is set in the place they researched.”

As I wrote when we first embarked on our 1:1 iPad initiative in 2013, iPads are not simply portable computers to help individual students engage in private work; they are connective tools that allow groups to share common experiences and collaborate together in creative ways. They empower students to become curators of their own learning, and they provide a common platform as teachers help students develop strong habits.

We live in a world that needs creative problem-solvers who can work to solve our most intractable problems. iPads are not the solution, but they are a tool to strengthen the skills students will need to flourish in our interconnected, digital world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s