The Four C’s + V
Hania Afifi
6 November 2018

There is no doubt that we are on the cusp of the next age in human progress. If the rate of change is not indicative enough, the political, economic and social unrest across the world points towards an unstable base. The only certainty is uncertainty. And if there is one thing we need to hold onto during times of volatility, it is mental agility.

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harrari notes that “to survive and flourish, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance.” Unfortunately, those are two chattels you cannot buy off Amazon or learn at the Open University’s online forum. Like a corporate intangible asset, those possessions need to be cultivated over an extended period. A good time to start is during the ‘official’ educational years (more about the validity of such practice later). But does our current education system equip us with those two vital skills we need to navigate the challenges of the 21st century?

The Current System

Since the industrial age, the prevailing educational model across all countries has been the feeding of existing knowledge into students followed by a test to ensure the information has been assimilated and instructions are followed. In some parts of the world, this model is followed to a T like in the Middle East and Asia, in others, few attempts were made to digress away from the didactic approach and encourage independent thinking. Whilst the tactics may vary from one culture to another and between countries, the skeletal frame remains very much intact to this day.

Yet to what extent can this knowledge transfer system remain relevant in today’s world? Knowledge which was contained since the dawn of writing in manuscripts, books, journals or others and preserved in the physical confines of institutions is now accessible to all at the press of a button. Instructions that helped us digest and comprehend this knowledge was delivered via teachers at the respective institution. However, instructions today can be delivered via an online tutorial posted on YouTube and easily accessed by millions. Basically, there is no shortage in knowledge or difficulty in its transfer. Those challenges have long been overcome, but new challenges arose because of the emerging knowledge transfer system.


Knowledge was preserved in manuscripts, books and journals and confined within the boundaries of educational and religious institutions

The prevailing open source information system allowed for the production and dissemination of valid and fake knowledge. To distinguish between them, one must resolve to a skill that is not frequently cultivated in our current educational model; that of Critical Thinking. Along with Creativity, Communication and Collaboration, Critical Thinking has been identified by the P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning as one of the 4C’s “students need to succeed in work, life and citizenship.” The organisation has also ascertained critical life and career skills to navigate the increasingly competitive and complex information age including:

  1. Flexibility and Adaptability
  2. Initiative and Self-Direction
  3. Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
  4. Productivity and Accountability
  5. Leadership and Responsibility

Yet how many schools have weaved a training program of those skills into existing curricula, let alone teach as subjects in their own right! How many students can adapt to a variety of roles and work effectively in an environment of ambiguity? How many global leaders today demonstrate social and cross-cultural skills that are built on mutual respect and appreciation of ‘the Other’?


Suicide rates amongst teenagers in the USA increased by 25% for boys and 75% for girls in the last 2 years since the start of the decade

You need only observe the rising unemployment figures across the globe to deduce that flexibility and adaptability were not skills mastered during their student years and read the business headlines about corrupt and greedy financial institutions to know that leadership and responsibility are not career skills that were honed on during people’s formative years. Add to these observations the fact that suicide rate amongst teenage boys in the last 2 years increased by 25% since the beginning of the decade and 75% for teenage girls and you can see that self-direction life skills are not supported enough in education today. So, I propose a slightly adjusted model to P21’s recommended framework for 21st century learning.

The Proposed Model

Instead of anchoring the curriculum in the key subjects such as history, maths, science etc. and attempt to weave the recognised skill sets into their knowledge content through tutoring techniques, institutions should ground the educational framework in the required skills and then demonstrate their application across various fields. As indicated earlier there are vast quantities of accessible knowledge, but few have the skills to utilise and apply it for the service of mankind.

For example, a critical thinking class applied to the subject matter of media studies can revolve around themes of content production, authenticity, economic impact etc. The same class applied to a different subject, ex. geography can generate a multitude of topics ranging from geopolitics to carbon rationing and climate change. This will not only develop an individual who has mastered Critical Thinking, but also a fluid individual who can converge key themes across disciplines and apply his/her knowledge according to situational needs. Basically, we cultivate an individual with enough mental flexibility to move seamlessly between different fields and solve problems.


Instead of anchoring the curriculum in key subjects such as maths and science, teach skills classes and demonstrate how they apply to different key subjects

The stage at which this proposed model should come into force (middle school, A-Levels, college etc.), I leave to the experts, but I would urge them to critically evaluate this model before refuting it all together. I would also recommend adding a V to the four C’s: Values Integration and Morals Preservation.

These are the very things that render meaning to our lives. They will provide us with substantial emotional reserves in times of abstruseness. Our moral compass and our human values will become our guiding principles in building a good life when technology takes over our labour hours. In his prophetic 1930 essay entitled Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes noted that our strife for subsistence and economic abundance has been our life’s purpose for millennia. But he predicted that soon,

“the strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance … Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”.

Evidence of this can be seen in the growing number of people who opt for freelance and remote work; whose goal is not to accumulate wealth, but instead to strike a balance between work, life and internal peace. In fact, people are beginning to recognise the difference between Real Needs and Manufactured Needs; thus, the movement towards the experience economy spearheaded by the Millennials. We have a Real Need for transportation; Uber and Zip Car fulfil this. We have a Real Need for accommodation/shelter, Airbnb provides this. On the other, there is a Manufactured Need for status, BMW and Louis Vuitton offer this.

This is not to say that we have reached the point of absolute economic abundance, nor that we turned away from Manufactured Needs, but to point towards the likelihood of a shift in moral values. As Keynes noted,

“We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.”

Whilst the merits of such times are undeniable, we still must be prepared. It is not the lack of food on the table that drives young teenage girls to bulimia but the skewed human value we attribute to physical appearance. Driven by the multibillion-dollar industry of fashion and beauty and celebrated by an equally greedy media industry, a desirable physical appearance has become a Manufactured Need with grave consequences.

To combat this, we need to nurture in our youth the life skills outlined earlier to arm them with the necessary emotional reserves. The determined capital accumulating industries will not bow to human values anytime soon. More often than not, our economic values are in conflict with human values and as Keynes wisely stated,

“For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”


All business and civil institutions must operate from the same moral grounds that service mankind

Until the day when fair is fair and foul is foul, our youth need to develop emotional resilience and mental flexibility. This starts in their formative educational years and must continue to be nurtured throughout their lives via business and civil institutions. There is no point in developing agile workers if employers continue to prefer those who conform. Equally futile to install ethical standards in youngsters when they will be abandoned once they join the political arena. All institutions must learn to collaborate and operate on the same moral grounds, recognising the merits of the four Cs + V to create a pleasant habitat for mankind on this earth.