Using Superhero Teams to Teach the 4 Cs (Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity): A 21st Century Approach to the Classroom

David Seelow, PhD©

          The Partnership for 21st Century Education1 decided upon the 4 Cs as the framework for students in the new century with an emphasis on how technology can enable and enhance these 4 skills:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity.

Although the framework has been designed to guide instruction for students in grades K-12, these 4 skills are equally applicable to higher education and, furthermore, the skills are those often sought after by employers, who often see these 4Cs inadequately demonstrated by recent college graduates.2 Consequently, finding new ways to cultivate and reinforce these skills remains critical in all disciplines. Ironically, my experience suggests that technology’s role might be more paradoxical than the technophiles want us to think. I would argue that because of technology the 4 Cs are most needed. For example, reliance on texting has diminished verbal skills, both spoken and written. Another good example would be that technological acceleration and change demands the skills of innovation more today than ever before.

          The 4 skills are intertwined and teaching them as a suite of skills makes the most sense. The use of superhero teams has proven very successful in my classes and this approach can be applied to any discipline. My class “Superheroes and the Millennial” might be an ideal fit for superhero teams but let me explain how easily the concept and process can be adapted to other courses. The first day of class students form teams which they will remain in for the duration of the semester (I highly recommend teams of 4 or 5 students, but no largere). You can use whatever strategy you normally use to put students into diverse groups. The second week of class each student creates their own unique superhero including the superhero’s power(s), weakness(es), confidants, love interest, alter ego (optional) and costume (optional). This process teaches and encourages creativity. Just as most students today use online avatars and thrive on customizing them, inventing a character serves the same deeply felt personal need. If you prefer students use actual historical figures, then ask them to identity what makes the figure super heroic? What was Winston Churchill’s superpower(s)? His kryptonite? They can also delineate the figures other powers, weaknesses, love interests, possible secret identity, i.e. a private as opposed to a public self.

          Week three the team members assemble in class and form a unique superhero team like The Avengers or Justice League of America. They must explain their individual superheroes to each other and then see how they best fit together by choosing a team name, creating a mission statement and identifying a headquarters. Superhero teams are not confined to fiction, think of the Navy Seals, The Golden State Warriors basketball team, the team working on The Manhattan Project. What makes these historical teams so extraordinary? Each disciple will have many examples of such great teamwork and helping students understand the value of teams is indispensable. The point of using The Avengers as a starting point is the given reality that students today are very familiar with such superheroes through blockbuster movies, video games, TV shows and the like. Even if the fictional superhero is just a starting point to launch historic super teams in the class, giving students an easily recognizable frame of reference provided by popular culture will jump start their creativity and motivate active learning.

          This team forming exercise further encourages creativity, but now combined with collaboration and communication. In the K-12 environment teachers are required to have studied pedagogy that includes cooperative learning, but that is not often the case with professors, which may be one reason group learning is not used as often as it could be in higher education. Additionally, I have found in higher education much more than in high school, students are reluctant to work in teams. They often give the reason of not wanting to carry an unfair burden of the work, but college students must learn to work more as a team and understand the value of interdependence to success because when they graduate almost every career will expect graduates to work on projects as part of a complex, often diverse team. Today, the team might easily be geographically diverse too. For instance, in comics, the writer Brian Michael Bendis often collaborates with the artist Sara Pichelli who lives in Italy (they worked on Ultimate Spider-Man together).   I stress the growing importance of remote teams to underscore the necessity of students communicating with each other outside of class (many students offer totally unacceptable excuses for “we could not find a time or place to meet”).

          Using historical figures can add depth to a team assignment. For instance, a course on International Relations where teams are asked to tackle a middle eastern problem like the crisis in Syria students could choose which officials are best suited to address the problem. The students will need to do research and explain their choices. One team might choose an Ambassador, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the President, and an academic specializing in the area. Another team might prefer the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the Secretary of Defense. Regardless, the choices demand thought and consideration of how people communicate and work together. A second layer to the choice would be to ask students to choose the figures they want to fulfill each role. The power of student choice cannot be overestimated. Finally, you can add a historical dimension to the superhero team by having students choose historical figures to address a current problem. Regardless, the very formation of such teams serves the 4 Cs very well.

          The last step in the process would be to give the superhero team a specific problem to tackle. The problem should directly engage the course subject matter and outcomes. The problem solving dimension requires critical thinking at its deepest level, but now combined with communication, collaboration and creativity. In my course, I presented all the teams with the problem of the opioid crisis- a public health issue and asked each team to address how they would fight a specific aspect of the problem through the creation of an original comic book. Each team was assigned a supervillain who represented an aspect of the crisis. For example, Dr. O represented physicians over prescribing opioid pain killers such as Oxycontin. Another team was assigned The Enabler, a figure who meant good, but perpetuated a substance user’s destructive behavior. By assigning each team a different aspect of the problem the class learned how complex problems can be, and the necessity of using multiple skills as well as each other each to address the problem.

          Regardless of the subject, you teach the use of superhero team as fictional or historical will prove a valuable aid to teaching Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity. Assessing the 4 Cs requires an emphasis on project based learning with the focus on creative problem solving. You cannot assess teamwork on a test that every student takes as an individual. Deep learning, skill development and workplace readiness are best served in an authentic “real world” environment even if that “real world” problem requires the deployment of superhero teams!


1. For an overview and details about the Partnership for 21st Century Learning see the website Battelle for Kids at: The National Education Association has a free guide for teachers in the K-12 space to help teach the 4 Cs in different disciplines at different grade levels. The guide also defines each of the the4 Cs in depth. “Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society: An Educators Guide to the “Four Cs,” National Education Association,, PDF, retrieved 7/10/2019, Print.

2. There are many publications that address the gap between the content knowledge college students possess and the work place skills they often lack. One short, but good example is, Karsten Straus, “These Are The Skills Bosses Say New College Grads Do Not Have,” Forbes,, May 17, 2016, retrieved 7/18/2019, Web.

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