One of the students tries to galvanise the others with words of encouragement and is greeted in return with firm nods and a few clenched fists. But the gestures are forced. The panic in the eyes remains despite the attempts to engender confidence. And then it happens, a door opens and an adult emerges from the room. “They’re ready for you now,” the adult declares with a smile. With one last shared look of commiseration, the five students follow the adult into the room.

The above scene is repeated with group after group in the annual Young Enterprise Scheme (YES) Pitch competition. Despite looking on the surface as some kind of forced punishment or detention, it is rather something the students choose to do. The pitch is a critical part of their YES experience and is fondly known as 'the Dragons Den'. For awaiting the students in the room are indeed three 'dragons', three adults from the local business community, who have given up their time to judge the students’ presentations; their business pitches.

Young Enterprise is a fully immersive and authentic experiential programme where students form and run their own start-up businesses. From conception, through to production, marketing and sales, and everything in-between. A hands-on activity that perfectly matches the learning vital for business studies students. But it is not limited to business studies. Young Enterprise is a great fit for technology, music and food. Anywhere, in fact, that matches student passion with commercial endeavour. Real-world learning requiring strategic planning, project management and financial acumen. And a key part of the process; the pitch.

Each group fronts up with a presentation. A comprehensive overview of their start-up business, inclusive of business vision and goals, research and strategy, uniqueness and innovation, people and processes, a cost breakdown and a profit forecast. Each group is expected to present the information in a convincing and interesting way. They need to captivate the attention of the judges. And they only have five minutes. Five minutes.

Does that sound daunting? Is that something you could comfortably do? Join with others and present to three strangers an idea you have created from scratch? And it is not even an assessment. It is not worth any credits. Your team will be judged and will get a score. You might even do well enough to receive a small amount of seed funding from the prize-money that is up for grabs. Yes. Real money. But nothing will be added to your record of learning. So why do it?

So much of what we do as educators is unfortunately dictated by the demands of assessment. And we so easily fall into the credit trap, using the allure of gaining credits as the reason for attempting a task, or the non-award of credits as the threat of not doing a task. Thus we engage in credit-farming, reducing the wonder of learning into the cold calculation of credits.

But I don’t think ‘credits’ is one of the Four C’s of 21st Century learning. No. I believe these are 'communication', 'collaboration', 'critical thinking' and 'creativity'. I realise that the use of the term ‘21st Century learning’ can be an empty catch-phrase, but it should be a powerful indicator of the essential skills people need, both now and in the future. A future of exponential change. Just remember, no-one on Earth owned a smartphone before 2007. That’s a little over a decade ago. What new disruptions and innovations will the next decade bring?

In the context of change and disruption, with the uncertainty of what the world will look like a decade from now, it is imperative that we equip learners with the skills and characteristics needed to thrive. And not just in the classroom, or just in an exam, but in all aspects of life. And the YES Pitch competition is one of the few activities I’ve experienced which truly encapsulates the Four C’s of 21st Century learning. It is a truly valuable, high-stakes learning experience. Although I would add one more ‘C’ – confidence.

Let’s go back to the group at the start of this article. The five students emerge from their pitch experience with renewed confidence and belief. They did it. They achieved what seemed an insurmountable task. There are high-fives and hugs. But more importantly, there is impetus and momentum to their start-up business. If they can pitch to complete strangers, they can do anything. And isn’t that the greatest outcome of any learning experience?