by Jim Bellanca
Driving Question: How can school leaders transform their districts into 21st Century deep learning places?
Kay, Ken and Greenhill, Valerie. (2012) The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education. Pearson Resources for 21st Century Learning. Pearson Education. Boston.
Two of the leading advocates for 21st century skills in schools, Ken Kay and Valerie Greenhill, have prepared a remarkable and lucid guide for school leaders. With seven steps that organize the change process in an easy-to-follow flow, the founder of P21 and now CEO of EdLeader21 and EdLeader21’s Chief Learning Officer guide the reader through the seven step implementation of districts that transform their schools into 21st Century deep learning places.
If a school leader sits down, reads this book, follows the suggestion and reflection guides in each chapter, I feel safe in predicting that at the very least, there will be one valuable takeaway. That person will not ever be able to approach the idea of 21st century skills as deep learning schools by saying “but we already do that.” Nor will that person be able to assert “this is nothing new”, nor “if it was good enough in the 20th Century, is it good enough now.” If the reader defies my prediction, I would bet that person is a nominee for the ostrich of the century award. On the other hand, if the leader-reader considers the authors’ ideas seriously enough to act upon, it will not be long before those ideas will seed significant changes in the reader’s district for growing students as strong and resilient 21st Century learners.
After delineating eight key perspectives on changes in 21st Century life that have already begun to impact what students will need to know and do for their global work world, the authors start readers with a picture of what is already happening in schools vis-a-vis each of the 4Cs-critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration, not as incidental and accidental happenings, but as intentional tools for facilitating deep learning in all students. From there they wade forward into detailed, practical step- by-step instructions for implementing a systematic sequence of how-to ideas for school and district leaders to implement.
The Seven Steps
- Adapt your vision (to the new perspectives for a new century).
- Create a community consensus (with the 21st century skills of communication and collaboration).
- Align your system. (How to use P21’s MILE Guide to assess your system’s current state).
- Build professional capacity in the district. (with a focus on the 4Cs.)
- Focus your curriculum and assessment. (align the big three with the 4Cs).
- Support your teachers. (Build the structures and climate to support significant change).
- Improve and innovate. (Institutionalize a culture of continuous improvement around the 4Cs
Although this seven-step approach may appear similar to many prior models for school improvement, Ken and Valerie give each a unique twist by connecting their studies with the forces of change unique to this century and to the fast developing resources becoming available for creating 21st Century schools. With each chapter comes step-by-step recommendations accompanied by additional resources to help along the way. Moreover, they complete the seven chapters with a full discussion of the multitude of additional resources that school leaders can use to expand their applications of the core ideas.
Happily, this book is not just another comfort food recipe for bringing the much overdue overhaul of the multitude of assembly line schools left over from the industrial age. It is also not an isolated, ivory tower tome nor another plea that “the time is now” for a significant overhaul. The authors, with many years of pioneering, practical experience in taking on this challenge, have created a usable skeleton for the systemic and systematic change that leaders can guide deep through a district. They show the complexity of the task, the work involved, and they provide more than enough practical ideas, select more than enough resources, and add more than sufficient encouragement for any school leader who has the will to leave the 19th and 20th Century models behind, and create a new model of schooling for students whose future will be dictated by the education they receive now, already the second decade of the 21st Century.
Experienced school leaders will welcome the fine touches that the authors include in their sensible road map, especially when they call for putting ideas into practice as a more valuable leadership task than simply having big ideas, designing glossy glass-enclosed buildings, or creating visions which may get thought about but never acted upon. Noting how leaders in the prior decade may have initiated change simply by having a vision and commanding others to adopt it, Ken and Valerie underscore the necessity of the 21st Century leader actually engaging the school community into a buy-in of the fast moving changes.
And then, as readers will see throughout this finely crafted book, the authors add the often passed over practical tools drawn from best practice in districts that are already taking up the challenge. (See Bob Pearlman’s previous posts on this blog) In this case, Valerie and Ken enumerate example after example of “how-to” suggestions for engaging all stakeholders in the 21st Century vision. Checklists, reflection guides and reference lists enable the readers to take an active, self-directed stance in reviewing the suggestions and making selections that they can adopt for their schools. Happily, no chapter ends without a call to reflection that models the ‘deep learning’ agenda they espouse for 21st Century schools.
Reading this book, I found it easy to imagine myself returning to my days as a school leader benefiting from this book’s flood of practical, proven ideas. I also could easily see school superintendent colleagues taking this book and distributing it to their central office leaders as well as Board members and school site leaders as the basic tool for progressing step-by-step from the formation of a shared vision to the full institutionalization of 21st Century teaching and learning practices for every student.
Some may quibble that the loose, chaotic structure of our schools doesn’t lend itself to taking the seven giant steps detailed in this very rational view of school transformation. Others may quarrel with what appears to be a top-down change process to be guided by individuals, too many of whom have been ill- disposed to leading any change that disrupts the 20th Century status quo. And there will be those who are more adept at “yes butting” everything from the perspective that the “21st Century world ain’t the place that it used to be” to the proposed need for balancing rigorous content with thinking and problem solving skill development. And of course, there will be the techies who moan that the book is not all about turning the school into a virtual heaven in which each student can proceed at his or her own pace without concern for living and working with other humans.
Be that as it may, Valerie and Ken have obviously taken a close look at the world through the eyes of their own children and concluded that it is time for all school leaders to stop messing around and get serious about the needed changes. This book provides the blueprint as well as the bricks and mortar to create new houses of learning that fit the times and address the real learning needs of today’s students, that views technology through the balanced development of the 4Cs and that provides more than enough fodder for school leaders to put their creative minds to work and guide their communities in solving the very messy, loosely defined problem that is called 21st Century schooling. It is neither a magic pill nor a band-aid. At the very least, this book should be more than required reading for every superintendent, principal and school board member and professors of education administration. It should be their district’s action road map for transforming every classroom into a 21st Century learning community.