George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Seven Steps to Becoming a 21st Century School or District

Ken Kay

Ken is the CEO of EdLeader21
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Last summer, as I was winding down my eight years as president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, I went around the country and met with 30 superintendents, asking them, "What can I do to support your efforts to implement 21st century education in your district?" Together we came up with the idea of creating a professional learning community (PLC) of education leaders committed to 21st century education. A team of us liked the idea so much that earlier this year we launched EdLeader21, a community of education leaders committed to building critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity into their educational system.

Seven-Part Blog Series

One of the major ways we are organizing the work of the PLC is a framework we created, "7 Steps for Becoming a 21st Century School or District." For the next two months I will be sharing with you our seven-step framework in greater detail, as well as some suggestions for how you can implement some of these ideas in your own school or district.

A Streamlined Framework

Early in the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills we developed the P21 Framework for Learning to help educators understand the outcomes that students need to become effective citizens and workers in the 21st century.

Over the years we found some people had a hard time getting their heads around the framework. It called for 18 skills, and people thought this was too many. Others thought we wanted to replace content with skills, when, in fact, we wanted to fuse content and skills together. We came up with the phrase, "Fusing the 3R's with the 4C's."

The 4C's are:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

We have found that in many schools and districts, parents, students, school board members, teachers, and administrators have embraced the 4C's and use it as the starting point for their 21st century education initiatives. We have used the 4C's as the organizing principles for the "7 Steps."

What Are the "7 Steps"?

Once a school or district is inclined to adopt the 4C's, these questions logically arise: What should we do? How do we get started? Where do we head? In order to address these questions we designed the seven steps.

Step 1: Adopt Your Vision

Step 2: Create Community Consensus Around the 4Cs

Step 3: Align Your System to the 4Cs

Step 4: Use the 4Cs to Build Professional Capacity

Step 5: Embed the 4Cs in Curriculum and Assessment

Step 6: Use the 4C's to support teachers.

Step 7: Improve and innovate: Create a 4C's organization.

Over the next seven weeks we will be discussing these seven steps in more detail.

Leadership and 21st Century Education

If there is one factor that distinguishes successful 21st century schools and districts it is strong leadership. While individual teachers can adopt the practices of a 21st century classroom, the real impact on students is if an entire school and district embraces and works toward the same vision. We partnered with the Pearson Foundation to produce a video on "The Role of Leaders in 21st Century Education."


In addition to the video, please reflect on the following two questions:

  • Does your school or district have a specific vision of 21st century education and an implementation strategy to make it actionable?
  • Are the education leaders of your school or district truly committed to implementing their 21st century education initiative?

Next week we will begin our seven-step journey with a focus on how you might adopt your own personal vision for 21st century education.

See you then!

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Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Dan Drmacich's picture
Dan Drmacich
Chairman: Coalition of Justice in Education

Great work! However, the most important action any educator, policy-maker, parent or citizen can take, is to lobby for the elimination of the obsessive use of high-stakes, standardized tests. These tests essentially drive lower-level thinking skills, rather than the 21st Century Skills, narrow the curriculum and prevent teachers from exercizing professional judgement with individual students. Assessments such as rubric-based projects, presentations, portfolios and performances would facilitate the integration of 21st Century Skills much more easily, and increase student intrinsic motivation, as well.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

Add to the four Cs, one D: discovery. Design activities that let students find out for themselves as well as exercising critical thinking, etc.

Creating and discovering have driven our species to its current position.

Mark Egli's picture

I've got a couple more C words that I feel are too often missing from U.S. ed-talk about what is needed to motivate our students. Perhaps we cannot go to the European model where students choose tracks and apprenticeships at an early-high school age, but we certainly can do better helping our students find a reason for what they are learning. With only 30% of college students actually reaching a 4-year degree, we can't do much worse.

Kevin Corner's picture
Kevin Corner
Former Principal- Current Change Agent- 21st Century Thinking & Learning

I believe one of the barriers to fusing the 4C's with the 3R's is that to truly develop the creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills required of world class workers and ethical citizens demands process steps and skill training that is far too often neglected or absent in our current model of education. Often we are far too concerned with naming the desired results rather than teaching people to mindfully apply the needed skills. Only teachers, schools, and districts who mindfully design instruction to strike a balance between knowledge acquisition and knowledge application will be able to truly prepare their students for the future. I see this gap in instructional design as a huge barrier to the effective delivery of the 4C's and a key professional development area for teachers and administrators alike.

Brian Greenberg's picture
Brian Greenberg
CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund. Former teacher, principal, and CAO

Thoughtful article Ken. I would add one thing. Teaching students to be doggedly persistent and work hard is a missing piece in many attempts to 21st-Centurize our schools. Having helped run a 4-C's charter school network, I agree that we need to teach students to be independent learners who complete authentic challenges in school. However, in the urban school context at least, we see so many students who have already become disengaged with school and have not learned a strong work ethic. Say what you will about KIPP, but they and other organizations such as YES Prep, Aspire, etc. have really mastered getting students to "bring their best selves to school each day." Once students make the connection between hard work and success, it is amazing to see how much easier teaching and learning is. I believe that the confluence of a high-expectations culture, 21st Century goals, and thoughtful embrace of technology or "blended learning" is a great recipe for success in our schools.

Susaarn's picture

Being new to public education, from the perspective of a future teacher, I want to be prepared to do my best, and that includes understanding 21st Century Skills, which I've been hearing so much about. I've heard different definitions and explanations, and most seem to be in-line with your comments, including the 4Cs. On this point, I agree with Mark Egli, who posted earlier, that we should consider adding two more, Connections and Careers. After all, what good is it to have exceptional schools if students are not prepared with practical skills and knowledge for success in their career choices later, particularly with the diversity of 21st Century Students. I believe a key element that may be missing from some school systems, when it comes to 21st Century Skills programs, is commitment to the professionals who have to make it happen. I've talked to many teachers, from different districts/systems, and most have expressed a common frustration for the lack of time for professional development, planning and preparation. With tight budgets, SOL requirements, staff reductions, and other 21st Century conditions, teachers may not have adequate time for collaboration, effective communications, critical thinking/planning and prioritizing, particularly between teachers. Note that I didn't even mention creativity, which certainly requires adequate time if it's to be truly individual and innovative. So, perhaps what we should be looking at is not just the idea of developing students with 21st Century Skills, but to what level of achievement of 21st Century Skills are we willing to accept. If we want to aim for the highest level, it should certainly include commitment from the top, to give teachers the tools/time they need to perform at their highest levels.

Ken Kay's picture
Ken Kay
Ken is the CEO of EdLeader21

What about additional C's? In our work we welcome schools and districts to add additional learning outcomes. Among the most popular have been global competence, self-direction, financial literacy, tech literacy.

However, some of the ones you have suggested don't work for me. They are worthwhile topics, but not framed as good learning outcomes. "Connections" and "careers" are good topics but they aren't personal attributes to which a student might aspire. I like the 4 C's because as a student you can aspire to be:
--a critical thinker and problem solver
--an effective communicator
--an effective collaborator
--creative or innovative

You can also aspire to be:
--globally competent
--technologically competent
--financially literate

And for all of these you can imagine rubrics being developed that explain in greater detail the "definition" of the learning out come. My advice is to focus on 21st century learning outcomes to which students can aspire.


Mohammed Fouad's picture
Mohammed Fouad
English as foreign Language teacher

Yes, I think, though I joined the discussion late, that another C should not be neglected. It is Commitement. Without commitement to learning and, of course, to teaching, 21st education cannot be able to play its mission in a digital world.

GreenHearted's picture
Sustainability educator with GreenHeart Education

All these Cs will soon be moot because we're ignoring the Giant C's in the livingroom: climate catastrophe. Global heating is occurring faster than anyone predicted, and the threat we never seem to mention is to our food security. If we're not teaching our students the "21st century" skills of food growing (adapted to local micro-climates), soil building, rainwater collection, and zero-carbon energy generation (all things that can't be learned overnight once the climate change $#@! starts to hit the fan where we live), then we are, frankly, being negligent as educators and elders. Teach anything else you like, in any way you like, with as many C's as you like, but do it in service to helping today's kids create the best possible future for themselves out of the environmental chaos we are bequeathing them.

Jalex10's picture

I work for a district that is currently undergoing a paradigm shift towards PBL and 21st century learning. I love the direction that we are going. Our school Board has recently told us that we will be putting state test scores into proper perspective and take some emphasis off using these scores as an evaluation tool. I admire this move and the intentions that our school leadership has for our district. However, I would like to see more of this filter down to the classroom level. I guess I could say, "put your money (or resources) where your mouth is." I think that a lot of changes need to come about if this is the direction our district truly wants to go. For example, PBL benefits from cross-curriculum type collaboration between teachers, yet we are required to spend our prep periods getting lessons from master teachers on best practices for the classroom. This is helpful in a way, however I feel more in line with the "traditional" classroom setting than with the collaborative learning environment that we should be striving for. I would like to see some changes made at the campus level to allow for collaboration between teachers. Instead of sitting in a lecture type setting for our prep periods, how about teachers having to do our own field studies in our classroom and then report back with what we learned? I feel that we should be modeling what we expect our students to be doing.

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