Administration & Leadership

Becoming a 21st Century School or District: Use the 4Cs to Build Professional Capacity (Step 4 of 7)

Ken Kay shares a framework for using the 4Cs to build effective professional development.

September 29, 2011

Welcome back to our series on becoming a 21st century school or district! For the earlier installments of this series, please scroll to the bottom of this page.

Previously we focused a lot of attention around the 4Cs:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

In this step, we want to focus on using the 4Cs to improve professional development in your school or district.

Your ability to successfully train your professionals in how to teach and assess the 4C's will probably be the single key success factor for your 21st century initiative.

The 4C's as the Principles for Professional Development

Most educators have a pretty dim view of what constitutes professional development today, and with good reason. However, how would you feel about professional development if it:

  • Challenged you to critically think and communicate effectively?
  • Involved true collaboration with colleagues?
  • Encouraged you to be creative and innovative?

If these were the ground rules, we think most teachers would have a very different attitude about PD.

The "C" we really want to emphasize is collaboration. We have been very impressed by leading districts' use of professional learning communities (PLCs). PLCs are effective at breaking the isolation of the individual teacher and to help institute a collaborative community of practice.

Superintendent Pam Moran in Albemarle, Virginia, is using vibrant online communities to transform her district's professional development practices. Recently, she connected with a superintendent in Michigan and a researcher at Michigan State through the professional learning network on Twitter.

They began to create with teachers a virtual collaborative project around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Teachers and students across two states and within the district collaborated to record and share 9/11 remembrance stories, find ways to comprehend the event, the times, and the buildings, and interview people via Skype who experienced 9/11 from inside the World Trade Center on that day.

Another strategy for using collaboration to transform PD is "peer coaching." Here is an example from a school near Melbourne, Australia, that has a deep commitment and several years experience with coaching:

To learn more about peer coaching, check out

The 4Cs as the Content of Professional Development

It won't be enough to alter the culture of PD. The focus of PD needs to be changed as well. We visited a district that was utilizing PLCs. One of the teachers on the advisory group said to us: "I love focusing on student outcomes like critical thinking and collaboration -- but we don't have the capacity to train our teachers about them." I responded, "But your PLCs appear to function well." She said, "Yes, but those are devoted to delivering content-related PD." I responded by saying: "Your challenge then is to integrate content AND all of your 21st century outcomes into the work of your PLCs."

Initially, we suggest you focus your PD around critical thinking. Have your teachers work collaboratively on their critical thinking strategies. Imagine how this might improve rigor of the district's thinking and learning on a grand scale. Imagine how well this would prepare your students for the Common Core Standards.

That's basically what Upper Arlington City School District in Ohio is doing. The 21st century skills coaches in Upper Arlington are not only supporting the critical thinking work of the PLCs in their schools, but they are also supporting individual teachers who are integrating critical thinking in their practices.

For a model of PLCs that focus on critical thinking, check out the work of the Center for Authentic Intellectual Work.


  • How would you rate the quality of professional development in your school or district?
  • Does your PD challenge your educators to:
    • Think critically and reflect deeply on their practice?
    • Communicate and collaborate effectively?
    • Bring innovative and creative practices to their classrooms?
  • Have you established professional learning communities? Are they focused on the 4C's?
  • We have two major recommendations on PD:

    Next week we will focus on building the 4C's into assessment and curriculum.

    See you then!

    (Used with permission by EdLeader21 (C) All rights reserved 2011)

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