Transforming education towards 21st century learning

November 15, 2016
eGov Innovation

Ken Kay is the CEO of Edleader21, a professional learning community of leaders committed to 21st century education based in USA. He was the founding President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and is the co-author of “The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education: 7 Steps for Schools and Districts”. eGov Innovation speaks with Ken Kay on the importance of 21st century education and transforming education systems.

1.   Tell us about EdLeader21.

EdLeader21 is a professional learning community of education leaders committed to 21st century education. Our members are superintendents, heads of school, and other leaders of more than 200 schools, districts, and allied organizations — all of whom are committed to transforming education around a common vision of teaching and learning in the 21st century. Their collaboration in our professional learning community is ensuring that 21st century education competencies are the core commitments of teaching and learning for more than 2.3 million students they serve.

Transformative education leaders have often felt alone and isolated in their work. EdLeader21 affords education leaders the opportunity to cooperate with schools and districts who share a similar vision of the future of education. We host annual events and a virtual community that bring these leaders together to collaborate. Throughout the year, our members develop, share, and pilot tools and resources; engage in collaborative professional development experiences; and usher forward a variety of projects in collaborative working groups.


2.   What is 21st century education and why is it important? What kinds of skills do students need to develop success in the future?

21st century education revolves around the competencies young people need to be successful in a changing world. Many of our EdLeader21 schools and districts adopt a profile of a 21st century graduate that identifies the core competencies students will need to be successful in 21st century life, citizenship, and work. They often use the “4Cs” (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) as a starting point, then adapt these to the needs of their specific community. For example, many schools and districts have added global citizenship, self-direction, or financial literacy to their set of core competencies.

This model is important because it recognizes that education must serve the interests of students in a changing world. Instead of an education model focused primarily on rote memorization and standardization, our members are helping students develop the skills and dispositions they will need in the future — such as the ability to solve complex problems, to respond to change, to work in high performing teams, to communicate effectively in multiple modalities, to create and innovate in the face of emerging challenges, and to operate in a global context.


3.   How can education leaders go about transforming schools?

We believe that transformation begins with education leaders engaging their communities and stakeholders in dialogue about the 21st century competencies they will embrace in their schools. At the same time, they need to cultivate a professional culture in which leaders, staff, and teachers embrace and model those competencies. Support systems must be created for teachers to ensure they have the confidence and capacity to foster dramatic pedagogical shifts in their classrooms. If teaching and learning doesn’t shift — fundamentally, rather than incrementally — the new vision will just be an aspirational goal bereft of any real impact. Finally, the most inspirational and visionary leaders will embrace student voice as an essential element of the transformation process, recognizing students themselves as agents of transformative change.

The leaders of these systemic changes — superintendents, heads of school, principals, and the like — need analogous support systems to create, collaborate, communicate, and think critically with like-minded colleagues. That’s where EdLeader21 comes in. Within our PLC, hundreds of leaders have joined together to support a collective effort towards 21st century education transformation.


4.   What changes would you like to see in today’s education systems? What are some of the largest obstacles to educational reform?

There has been no shortage of incremental reforms in recent years, but the French have a saying: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Our members are committed to transformative, systemic change rather than the incremental refinement of an antiquated model of teaching and learning.

Everyone’s assumptions about teaching and learning are based on the belief that students should continually learn and improve; rarely have education institutions embraced these same beliefs about themselves. As schools and districts start to model the culture of collaborative continuous improvement they seek to cultivate in their classrooms, it becomes possible for them to realign their entire system to support the 21st century competencies they have identified. Aligning curriculum, instruction, professional development, and assessment to ensure students develop those competencies is hard work that requires profound changes in every aspect of an education system.

State policies have been a huge impediment to these changes. Most states still have in place antiquated assessment and accountability policies that overemphasize the importance of rote memorization and fail to inspire or evaluate meaningful 21st century change. Transformative districts are implementing the changes they need in spite of state policy, rather than because of it. We need new state policies that encourage schools and districts to innovate — starting with the freedom to assess the competencies that really matter in the 21st century.


5.   What are some of the most promising innovations or successful policies in education you’ve seen in recent times?

An ever-expanding range of schools and districts have embraced 21st century competencies and the models of teaching and learning that make them come to life in classrooms. For instance, the High Tech schools, Expeditionary Learning schools, Big Picture Learning, and the New Tech Network are examples of school networks that have been very successful in embracing 21st century education for their students by explicitly framing curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment to enact their 21st century vision.

At the district level, EdLeader21 members are integrating 21st century education in all their schools and classrooms through innovations such as administering complex performance tasks, integrating rubrics for student self- and peer assessment, and transforming professional learning models.


6.   How do you see digital technology impacting the educational landscape in the future?

One of the things I appreciate about the schools and districts in EdLeader21 is that they see technology as a means to enable the development of 21st century competencies, rather than as an end in itself or as a primary driver of change. They recognize that you can’t effectively communicate, collaborate, innovate or solve problems in the 21st century without technology, but that the deployment of technology resources in and of themselves is insufficient to create meaningful change. Instead, they have identified where and how technology can be used in the context of deeper changes to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to create substantial and impactful opportunities to deepen student learning. As we alter our education model to ensure that students are interrogating and solving 21st century challenges at school, technology will be seen more and more clearly – and, therefore, used more and more purposefully – as a vital tool to making 21st teaching and learning visible.


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