Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education: 7 Steps for Schools and Districts

Ken Kay and Valerie Greenhill's picture

By Ken Kay, CEO, and Valerie Greenhill, Chief Learning Officer, EdLeader21

Between the two of us, we have spent decades working on education and public policy. Ken started the CEO Forum on Education Technology in 1996, and we helped found the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in 2002.

Something happened around 2008. School and district leaders started approaching us, asking whether we could help them implement 21st century education strategies. In most cases, these were our closest professional colleagues who were facing huge challenges in the NCLB era to make learning relevant for their students. We felt a great sense of urgency to shift from our focus on public policy to the real challenges of district and school implementation.

In the summer of 2010, we went around the country and interviewed district superintendents about how we could help them with their 21st century education challenges. Collaborating with them, we came up with the idea of creating a profession learning community (PLC) for education leaders committed to building the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) into their K-12 strategies.

In early 2011, we launched EdLeader21, initially as a group of 30 school district superintendents and their leadership teams. Today EdLeader21 is made up of 125 school districts, independent schools, and educational organizations and networks. In the interim, we finished our book, “The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education: 7 Steps for Schools and Districts.” The book was released last summer by Pearson.

As we go around the country speaking about EdLeader21 and our book, we get asked one question more than any other: “What does a 21st century school or district look like in practice?”

We often answer that question in one of two ways:

  • We show groups the chart below, the “7 Steps for Education Leaders.”

    We developed this chart to help schools and districts understand what deep implementation of 21st century education looks like. The chart makes clear that the 4Cs are not a quick fix. They require a long-term commitment to implementation. We built our book around this 7 Step approach.

  • To simplify the 7 step process, we often highlight 3 keys for 21st century education success. The 3 keys are:
    • Leadership – No 21st century school or district will prevail without a strong leader at the helm. Often the leader is the person who will commence a community dialogue about the need for an updated model of education for the 21st century.

      In Virginia Beach, VA, Jim Merrill led a process of community engagement that led to 1,000 community leaders convening in their convention center to consider and give input on their 21st century education model. In Catalina Foothills School District in Arizona, Mary Kamerzell convened a community advisory board of 50 that spent almost a year developing their district’s approach to 21st century learning.

    • Pedagogy – Ultimately a school or district’s interest in 21st century education hinges on their ability to transform classroom practice. A school or district’s commitment to the 4Cs only makes a difference if students are taught in such a way that they cannot only master content but also improve their critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity skills.

      North Salem Central School District in New York has focused its work on improving creative problem solving pedagogy in each of their classrooms. Teachers use at least one creative problem solving performance task in each class each semester. They are given time to collaborate with their peers to develop and refine these performance tacks.

      Many education leaders and teachers have focused on the potential of project-based learning to give students challenges that will help them acquire the 4Cs. The Buck Institute for Education (www.bie.org) has developed a rich array of resources to help educators with project-based learning. In June, BIE released a new book titled “PBL For 21st Century Success,” which helps educators directly link the use of PBL to the 4Cs.

    • Culture – Finally, there is a “secret sauce” to 21st century education that is unmistakable. When you walk into a 21st century school or district you can “feel” the culture of collaboration and continuous improvement. In some schools and districts this can be witnessed in groups of teachers collaborating on how to improve their pedagogy around higher order thinking skills. The Center for Authentic Intellectual Work (www.centerforaiw.com) works with groups of teachers around the country to help them utilize PLCs for improving their pedagogy of critical thinking.

      High Tech High in San Diego attributes their successful collaborative culture, in part, to the use of “protocols.” These protocols define how teachers create “safe” collaborative environments for “constructive feedback” on their classroom practices. They note that the most important part of the protocol are the last five minutes, in which teachers discuss how effective they were in using the protocol and what they could do to improve their use of the protocol the next time.


These examples give you a small sample of the best practices that are part of the 7 Steps process. Happily, there are schools and districts around the country that are busy at work using the 4Cs and 7 Steps to bring 21st century education alive in their schools and districts.

In our view, the true innovators in education are those who are actually in the trenches making 21st century education happen. Policymakers and education reform advocates would be well served to study these practices carefully to ensure that our national and state education policies enable, rather than hinder, the efforts of these education innovators.

We are fortunate to be working with some of the most visionary education leaders in the country in EdLeader21. We’re incredibly fortunate to promote their great work in “The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education.”