Seven steps to implementing critical student skills


Stakeholder buy-in is critical when it comes to achieving desired student outcomes and policy changes.

Administrators and educators know they must integrate higher-order thinking skills into teaching and learning if today’s students are to compete on a global scale. But school leaders sometimes struggle with exactly how to weave such skills into the curriculum.

Now, steps for successful integration of four key skills are outlined in a new book by Ken Kay and Valerie Greenhill, both of EdLeader21, a professional learning community for 21st-century educators.

Dubbed the “4Cs,” the four skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity—are skills that will help every student prepare for and succeed in “the citizenship and economic challenges of the 21st century,” Kay and Greenhill say.

In their book, “The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education: 7 Steps for Schools and Districts,” Kay and Greenhill say that such change is only possible if districts change their policies and practices.

“When I walk into a true 21st-century classroom, school, or district, there’s a spirit of collaboration and continuous improvement that didn’t really exist in 20th-century schools,” Kay said during a recent Alliance for Excellent Education webinar. “Twenty-first century schools have two attitudes: ‘We can’t do it alone’ … and ‘We’re going to have a commitment to continuous improvement.’”

Kay said some school leaders hear about new policies or ideas and say, “We already do that,” while school leaders who are ready to move forward ask, “How do we do it better?”—a distinguishing factor between an everyday school and a school that is ready to embrace 21st-century change, he noted.

The book is intended to help school leaders understand that “it isn’t just about pledging loyalty to the 4Cs, it’s about some very deep steps,” Kay said.

The seven steps identified in the book are:

  1. Adopt your vision:  Use the 4Cs and more.
  2. Create a community consensus around the 4Cs.
  3. Align your system with the 4Cs.
  4. Use the 4Cs to build professional capacity around the 4Cs.
  5. Embed the 4Cs into curriculum and assessment.
  6. Use the 4Cs to support teachers.
  7. Improve and innovate: Create a 4Cs organization.

“If you really want systemic change, it needs to be embedded in an overall philosophy, in district policy, and be embraced by the district school board,” Kay said. “If you don’t build support of your teachers into this whole strategy, they’re never going to get excited and bring it into their classroom practice.”

The Virginia Beach public school system, with about 70,000 students, is in its fourth year of implementing the 4Cs and the seven steps, and “the framework has allowed us to realign our curriculum and incorporate the skills into Virginia Beach standards,” said Superintendent James Merrill.

“It has been the basis for determining what assessments we would use and aligns with what the community has asked [us] to do for its children.”

Merrill said following the seven steps ensures that all stakeholders are involved along the way, and that everyone has a chance to ask questions, offer opinions, and become used to the changes in policy and practice.

Virginia Beach school leaders began with a small focus group and worked up to larger community meetings as they embarked on their plan to incorporate the 4Cs into district practice. This culminated in a large meeting of about 1,000 stakeholders. During that large meeting, attendees used an electronic response system to agree on what the most important student skills were.

“Without that [stakeholder] foundation, you can’t sustain it when you get to the rough times, like budget reductions,” Merrill said.

“If you don’t lay the groundwork of shared expectations … it’s much, much harder to create innovative approaches to this kind of work, and have it stick and be sustainable,” Greenhill said. She pointed to the Catalina Foothills School District in Arizona, which put together a community group to help guide strategic planning for student outcomes, as an example of how to involve stakeholders at each step of the way.

Assessing the 4Cs and other student outcomes can be challenging, but Greenhill said new developments could help in this area. A draft of 4C rubrics has just been completed, and school districts across the country are giving their feedback on that draft before it becomes public.

Some schools are implementing assessments designed and used by teachers, and others are using student portfolios and portfolio defense as high-stakes assessment for high school graduation, she said. The Common Core movement also is driving assessment consortia to develop new methods of gauging students’ skills and achievement.

Laura Ascione

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