While policy makers and education leaders have been talking about the need to teach 21st-century skills for more than a decade, not enough attention has been paid to how this can be done, Ken Kay believes.
A veteran of the computer industry, Kay led the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) for nine years before leaving this organization to found EdLeader21, a professional learning community of superintendents who are integrating 21st-century skills into instruction.
Along with Valerie Greenhill, Kay has written a book on the topic, The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education: 7 Steps for Schools and Districts, and at the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference in San Diego in March, he shared his advice for teaching 21st-century skills with school district chief technology officers.
During his time at P21, Kay and his colleagues identified 18 skills that were important for students to learn as they prepared for 21st-century careers. But Kay told conference attendees he came to realize that 18 skills were too many for schools to manage.
After talking with business leaders about which of these skills were most important, he distilled these down to the “four Cs”—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
Well into the second decade of the 21st century, Kay said he has grappled with the question: Should we still be calling the concept “21st-century education” at this point? To answer this question, Kay suggesting posing another: “Do you have a model of education that is preparing kids for the jobs of the future?”
If the answer is “yes,” then “you can stop calling it 21st-century education and just call it education,” he said. But the truth is, most districts still aren’t fully preparing kids for the world they’ll inherit.
The seven steps to 21st-century education that Kay outlines in his book are:
1. Adopt your vision.
2. Create a community consensus.
3. Align your system around these goals.
4. Build professional capacity.
5. Focus your curriculum and assessment.
6. Support your teachers.
7. Improve and innovate.
He said many school districts begin with step three, but articulating a vision and creating a community consensus around teaching the “four Cs” are essential to success.
Kay also identified three key “building blocks” for integrating these skills into instruction: (1) courageous leadership, (2) assessment tied to 21st-century skills, and (3) creating a culture of “laser-like focus” on collaboration and continuous improvement.
Ohio’s Upper Arlington City School District has adopted the four Cs, as well as global citizenship and self-direction, as the 21st-century outcomes it expects students will master before graduating.
Kay cited Superintendent Jeff Weaver’s example as the kind of courageous leadership that is necessary. When Weaver heard concerns that he was putting too much on educators’ plates by requiring these skills to be taught in addition to the core curriculum, he reportedly responded: “No, this is the plate.”
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As for assessing students’ mastery of the four Cs, Kay said concerns that this can’t be done simply aren’t true. “There are rubrics for evaluating these skills,” he said.
Kay left attendees with a list of four things they should do in their districts:
• Focus on 21st-century outcomes.
• Create a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement.
• Treat adoption of the Common Core State Standards not as an exercise in compliance, but as a platform for true innovation.
• Fight for a policy environment that supports innovative school districts.
Follow eSchool News Editor in Chief Dennis Pierce on Twitter at @eSN_Dennis.