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Are Your Students Really Ready for the 21st Century?

Editor’s note: When Ken Kay founded EdLeader21 four years ago, he conceived it as a national network of independent schools and public school districts on the quest to ensure that students would be ready for the challenges that they are likely to face in the 21st century. Brett Jacobsen, head of school at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (Georgia) and founder of Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation in Atlanta, became an early member of the network. In this blog, they reflect on their work together.

As EdLeader21 has grown these past four years, we’ve both been inspired by the innovative approaches taken by our professional learning community (PLC) members to transform their schools and organizations into 21st century learning environments.

We find that organizations that experience the greatest transformations have often emphasized the following steps in their process: They adopt 21st century student outcomes; align their curriculum, instruction, and assessment to help students meet these outcomes; and leverage opportunities to network with other trailblazers engaged in this work. We thought it would be helpful to offer independent school leaders and teachers reflections about each of these aspects of school transformation.

Reflection # 1 - Do you have a portrait of a graduate that incorporates the competencies that students need to be successful in the 21st century?

Beginning with the end in mind.

Backwards design.

Backward planning.

Backward mapping.

Sound familiar? These phrases are all associated with Understanding by Design, a curricular design process in which teachers begin with the end in mind – the desired results – when planning units (McTighe and Wiggins, 1998). We believe that the concept of backwards design applies to our 21st century school transformation work, and we encourage schools to begin with the end in mind by adopting 21st century student outcomes. As Bob Lenz, author of Transforming Schools, says, “Everything that Wiggins and McTighe say about the design of a course can and should be applied to the design of a school.” That’s because these outcomes can unify and provide focus for your work and become the frame for backwards designed curriculum, assessment, and instruction that integrates both the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration) and academic content.

Some of our EdLeader21 members have engaged in wonderful processes to develop student outcomes that form the core of their vision. These processes have been exciting to witness, and the folks in Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) were particularly inspiring. They facilitated a series of small focus group meetings at which they elicited feedback from a diverse group of 108 stakeholders that included students, parents, faculty and staff, and community members. Focus groups discussed the societal changes facing students and recommended ways in which schools should respond to better equip students for the future and “make empowerment more than just a word in the mission statement.”

Recommendations included a shift away from emphasizing preparation for standardized testing and greater emphasis on authentic, interdisciplinary learning experiences that connect students to the world outside the school building and integrate 21st century skills. A Strategic Plan Steering Committee reviewed community input, made recommendations to the board, and eventually gathered a community of 1,000 citizens in their convention center to ratify the 21st Century Skills for VBCPS.

At Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, a coeducational day school serving 932 students who range in age from six weeks through Grade 12, the school community is striving to help students develop the following competencies captured in the “21st Century Mount Vernon Mind”:

●       SOLUTION SEEKER - Formulates meaningful questions; inquires, evaluates, synthesizes, and discerns cross-disciplinary knowledge and perspectives; sets goals, develops a plan of action, and tests solutions

●       ETHICAL DECISION-MAKER - Exhibits integrity, honesty, empathy, fairness, and respect; demonstrates personal, social, and civic responsibility; develops understanding of emerging ethical issues regarding new technologies

●       COMMUNICATOR - Listens attentively, speaks effectively, and writes clearly; understands and expresses ideas with a variety of audiences, media, and formats; cultivates interpersonal skills

●       CREATIVE THINKER - Challenges assumptions; suspends judgment; imagines, improvises, and adapts as new challenges and opportunities arise

●       INNOVATOR - Explores and experiments in a climate of change; builds resilience through risk-taking and setbacks; creates unique ideas/products with value and meaning

●       COLLABORATOR - Builds strong partnerships within a diverse team; teaches, coaches, and leads others by example; accepts feedback, implements decisions, and shares the credit

Posters of the 21st Century Mount Vernon Mind hang in every classroom as a way of reinforcing the importance of these attributes. They have become the foundation for backwards designed curriculum, assessment, and instruction that integrates both the 4Cs and academic content.

Reflection # 2 - Are you changing curriculum and instruction to actually teach and assess the competencies that you have embraced?

21st century student outcomes can provide a great foundation for making decisions about how to adjust curriculum and instruction to prepare students for life, citizenship, and work. Over a 12-month period, more than 70 school districts and independent schools collaborated on the design of the EdLeader21 rubrics for the 4Cs that were published in June 2013. Now, one of our assessment working groups is taking the next step by creating a system to implement Common 4Cs performance tasks across member schools and districts. These 4Cs Performance Assessments engage students in authentic work that results in complex products that align to both the 4Cs and disciplinary content.

Fifth- and sixth-grade teachers across the United States recently piloted a Common 4Cs Performance Assessment in which students investigated earthquake risk in Bangladesh and answered the question “How should the residents of Dhaka avoid disaster if an earthquake hits?” Teams of teachers and instructional leaders collaboratively assessed students’ problem-solving skills captured in student work using EdLeader21’s Critical Thinking rubric. Another assessment working group is also developing an online bank of 4Cs Performance Tasks. These tools have been specifically designed to make our vision actionable in schools and classrooms.

As Mount Vernon is a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact, every aspect of our work is intentionally designed to prepare students to demonstrate the competencies outlined in the “Mount Vernon Mind.” To better align our curriculum and instruction to the competencies, we elected to integrate design thinking and authentic projects that allow students to create products that meet real-world needs. We are strategically weaving into our units opportunities for students to demonstrate these competencies and are working hard to create a culture in which students can generate powerful questions that open the door for inquiry and solution finding. For example, in a recent project, high school engineering students used a design thinking process to answer questions about how to use their 3D printer to help someone in need. They collaborated to create a prosthetic hand to improve daily life for an 18-year-old college student with a deformity. When the student received the hand, he said, “I think it’s just awesome. See how it moves as I move it? I didn’t think I’d be this happy.”

EdLeader21’s 4Cs rubrics were helpful tools in our alignment work. The rubrics provided clarity for Mount Vernon faculty and staff regarding the skills and habits that make up each of the 4Cs and helped us improve our ability to integrate the 4Cs into student-driven projects.  

Reflection # 3 - Are you networked with leaders who share a similar vision?

Networking with innovative teachers and leaders who have successfully collaborated to create 21st century schools, as well as those who are new to this work, can be tremendously helpful.  EdLeader21 is a network of passionate, like-minded educational leaders who care deeply about preparing students for success. Although the group is diverse and members may tackle issues differently, we are all working to address the same types of issues related to 21st century learning. It is unusual for public and independent schools to collaborate, but in this environment it is working because all members are focused on a similar vision. Members network and exchange ideas virtually through working groups based on member interests and through face-to-face events including regional Professional Learning Days scheduled throughout the year and the EdLeader21 Annual Event.

Mount Vernon has benefited from membership in the EdLeader21 PLC in many ways. The PLC connects the Mount Vernon Presbyterian School team to schools around the country and provides strength in numbers through networking opportunities. EdLeader21 provides key resources that leaders can use to build capacity to integrate the 4Cs within their organizations.

Today, independent school leaders have a wonderful opportunity to focus on the 21st century competencies that students will need to be successful in their work, personal, and civic lives. We are both involved in complementary efforts to make that happen and hope other independent schools will join us in that effort.


Ken Kay is founding president of P21. He currently serves as CEO of EdLeader21, a professional learning community for school superintendents and school heads. He co-authored The Leader's Guide to 21st Century Education: 7 Steps for Schools and Districts.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen is head of school at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (Georgia). Jacobsen launched the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI) made up of The Center for Design Thinking, The Center for Global Competitiveness, and The Center for Citizen Leadership. Focused on addressing local and global challenges, MVIFI cultivates public-private partnerships to foster creative collaboration at the intersections of the marketplace, education sector, nonprofit, and civic communities. Jacobsen is a member of EdLeader21’s PLC Advisory Committee.

A version of this blog first appeared in The Independent School Magazine Blog (May 26, 2015).