Member Practices

High School Redesign and the 4Cs

By Robert Glass, Superintendent, Bloomfield Hills Schools, MI

It’s one thing to embrace the 4 C’s as a set of skills for our students, but we have learned through our recent journey toward redesigning the high school experience here in the Bloomfield Hills (MI) Schools that it’s vitally important to also use the 4Cs when seeking to embed the 4Cs. In other words, successfully navigating the complex world of second-order, systems-level change (Marzano, Walters & McNulty) requires the adults in the system to learn together how to lead using the 4Cs in more sophisticated ways than day-to-day operations may normally demand.

In our specific case, the school district had brought two comprehensive high schools together and had begun construction of a new high school designed around the concept of learning communities. Our vision of learning communities had been generally defined as groups of students teamed with interdisciplinary groups of teachers in hubs of shared, flexible spaces. As a district, we had general agreement on a collaboratively vetted set of 10 Guiding Principles (into which the 4 Cs were embedded and we felt well positioned with good momentum moving forward. As challenging and exciting as all of this visioning and development had been, we soon realized that the really interesting part of the journey would lay ahead, for as it is said, the devil is in the details.

We knew that we would have the right kinds of learning spaces to enable our teachers to work more collaboratively with students and each other, but we also knew that without significant intentional effort to build a clearly shared understanding of what everyday collaboration looks like in these learning communities, the potential of these spaces would go unfulfilled. As soon as the first shovel hit the ground, the central office and building administration began working together in a sort of steering committee fashion to start mapping out the action planning for the process. We sought to establish guidelines, expectations, norms and the like to bring learning community life into clearer focus. In so doing, we sought to establish things like how teachers could manage joint ownership of multiple and varied learning spaces; the size, composition and themes of the various teams; whether teams might loop, and how to manage scheduling.

The irony in all of our administrative planning around collaboration was that it was not very collaborative-- and we knew it because we kept coming up with more questions than answers. Our meetings went around in circles and it felt as though we were figuratively running an obstacle course in the mud. Although we espouse a leadership model that allows autonomy within an organizational framework, our anxiety over trying to get this high-stakes systems change implemented at some acceptable level prior to the opening of the new building caused us to do what all efficient, well-intentioned leaders sometimes do: we over-managed with the intent to involve our front-line colleagues later. Where were our teachers’ voices in this? How were we addressing their emotional needs, much less tapping into their front-line expertise? In our zeal to create a 21st century system we had unwittingly fallen into the 20th century trap of doing to our teachers instead if doing with them.

Concurrent with all of the above, our high school staff had just returned from a visit to Hillsdale High School in California where they had observed a learning community model that had been functioning very effectively for more than a decade. The staff had made this trip with the guidance of facilitators Chris Hazleton and Bob Pearlman who were working with us on the development of our learning communities model on behalf of Fielding Nair International (the building’s conceptual design firm.) Upon the teaching staff’s return, over half of the faculty became involved in one of three distinct committees. The first involved with school governance, the second with culture and climate, and the third dealing with the development of learning communities. As these three committees began to synthesize a broader base of voices, a teacher representative from each of the three was added to the administrative planning group that had become previously bogged-down—and it was only then that the planning group began to once again gain forward momentum. It was a renewed commitment to true collaboration that made the difference.

I do not mean to create the impression that the journey (which is, by the way, still in progress) at this point took on a smooth, tidy, linear path. In fact, the restored commitment to collaboration triggered difficult questions that had rarely surfaced before—foundational questions that desperately needed to be uncovered and addressed head-on. Such questions had to do with requisite understandings for the here-and-now about what shared leadership should look like as decisions are made; what should be the scope of decision-making for various teams and individuals. We worked through issues of communication and transparency, including shared protocols and collegial expectations. Along the way we found that some of our colleagues were able to leverage their profound expertise with our newly implemented technologies (including the Google suite and other web-based tools) to not only help us boost our productivity, but also to model the ways in which these tools had been and could be used in classrooms.

In summary, the adult learners charged with high school redesign in our school system gained vital momentum that catapulted our critical thinking and creativity, but it only occurred once we renewed our commitment to collaboration and communication. It took a rather rude and unpleasant wake-up call to realize the ironic folly of trying to build a 21st century educational experience on a 20th century operating system. I seriously doubt that this will be our last brush with hypocrisy but I do know that experience is a great teacher. I hope and trust that the next time we feel ourselves running in the mud, that we will stop to remember our shared commitment to our 10 Guiding Principles, the 4Cs and to the kind of 21st century education our students so richly deserve.


EdLeader21 is a national network of school and district leaders focused on integrating the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) into 21st Century education. For more information on how to become a member of EdLeader21, contact Sara Mobley at