February 15, 2016

Dear Ollie’s Superintendent,

In the first two blogs, we focused on developing a system-wide vision of 21st century education, and promoting changes in every classroom to support it. But when you and I last chatted, we agreed that you can’t change a system until the right culture is in place.

Culture really is the “secret sauce” of 21st century education—but the word is used so many different ways that it’s hard to get our heads around it. So I wanted to suggest three characteristics of a 21st century professional culture, and some driving questions to help you create those conditions.

1.            Collaborative Continuous Improvement

Ask your leadership team a simple question: “Do we have a culture of collaborative continuous improvement?” Teachers and leaders might pursue their own professional learning and career achievement, but does everyone contribute to the district’s shared learning and collective achievement? Do they see their collaboration across their hallways, grade levels, departments and school sites as a requirement? Consider asking whether collaboration skills are built into the DNA of your teacher and leadership teams, and how they’re reflected in the procedures that guide their work.

Good collaboration depends on these kinds of probing questions. To promote your district’s implementation of its 21st century vision in specific areas, appreciate folks who say the work is going well—but don’t let your conversations end there. Ask probing questions like “How do we know our critical thinking work is effective?” or “How can we be more intentional about our work on creativity, in order to improve it further still?” Encouraging your team members’ honest feedback is important to promote a culture of collaborative continuous improvement.

2.            Safe Spaces for Powerful Collaboration

For those kinds of conversations to happen, though, it’s important to ask, “Are we creating environments where it’s safe to give and receive constructive feedback?” When you visit High Tech High in San Diego, for instance, you’ll see collaboration everywhere—among students, teachers and leadership teams. They make a point to hire people with a proven ability to collaborate, but they also focus on the use of “protocols” to create safe spaces for constructive feedback in their ongoing work. Your teachers will find these protocols useful to support their collaborative improvement; you and your leadership team will also find them helpful to navigate the challenges you face. Set a high bar for your team to move, over time, from “safe” spaces to offer honest feedback, to brave spaces to take risks and to think “out of the box.” This will kindle the innovative spirit necessary to express your 21st century vision in every classroom.

3.             4Cs Culture for Adults

I would like to think about the culture of our schools and districts as “upside down.” Sure, we need to name the skills that students will need to be successful in the 21st century—but it’s a priority, from the outset, for the professionals in your district to practice and improve those same skills in their work. Be sure to ask, “What systems and structures help to leverage and to develop these capacities in our educators and leaders?”

Reflect with your team on this video from EdLeader21 that shows how some of our members integrate the 4Cs—creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thought—in their professional work. Discuss how the 4Cs could apply to other aspects of your district’s efforts: for example, can you imagine how an intentional focus on the 4Cs in hiring and evaluation practices could impact students’ learning over time? The more intentionally your team reflects on the power of the 4Cs to transform students’ learning, the more you’ll see the importance of embedding them in your colleagues’ work.

So, to promote a 21st century professional culture in your district, you might ask:


●      What concrete steps can we take to ensure a culture of collaborative continuous improvement?

●      How can we better cultivate “safe spaces” for honest and impactful collaboration?

●      How might we embed the 4Cs in more aspects of our teachers’ and leaders’ work?


Reflecting on these questions will help ensure the impact of your district’s vision over time. But you’ll also need to know both whether and how your 4Cs work is improving students’ learning. With that in mind, I’ll focus in the next blog on promising strategies to assess 21st century competencies.

In the meantime, I hope these suggestions help to support dialogue about your district’s 21st century culture! I wish you well in the months ahead.




Invitation to Readers: Advice to Ollie’s Superintendent

We welcome advice to Ollie’s superintendent as well! What’s the best example of a step you have taken to improve the 21st century professional culture of your district? Why did it work?

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