A Practical Guide for Administrators

6 Ways to Transform Your District for the 21st Century

How education leaders can empower students and teachers to shift learning towards the Four Cs.

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Keeping up With the Pace of Change

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published the landmark report, A Nation at Risk. The report expressed growing concerns about the academic performance of American students. As a result, the commission delivered 38 recommendations for school reform, and ushered in a new awareness of the need to prepare students for a complex world and rapidly changing workforce.

Two decades into the 21st century, educators are still addressing the challenge of preparing students for an unpredictable world.

Today’s students may take the same courses as the generations that preceded them, but the skills they need to thrive in the workforce have changed. Traditional jobs are rapidly being displaced by automation—a trend that’s only likely to continue. Advances in technology, meanwhile, ensure that occupations that have never existed will be created, and adaptable workers will be needed to fill those new roles. In the 21st century, economic success may depend on one’s ability to keep up with the pace of change. Flexible and high-level literacy skills are essential to that adaptability.

Moreover, according to a 2018 McKinsey Global Institute report, “Demand for higher cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, decision making, and complex information processing, will grow through 2030, by 19 percent in the United States and by 14 percent in Europe, from sizable bases today.”

But teaching these 21st-century skills is no simple task. As ASCD authors Eric Sheninger and Thomas Murray note, “To prepare students for their world of work tomorrow, we must transform their learning today.”

The 21st-Century Skills Students Need

To meet the challenges of the modern world, education leaders have identified the skills and attributes that students must possess to be successful in their futures. Commonly known as the “Four Cs” of 21st-century learning, these skills consist of:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity

These skills form the basis of transformation work in schools today. In order for instructional leaders to implement effective changes that help students develop these skills, they must first gain an in-depth understanding of the Four Cs. This means bringing a broad perspective to any 21st-century initiative: Administrators must recognize how these skills impact a district-wide plan, while also envisioning the effects of the initiative as it translates to the individual skills a student must master.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is foundational to success in the global economy. When students think critically, they learn how to tackle an issue from all angles. They learn how other viewpoints could reach alternative conclusions.

Today’s students have access to unprecedented amounts of information. With a few clicks they can interact with anyone from around the world—and encounter media that could inform or misinform them. Critical thinking ensures that students can ask the right questions to determine meaning and intent.

Unfortunately, as professor David T. Conley points out in College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School, “most students arrive [at college] unprepared for the intellectual demands and expectations of postsecondary faculty. For example, according to one study, faculty reported that the primary areas in which first-year students needed further development were critical thinking and problem solving.”

Communication and Collaboration

In modern society, communication skills extend beyond writing and speaking to include leveraging technology in the process. Effective communicators will demonstrate the ability to articulate ideas across a range of environments; listen effectively to decipher meaning; and use communication to accomplish specific goals.

Communication skills are also integral components of collaboration with individuals and groups. As the National Education Association notes, these skills provide the foundation for “working effectively with diverse teams, making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal, and assuming shared responsibility for collaborative work.”

In fact, employers are actively looking for these skills. For example, through an internal research project dubbed Project Oxygen, Google identified 10 behaviors which managers must possess in order to be successful at the company. The majority of these characteristics, from “Is a good coach” to “Is a good communicator—listens and shares information,” were connected to strong communication and collaboration skills.

By working in collaborative groups and communicating clearly, students can generate more knowledge and effective solutions to problems—which will, in turn, promote their success in today’s workforce.


Creativity forms the basis for innovation—one of the most useful and impactful skills a person can demonstrate in the global economy. Creativity, therefore, should be embedded within all content areas—not just the arts, to which it has historically been segmented.

Students must learn how to continuously create and innovate in order to be prepared for the challenges of society and the workforce. As author Robert Sternberg states, “Successful individuals are those who have creative skills, to produce a vision for how they intend to make the world a better place for everyone.”

What District Leaders Can Do

To ensure students gain regular practice and training in these complex skills, district leaders must transform their schools for the 21st century.

Of course, school transformation is no simple task. Some education experts, however, have proposed frameworks and ways of looking at school changes that district leaders can adapt to their schools’ unique purposes.

In the book Different Schools for a Different World, authors Scott McLeod and Dean Shareski present some observations as to why broad educational changes must be implemented. They note that the role of the teacher in the classroom is evolving; trusted sources are no longer the “exclusive purveyors of information.” Students now encounter abundant and complex information in their daily lives. As automation continues to define the global economy, schools will need to ensure that students have practice using digital tools, thinking critically, and participating in a culture of innovation that prepares them for the 21st century.

McLeod and Shareski note that these observations require school and district leaders to focus on affecting four essential building blocks of instruction in the classroom: high-level thinking, student agency, authentic work, and technology infusion.

Authors Sheninger and Murray have also identified some essential components to how school leaders must adapt and change schools to deliver a 21st-century educational experience, such as “redesigning the learning experience,” “making professional learning personal,” “leveraging technology,” and “ensuring a return on instruction.”

With 21st-century skills in mind, here’s how district leaders can transform their schools through the lens of these proposed guidelines:

1. Demonstrate Visionary Leadership

Leadership and culture are foundational for school improvement and transformation. A review of research produced by the Learning from Leadership Project found that quality school leadership is the second most influential factor—beyond that of the classroom teacher—in achieving academic success.

There is no shortage of books on the subject of effective leadership in education or in the business world, but there are common threads in the literature. As writer Simon Sinek states, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Great leaders don’t tell people what to do; they take them to where they need to be.

In the education system, leaders must motivate district staff and teachers to do their best work in the face of mounting challenges in the classroom. This requires, as Kay and Greenhill state, “creating a culture of learning among the professional educators in [the] system and motivating them to do the work that inspired them to become teachers in the first place.”

An adjunct to the positive school culture is understanding change management and consensus-building before implementing many of the changes enumerated here. In building a consensus around moving to a 21st-century model, leaders can facilitate this process by using the Four Cs—communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking—to model the process. “If students are to think critically, communicate, collaborate, and be creative, you and your leadership team need to model these skills for teachers, staff, and students,” say Kay and Greenhill.

How ThinkCERCA Approaches Visionary Leadership

Visionary leadership is necessary to launch any district-wide initiative. But the vision shouldn’t stop at the launch. Part of being a leader means revisiting plans and assessing implementations along the way. Therefore, ThinkCERCA encourages partner districts to not only set the stage for teaching college and career skills at the start of the year, but to frequently check in and see how adjustments can be made to improve the learning process.

For this reason, ThinkCERCA school success managers regularly communicate with teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators to determine how the literacy initiative is doing. With this information, administrators and school success managers can work together to remove obstacles, model best practices, and empower the instructional team to teach literacy.

2. Use Curricula to Create Opportunities for Student Agency

Students typically have little control or input over their learning experience. But when students do have autonomy and agency, their engagement in authentic learning increases. Authors Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula put it best in their report, Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice:

Motivation, engagement, and voice are the trifecta of student-centered learning. Without motivation, there is no push to learn; without engagement there is no way to learn; and without voice, there is no authenticity in the learning. For students to create new knowledge, succeed academically, and develop into healthy adults, they require each of these experiences.

Dumping facts on students does not lead to effective engagement and learning. As districts work to redesign student learning experiences, a variety of methods have emerged that may be more engaging and provide these authentic experiences. Approaches such as PBL, SEL, STEM, and STEAM have all come to the fore. But regardless of the acronym applied to the program, leaders must align the learning experiences of the approach around a defined set of student outcomes. These intended outcomes should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Concrete in relation to the Four Cs
  • Instilled throughout the curricula

In many classrooms, the textbook is the curriculum and the syllabus. In the 21st-century framework, educators must see the textbook as a resource to be leveraged strategically. The specific resource used and teaching strategy employed should depend on, as Kay and Greenhill state, “the purpose of the instructional moment.” The authors go on to note that the use of inquiry-based approaches is appropriate when students need to think creatively, extend meaning, and iterate. In a problem-based learning model, the emphasis should be on consuming complex information, effective questioning, problem identification, and analysis. “In other words,” Kay and Greenhill write, “teaching for understanding is not about eliminating lectures or direct instruction” but used strategically when students need to grasp basic information through listening and answering.

The types of curricula implemented to promote student agency must be rigorous. They must go well beyond simple factual recall and focus on student understanding. The tasks students engage in should include a balanced combination of core academic content, performance-based tasks, and formative assessments for and of learning.

How ThinkCERCA Approaches Curricula and Student Agency

ThinkCERCA’s Writing Lessons are designed to support student agency, peer collaboration, and rigorous instruction. At the start of each lesson, students engage with a real-world question that sets the purpose for their learning. Throughout the lesson, they read and analyze a complex text in manageable chunks—with time dedicated to peer review, group collaboration, teacher feedback, and independent work.

The main directives of the Writing Lesson—learn, plan, and create—instill authentic opportunities to practice critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication in connection to a complex text.

3. Measure Learning and Efficacy

Historically, schools have not exerted enough effort to gather data and analyze the success of educational programs and strategies. Schools of the 21st century should gather regular data on:

  • Student outcomes
  • The use of evidence-based strategies
  • Programs
  • Frameworks

With this data, school and district leaders can make informed decisions on instructional practices, and work towards continuous improvement. This is especially important considering that, at times, the appeal of the newest ed-tech product can compel schools to implement programs that may not prove effective. It is essential that schools collect data on tools, products, and processes to determine effect on measurable student outcomes and see a return on instruction.

With regards to the measurement of 21st-century skills, leaders may often hear the refrain, ‘you cannot reliably measure these skills, but you can measure the impact of practices.’ It is true that knowledge retention and some conceptual understandings should be measured with traditional tools like summative, benchmark, and formative assessments. Well-designed rubrics, however, can provide important and diagnostic data on student progress with the Four Cs. In many ways, these rubrics are similar to job review protocols that students will encounter in the workplace.

Additionally, rubrics can be used by students to self-assess progress on the Four Cs. For example, a rubric may require students to rate their work on factors such as: “I used facts to support my conclusions”; “I communicated clearly”; “My argument was well-designed”; “I contributed to my team’s success.” By scoring student projects with a rubric scale, students will have further opportunities to demonstrate critical thinking and communication skills, while the teacher or administrator will have more detailed information on the effectiveness of the tool, program, or process employed in the learning process.

How ThinkCERCA Approaches Measuring Learning and Efficacy

ThinkCERCA is built upon decades of research which shows that regular writing across subjects leads to academic achievement and college and career readiness. From the beginning, ThinkCERCA has been committed to efficacy, and that focus continues throughout the product.

With ThinkCERCA, teachers and administrators have access to data that shows student performance, growth, and usage over time–ensuring leaders can analyze data and determine the effectiveness of a ThinkCERCA implementation. Students, meanwhile, have access to rubrics, rationales, and comprehension checks that encourage them to review and assess their learning at multiple points throughout a lesson.

Moreover, recommendations for ThinkCERCA usage are made based on third-party studies and statistically significant partner case studies which show that when students complete Writing Lessons, they can achieve tremendous growth.

4. Ensure Professional Learning is Relevant

School districts have often struggled to provide effective professional training at scale. Leaders have learned that ‘drive-by’ professional development with ‘a sage on a stage’ does not generally change long-term teacher practice. Yet, many districts continue to deliver this relatively easy model of professional development.

Just as with students, a more personalized approach to professional learning for adults will result in greater impacts on teacher practice. With this model, the goal is not to reach a pre-set number of hours, but rather to achieve a performance target.

To this end, professional development must be job-embedded and continually monitored for implementation and progress. Additionally, the professional learning itself should inculcate the Four Cs by challenging teachers to think critically, communicate and collaborate more effectively, and embrace innovation in educational practices.

How ThinkCERCA Approaches Professional Learning

In ThinkCERCA’s view, professional learning is a continuous, collaborative process centered around growth mindset.

When teams embark on a new instructional initiative, every person has a role to play. Administrators should provide opportunities for teachers to deepen their knowledge on the pedagogy. Instructional coaches should develop plans to support their educators in delivering effective instruction. Lead teachers should share their learnings and invite colleagues to observe their methods. All members of a team should regularly come together to address problems, analyze data, and share successes with the initiative.

With regular communication and a collaborative approach, teams can work together to enhance their professional learning, step-by-step over time.

5. Use Technology Wisely

Technology can provide many opportunities for students to engage in their learning, and can also allow students to tap into their creativity and interests. However, technology is often employed in an approach that sits students down in front of a computer to work in isolation, without collaboration among peers and teachers.

Therefore, there needs to be an appropriate blend of teacher-led instruction supported by technology—rather than just a continuous use of technology. In Different Schools for a Different World, McLeod and Shareski describe some actions school and district leaders can take to move classrooms into the 21st century with technology in mind:

  • Incorporate authentic learning experiences
  • Use a competency- or standards-based assessment
  • Implement a one-to-one device program
  • Use technology that can help facilitate personalized learning
  • Adapt flexible scheduling options

When tactics like these are implemented, instructional leaders can champion the smart use of technology in schools—while ensuring that technology does not take the place of powerful, personal instruction.

How ThinkCERCA Approaches Technology

Technology can aid in the teaching process–but it can never take the place of teacher-led instruction and peer collaboration.

Therefore, ThinkCERCA recommends that educators break up the use of technology in the classroom. For instance, students may use technology to access and analyze digital media. After consuming that information, however, students can close their devices and turn to a peer to discuss their thoughts on the content. By pairing technology use with peer and teacher collaboration, students gain practice in digital literacy–while also participating in flexible and effective engagement techniques.

6. Adopt a District-wide Literacy Initiative

As noted before, 21st-century skills—communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity—are essentially high-level literacy skills. These “advanced literacies” are critical for success in today’s economy. As defined by authors Nonie Lesaux and Emily Phillips Galloway, they are “the skills and competencies that enable communication in increasingly diverse ways and promote the understanding and use of text for a variety of purposes.”

Advanced literacies can impact content, instruction, and student engagement. However, they must be incorporated with purpose into any school system. As author Mike Schmoker notes in Education Week, literacy instruction for the 21st century must include some critical components:

  1. Reading
  2. Discussion
  3. Writing
  4. Explicit literacy instruction

Given the impact advanced literacies can have on a student’s life in the 21st century, it is essential that school and district leaders adopt a focused initiative to incorporate literacy across the curriculum.

Learn more about advanced literacies

How ThinkCERCA Approaches Literacy

In the 21st-century world, literacy is directly linked to college and career readiness. Consequently, students should be trained in literacy across disciplines while in school.

School and district leaders must recognize, however, that while the benefits of teaching literacy across the curriculum outweigh initial hesitations, it can be nerve-wracking for non-ELA teachers to imagine bringing writing into their instructional practice.

Teaching literacy across disciplines and at scale requires careful planning, continuous support, and school innovation. It can be difficult to know where to start. Therefore, ThinkCERCA produced an administrator guide to writing across the curriculum, with the advice and research to help education leaders implement an effective literacy curriculum at their district.

Going Forward

Today’s students need specialized skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. The urgency of these skills demands new approaches in accountability and instruction. With the ideas referenced in this guide, however, administrators can begin the process to transform schools for the 21st century.

At the center of these school transformation efforts, however, should be literacy. Literacy instruction broadly supports the Four Cs, and can also impact the methods that school and district leaders use to implement new programs and processes. When students have regular opportunities to communicate, collaborate, think critically, and express their creativity, they can hone the skills that prepare them for a demanding and changing global economy.