What kinds of teachers will be able to prepare students, not just for good grades and college, but for the work and civic environments that students will enter in the 21st century? What kinds of leaders will develop and support these educators? Today’s students will enter a global workforce where they will need 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, independence, creativity and lifelong learning as much as subject matter knowledge. To build the environments that foster these skills, teachers will need to model those skills in the classroom – their workplace – and leaders at the building, district, and state levels will need to create the workplace environments that foster those skills in educators within professional communities of practice.
If a school values student collaboration and critique, they may seek to have students set community standards for excellence in creating beautiful work, as described by Ron Berger. The educators in that building will need the skills to be patient, allowing student ideas emerge authentically rather than controlling the outcome and also the skills to ask questions that lead students to think deeply. In buildings with leadership that empowers teachers to collaborate to recognize excellence in their own profession, to reflect on what constitutes “better teaching” in their environment, and to come to a shared understanding of excellence in teaching, teachers will have personal experience as well as professional skill to draw on in encouraging and fostering the necessary reflection and meta-cognition in students to successfully develop this critical skill.
If a district values authentic learning they may seek to have students share their work with authentic audiences: participating in fan fiction, citizen science, service learning, interest groups, or other meaningful work. Educators in that district will need the skills to help students find their voice, know their audience, establish their reputation, and to be relevant to the community they are participating in. District leaders with the rare ability to develop building-level talent to become skilled participants in and contributors to professional communities of practice and learning will gift the teachers and students in their schools with an environment that nurtures the civic and academic participation that is required for success in a century that rewards impact through networked collaboration as much as hierarchical compliance.
If state leaders seek to encourage innovation in learning, they may set policy that supports educators in using the technology-enabled resources that make personalization of learning vastly more realizable than in previous decades. Personalization doesn’t come from one-size-fits-all top-down mandates but from the judicious use of resources and emerging practices by professional educators with the freedom and responsibility to evolve their practice, keep those practices and resources that are effective and discard those which are not useful for a particular class or specific student at a particular time.
If nationally we believe that we need to graduate students who are lifelong independent learners in addition to knowledgeable citizens, it incumbent on all of us to demonstrate leadership – educators, administrators, parents, mentors, policy makers and community members – to model and nurture the motivations and skills of life-long learning in our own work, personal lives, and civic engagement. At every level, in every role, and at every scale there is the opportunity to lead by example, to develop the habits of 21st century learners, and to foster their development in the students we impact.
The shifts in culture, professional practice, and leadership that are required to move away from order-taking and hyper-rational control within a hierarchical workplace towards innovation and collaboration within a self-organizing workplace are counterintuitive, subtle, and the most challenging form of change. But without successfully navigating those shifts our educational system, as workplace and as learning-place, will fail to afford our students the authentic experiences of self-motivated, independent life-long learning they will need to thrive in the chaotic, global workplace of this century.