Foundation for 21st century schooling

Kelly, McCain and Jukes (2009) offer research and ideas on how to teach today’s “digital generation.” As others, they assert that today’s traditional, “cookie-cutter” high schools have become outdated. In its place, Kelly et al. suggest that we need to develop a vision that moves us away from the common high school practices in order to better address the learning demands of the 21st century.

They recommend that high schools accept the reality of the online digital world and those associated implications it would have on teaching and learning. At first glance, we might acknowledge that their recommendations are not necessarily novel. This should not, however, detract us from the need to consider them carefully, as these form the foundation upon which 21st century schooling should be based.

1. Schools need to shift instruction to focus on those higher-level thinking skills needed for the 21st century. This call for reform and action is not new. What is different is that additional skills beyond those often associated with the higher-order cognitive processing skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy (analyze, evaluate, create) are being considered more and more as “higher-order.” Organizations such as The Partnership for 21st Century Skills and The 21st Century Fluency Project offer a framework in which to consider these skills.

2. Schools need to embrace the new digital reality. Educators need to acknowledge that technological change is a given in today’s culture. We need to use technology to keep school and the schooling experience relevant to our society. As such, we need to connect with the world that the students experience. They are already using numerous digital tools in their after-school lives, but students need to be taught, and then empowered, to use their tools to apply the higher-level thinking skills mentioned above for learning’s sake. In this way, instruction in the classroom can become more relevant to students as it us linked to their world.

3. Schools need to establish greater connections between in-class experiences and the “real” world outside. The goal of such efforts is to develop greater relevancy of what students are learning at school. Contextualizing content with real-life experiences, field-trips, guest speakers, job shadowing, digital simulations, etc., can lead to more meaningful learning.

4. Schools need to broaden their evaluation policies to include assessment activities that provide a complete picture of student learning. Assessment practices cannot only follow established text-based and/or standardized tests. Alternative assessments, such as student portfolios, presentations, etc., need to be considered in which students are asked to demonstrate their knowledge and developing competency on 21st century skills, abilities and fluencies.


Kelly, F. S., McCain, T., & Jukes, I. (2009). Teaching the digital generation: No more cookie-cutter high schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Lessons from different high school models

Different public school initiatives and charter schools in the US have worked at reinventing the high school experience by just ‘starting over.’ Whether it is for the purpose of assisting our students to “develop the broad knowledge of the world that would help them succeed in the 21st-century global environment” (Jackson, 2008, p. 58), or simply to “reclaim our students” (Forbes & Richelieu Saunders, 2008, p. 42), unique models of high schools are being considered for learning in the 21st century.

There are some common lessons being learned from these models:

1. Learning needs to be relevant for students. This is not a new idea, but one that appears to be stressed more in the current dialogue on high school reform. High school students learn best when they see their education as relevant to their lives and the world around them. Work-based learning components, internships, partnerships with industry and commerce, and school-based enterprises also help provide real-world connections.

2. The need for a strongly developed curriculum. Such a curriculum needs to be purposeful, yet not sacrifice academic rigor for relevancy. Traditional courses need to integrate knowledge and skills about the world and how the world works. The in-depth study of disciplines such as math, science, English and social studies, is applied to authentic problems and applications. The study of a foreign, global language helps expose students to other cultures. Overall, international content and perspectives should be included in engaging coursework that is often project-based.

3. Project-based learning. The curriculum briefly described above should lead to engaging project-based learning for students. This requires a shift from teacher-directed, whole class lessons to personalized, student-directed projects. In this approach, students study necessary content as well as essential skills to research and problem solve. Students are encouraged to develop their strengths and reflect on their weaknesses so as to improve themselves. Projects then culminate in presentations where students share their findings, demonstrate their content understanding, and talk about the learning strategies and processes they followed in front of teachers, their peers, parents, and even panels of community members and other guests.

4. Learning in community. As part of this process, group work is essential to help students collaborate with others and communicate with each other about how they learn and how they overcome challenges they are facing as they learn. Group work should include problem-solving and support for each other’s learning.

5. Technology. In all models, learning and instruction capitalize the use of various technologies to such an extent that technology is a seamless part of the teaching and learning process. Such use of appropriate technology helps underscore the fact that we live in an interconnected and interdependent world. Related to this, teachers are proactive in guiding and encouraging students towards a positive digital citizenship and a professional and ethical use of technology for learning’s sake.

6. Adequate time for teacher preparation. The positive impact of qualified, prepared and motivated teachers cannot be understated. These various models are consistent in their need for a core group of teachers who share a vision for the model of high school and are committed to personalizing the learning experience for their students. As a result, a common feature of the models is sufficient time for teachers to collaborate together to develop curriculum and plan for instruction. Teachers need to be ready with advising, appropriate counseling, and additional instruction as necessary. For these reasons, the provision for adequate, site-based professional development to better serve the students is important, too.


Forbes, J. D., & Richelieu Saunders, C. (2008, May). How we reinvented the high school experience. Educational Leadership 65(8); 42-46.

Hoachlander, G. (2008, May). Bringing industry to the classroom. Educational Leadership 65(8); 22-27.

Jackson, A. (2008, May). High schools in the global age. Educational Leadership 65(8); 58-62.

Quint, J. (2008, May). Lessons from leading models. Educational Leadership 65(8); 64-68.

Being small is not enough

A high school that is small in size is not enough to ensure student learning and post-high-school success. Ancess (2008) suggests that the four following characteristics are essential in an effective small school:

1. Caring Relationships – appear essential for student achievement. This includes relationships between students and teachers, as well as relationships among teachers. Students need unwavering teacher access, support and appropriately, teacher-imposed pressure for the learning process. Teachers and students need to get to know each other and have ongoing conversations that encourage learning. These conversations can be both formal, focused on learning, and informal, where the topics may be centered on a student’s life, problems, successes, or aspirations. As the bond between teacher and student develop, teachers can leverage the relationship to further encourage and persuade student growth. This can help students transcend their own perceived limitations.

Caring relationships among teachers, who need to work together in support of their students’ learning, should also develop as teachers share planning times, collaborate, and problem solve together. Teachers feel a sense of collective responsibility for their students’ learning. These caring relationships are characterized by interdependence, respect, and trust.

2. Unified School Community – The school needs to be a community where learning and relationships are valued. There should be shared educational beliefs, goals, rituals, commitments and norms. Professional development for teachers includes a focus on these further. The community works together to support students academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. All adults are mentors and advisors in this process.

3. Strong Safety Net – Multiple systems can be set in place to safeguard student development. Through an advisory program, every student is assigned to an adult who takes responsibility for the student. This includes close communication with parents, access to community- and church-based support organizations, and a four-year sequence of activities that help prepare students for necessary post-high school decisions. Grade-level teams meet to share information and monitor student progress. Professional development opportunities help teachers strengthen this safety net by offering necessary guidance strategies in their work.

4. Intellectually Transformative Experiences – As students encounter success in school and produce high-quality, intellectually focused work, they gain a greater appreciation for their ability and future. They develop an interest in learning, which fosters, in turn, greater motivation for using their minds. Using their minds means “getting [students] to analyze, reason, mount a logical argument and defend it, solve problems, conduct research, negotiate conflicting perspectives, imagine possibilities, question their own and others’ assumptions, and use the power of their ideas to persuade others to change their opinions” (Ancess, 2008, p. 51). Teachers need to provide school tasks that are worthy of their engagement.


Ancess, J. (2008, May). Small alone is not enough. Educational Leadership 65(8); 48-53.

Going to high school: A moral and economic imperative

A few thoughts as I reviewed some articles on high school reform:

As a society we need to acknowledge that all students have a right to a high-quality secondary school education that will prepare them to meet the challenges they will face upon graduation. This is especially important in today’s knowledge-based economy where essential 21st century skills for success need to be developed in school. I admit that I still need to fully understand what most educators would agree regarding this set of skills, and I look forward to learning more. In any case, high school students should feel equipped and confident for either continued study in college or entering the workforce after grade 12.

Unfortunately, it is becoming evident to me that today’s high schools are not necessarily designed with this in mind.  Most high school experiences have been designed for a different era. They follow what has been coined as “the 20th century factory model” (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008, p. 14). At the beginning of the 20th century approximately 10% of high school-aged students actually went to school. This was a luxury for a choice few. Today, attendance laws require all high school-aged students be in the classroom or be held accountable for their time. As a result, the high school has developed in a manner that typically processes as many students as possible. This model favors size and efficiency over relationship (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008). Students are gathered in relatively large class sizes, they attend multiple classes in a day and are taught by multiple teachers, many of whom rarely have the opportunity to collaborate effectively with their colleagues over instructional improvement and best practices. To me, the typical US high school is too large and impersonal.  My opportunities to visit high schools in the Puget Sound have left me thinking that they are detached communities filled with many students who are not necessarily engaged and interested in learning.

In the light of greater global economic competition and any related demands from the workplace, our schools need to help students meet the new requirements of the 21st century. Wise (2008) rightly describes this as a “moral and economic imperative” (p. 9) for us to address. I believe that society expects our students to be ready for the challenges they will face upon graduation. They want students to be well-prepared to be active contributors in the global community. Parents expect more from our high schools  for their children. They want to know that their children are prepared and able to lead productive lives. Students want to be engaged and can be motivated to learn more. Perhaps the current model of high school needs to change in order to meet these expectations in light of this new reality.


Darling-Hammond, L. & Friedlaender, D. (2008). Creating excellent and equitable schools. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 14-21.

Wise, B. (2008, May). High schools at the tipping point. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 8-13.