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Transforming Schools for the 21st Century

Students working with technology in a blended learning environment.

Transforming Schools for the 21st Century
By Dr. Joanne Hopper and James Seaman

Part I: A World in Flux
The term “21st century learning” is used frequently to represent the current approach to educational reform. The term generally describes education that is among many things learner-centered, inquiry-based, technology-rich, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and personalized. Many of these concepts however, are not new. These approaches to learning are rooted in constructivist theory which was formalized in the early part of the 20th century. So why do we need 21st century learning now? The main reason is a shift in context. The world into which students will enter is a much different place. It is a technology-driven global playing field and it is highly competitive.

The rate of change in the world is exponential; it is constantly accelerating. Change is happening so fast now that young people entering the workplace need to be prepared for a world in flux. Strategizing education is no longer about figuring out what the next trends are going to be and preparing students for them; it’s about preparing students for the unknown, the unpredictable. It’s about teaching students to become agile and lifelong learners so they have the skills to adapt to change.

The Future of Work is Now
The workplace is already adapting in response to these global, technological, and societal changes. By breaking down traditional structures, companies are positioning themselves to succeed in this new arena. Google, for example, views their employees as their most valued asset. They realize that by empowering employees to choose how they will contribute to the larger whole motivates them to be more innovative and productive. Google allows their engineers to spend twenty percent of their time working on self-selected projects (Mediratta, 2007). They use this time to develop something new or to fix things that are broken. Individual freedom requires employees to be self-directed and self-motivated. IDEO, a company whose focus is to help other companies innovate, has created a culture around teamwork and collaboration. They put together interdisciplinary teams to solve problems and find innovative solutions through a process that encourages exploring wild ideas (Kelley, 2001). Employees at IDEO must be agile, able to quickly adapt to different working arrangements and collaborate with others.

Part II: What Needs to Change?
If schools are to keep pace with exponential change, neither classrooms – nor the learning that takes place therein – can remain static. What transformations are critical? Driven by globalization and the speed of change, schools in Michigan and across the nation are responding to factors that can be perceived as both threats and challenges. These include the national movement to Common Core State Standards, national and state policies aimed at infusing technology and global learning experiences, and disruptive innovation pushing us to online and blended learning environments.

The Curriculum
In order to assure students are prepared for the world they encounter upon graduation, significant curriculum changes are necessary – as evidenced by the Common Core State Standards. The purpose of adopting a common set of curriculum standards is, at least in part, to assure that every child – no matter what his or her zip code – will have access to learning that prepares him for productive citizenship. The adoption of the Common Core is not about adding to what is currently being taught, but rather about approaching instruction differently. Students must be prepared to gather, understand, evaluate and synthesize information; conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems; and analyze and create text.

The Learning Environment
Accomplishing the Common Core and preparing students for success in the 21st century also requires a shift in the learning environment to one which fosters student experimentation, exploration and peer interaction. Offering students choice and autonomy in learning within an environment that meets individual students’ needs must be a priority. Most schools today however, are still based on an outdated 20th century model. Twentieth century education is teacher-centered. A typical school is arranged with identical classrooms aligned along a corridor. The focus of the classroom is the teaching wall with the teacher standing at the front presenting lessons to 25-30 students. Subjects are compartmentalized and students move from subject to subject at the ring of the bell.

In contrast, teachers in a collaborative learning culture must be willing to be learners as well as guides of the learning. Rather than a single classroom serving as the individual organizing unit, a learning community extends to involve 4-6 teachers and 100-150 students. Beyond the physical layout, students and teachers in a learning community work together to enhance and amplify each other’s learning.

It is possible for this type of learning to occur in existing buildings, but at some point the building gets in the way. The architecture eventually impacts a learning community’s organization. Yet, existing buildings can be transformed with creative solutions that are shaped by a vision for the future of learning.

A Blended Option: Integrating Bricks and Mortar with Online
In their book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2008) assert that online and blended learning are creating disruptive innovation that will impact Michigan and the nation. Stacker chronicles 40 schools that have successfully blended bricks and mortar with online learning in The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning: Profiles of Emerging Models (2011). Beyond reform, “Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive” (Stacker, 2011, p. 3).

At St. Clair County RESA, a multi-disciplinary team created a blended learning continuum depicting the instructional transformation that occurs when schools move from traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction in a bricks-and-mortar environment to a blended learning classroom that is accessible 24/7/365. [See Insert] In Stage 1 of the continuum, a teacher serves the main dispenser of knowledge. Students primarily sit in straight rows, often passively absorbing the information conveyed. Three stages from this is the blended learning environment wherein the teacher serves as lead learner and mentor for students who are actively engaged in learning, both face-to-face and online. Students use Web 2.0 tools and technology to research, design, create and demonstrate their understanding.

Part III: Navigating a World of Change
Schools won’t get “there” using the same instructional methodologies that permeated classrooms in the past. New models of learning, driven by disruptive innovation, result in shifts from face-to-face instruction as the primary delivery method, toward blended models where teachers and students engage in learning in the “nearly now” (Heppell, 2008). The role of the superintendent as a leader in this transformation is critical. The superintendent must be a framer of the vision for the district, as well as a leader in progress toward the vision. A skill set that equips the superintendent to be a savvy manager of change is also critical.

A critical trait in keeping pace with the rapid changes occurring is risk taking. To take schools as far as they need to go, superintendents must be willing to lead at the edge of possibilities. Schools – and more importantly, the students they serve – can’t wait for others to test the ideas. Superintendents have to take bold steps to expect change in practice, and measurement of what works. To be an innovator and assure students are learning to their potential, superintendents must know what is available in terms of tools and the targets. Few are out front leading.

Students and teachers working together in a learning community.

Embracing Learning
The challenge for superintendents: Leading schools that don’t just tinker around the edges with change, but rather create the kind of wholesale change necessary to propel 21st century learning. No one tool or platform will provide “the answer” or the “best” way to move forward. Savvy superintendents see themselves as lead learners, extending their reach to include a network of experts beyond education. Seize the opportunity to engage with business leaders. Connect with school facility designers. Tap into PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) that exist online through LinkedIn, MACUL, CoSN (Consortium of School Networks), ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education). Work to involve all decision makers in the discussions about learning. Learn together about the future landscape and create the conditions to make it happen for students.

Note: This article was originally published in the MASA Leader, September 2011. Here’s a link to the publication…


Christensen, C., Horn, M., & Johnson C. (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Heppell, S. (2008). Learning to Change, Changing to Learn. CoSN & Pearson Foundation. Retrieved from

Kelley, T. (2001). The Art of Innovation. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Mediratta, B. (2007, October 21). The Google Way: Give Engineers Room. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Staker, H. (2011). The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning: Profiles of Emerging Models. Retrieved from


Joanne Hopper, Ed.D. is the Director of Education Services at St. Clair County RESA. She can be reached at:

James Seaman, AIA, REFP, LEED AP is a Senior Designer at Fielding Nair International. Contact him at:

October 6th, 2011

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