Leadership for the 21st Century

chess-316658_640“The United States has seen reform movements in education since the inception of formal education.  The intentions behind reform have varied, but it could be argued that many of these reforms have merely taken an existing practice, bent it a bit, and tinkered with it, thus ending up with the same basic form.  The proof is the fact that the overwhelming majority of our schools run on the same length of school year and the same daily schedule, wit the same rigid grouping of students and the same faculty organization, and fundamentally in the same type of buildings in as in the late 1890s.” (Jacobs, 60)

In her book Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, Heidi Hayes Jacobs opens “Chapter 4- New School Versions: Reinventing and Reuniting School Program Structures” with the above view of our current educational systems.  This chapter, as well as the other essays in the book, goes on to discuss the current ‘what is’ and the future ‘what can, may, and will be’ of technology’s impact on our educational systems- from overall structure, to the make up and use of our schools, to daily classroom instruction (to name a few areas).

When I first read this book I was enthralled. I was in my third year of working with a cart full of wireless Macbooks, and I had been figuring out ways to effectively incorporate technology to enhance curriculum, instruction and student learning-rather than replace any of these

The ‘big picture’ sections were further driving home the changing nature of the ‘classroom’, see Chapter 5 for Steven Wilmarth’s essay on “Five Socio-Technology Trends” as he discusses the change in the process of learning that is taking place, and I realized I needed to once again change what I was used to in terms of how I learned in comparison to how my students learned.  At the same time the sections that were more classroom based, see Chapter 9 for David Niguidula’s chapter on “Digital Portfolios and Curriculum Maps”, helped me take the plunge and engage my students in building virtual Portfolios using a combination of tools such as Google Docs and Schoology, as well as develop a staff development session on web 2.0 tools and digital portfolios for some of my adjunct work. Most all of what I pulled from this has been, understandably, from the lens of a classroom teacher.

As I am nearing the end of the Educational Leadership/Principal Certification program I have been in for the past 6 months, I have had the chance to revisit different sections of Jacobs’ book, but this time from the lens of a school administrator/instructional leader.  This shift in viewpoint has evolved throughout a number of courses I have taken, but really was solidified with the work we did with ISTE’s NETS for Administrators which, are, in a nutshell, the standards for school administrators and leaders must meet to support the 21st Century shift in learning and schools. (see below)


Jacobs’ Chapter on “New School Versions” takes a radical and progressive look at the impact the Web can have on school curriculum, schedules, grouping of both learners and teachers, and space—physical and virtual.  In many school districts (not to mention colleges and universities) around the country and the globe we are already starting to see these changes come to fruition.

Many districts are beginning to offer online courses to students (usually during some structured time within the school day to complete the work), to allow students who do not fit the standard high school ‘mold’ that Jacobs’ discusses to complete their high school graduation requirements through a Virtual High School program, and to move their summer school programs to an online format.  These changes, along with asking teachers to use course management systems, like Moodle or Schoology, wikis or websites to support and complement their face to face classrooms, and the increased presence of computers in the schools, whether it be a cart of laptops, an increase in the number of computer labs, or a one to one environment, are forcing school administrators to wear another hat- instructional technology leader.

The ISTE NETS-A standards speak to the need for Visionary Leadership, Systemic Improvement, and Excellence in Professional Practice as keys to a successful leader/administrator in a technology rich environment.  Looking at leadership over time, these descriptors are nothing we have not seen before or admired in past principals, directors, etc.  As early at 1995, Kouzes and Posner, in The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Thinks Done in Organizations, wrote about exemplary leaders challenging the process, inspiring a share vision, and acting as role models.  The big shift today is in the ‘context’ in which these same general principles apply.  In today’s schools, inspiring a shared vision must take into account how technology and Digital Citizenship fits into a school’s mission and culture.

School leadership must consider if and how they are building a Digital Age Learning Culture that supports teachers and students as they take on the challenges of adjusting to a virtual learning environment, either full time or a hybrid version.  It is not just the school administrator as an instructional leader only anymore, but he/she must become well versed in Best Practices in technology in education as well.  For some, these adjustments are huge.  They can challenge a person’s level of comfort, confidence, and overall willingness to take risks.  Implementing technology and moving towards a 21st Century Learning Environment shifts the focus of the classroom from the teacher as the knowledge base to the students as knowledge seekers.  It empowers the students to take control of their learning and forces a philosophical shift to a more authentic, students centered environment.  The emotional and personal side of this shift has to be addressed carefully and effectively.

This is why a Systemic approach is so crucial.  School administrators must look to develop a big picture and small picture plan on how they will communicate and support the integration of technology into the school’s systems, curriculum, etc.  It is not so much that the leader must be seen as an ‘expert’ (with the variety of different roles a leader must fulfill it is impossible to assume he/she can be an expert in all-plus districts have instructional technology coaches and staff developers to fulfill this need), it is more that the staff must be encouraged to take risks, feel supported in their implementation, and be given a chance to share their successes and challenges throughout the entire process.  Establishing a shared vision on why and how the building is going a certain direction and then working out a specific, clear plan for implementation (complete with check points, clear measures, etc.) can help tackle many of the fears and the ‘unknowns’ that accompany this type of change.

On the back cover of Jacobs’ book, she asks the question “What year are you preparing your students for? 1973? 1995?”  Thinking about this through a school leader/administrator’s lens, I would have to ask “What year am I preparing my staff for?”  What will I do to set a Digital Age Learning Culture that rethinks our school’s use of space and grouping?  How will I, on a practical level, model Digital citizenship? In the end, I do believe it is the pursuit of answers to questions like these that will ultimately help any leader move his/her district, building, staff, and/or students into the 21st Century.

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