Developing Students' 21st-Century Competencies Using Improvement Science

Christina Russell, Managing Director at Policy Studies Associates, describes how school systems are creating practices that develop and strengthen students' 21st-century competencies. Looking at three school systems in the Center for Global Education at Asia Society's Global Cities Education Network, Russell explains how what these systems are learning will shape approaches to 21st-century competency development as well as the process for future system-improvement efforts in each city.

By Christina Russell
July 31, 2018

Twenty-first century competencies (21CC), broadly speaking, are the skills, attitudes, and knowledge that students need to succeed in school, work, and life. But what practices set the stage for students to develop these competencies? City teams in Asia Society's Global Cities Education Network have been applying improvement science principles from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to test and refine innovative practices as they grapple with that question.

City team members, including system administrators, educators, and research partners, convene periodically to discuss progress updates, learn from peers, and receive feedback from the Center for Global Education at Asia Society. The following reflections on efforts underway in the three education systems are drawn from these updates and from interviews I recently conducted.

Hangzhou, China

The Hangzhou Institute of Educational Science, part of the Bureau of Education for Hangzhou Municipality, is partnering with schools to develop practices that support the city's vision for learning: ensuring that learning and well-being are accessible to all.

Improving student agency in decision-making is a priority: students need support in selecting courses that lay a path for future success. In 10th grade, students choose three elective subjects. Their cumulative performance in those subjects and in three compulsory courses determines university entrance. But researchers found that student decisions were not very future-oriented. Indeed, a majority more frequently considered—and placed higher value on—whether a subject was aligned to their dominant academic strengths than to their career interests.

The 21CC team has worked closely with two schools to test approaches to improving student decision-making, including enhanced guidance on subject selection and new career exploration experiences such as visits to employers and discussions with adults in various careers. The team also implemented a peer-sharing activity where senior students discussed their course decision-making experiences with younger students.

The response was positive. However, students whose interests were already "well-matched" to their strengths were more likely to report that these activities influenced their course selection decisions than students whose interests and strengths were "mismatched."

Helping students understand what decisions were made was not sufficient. Surveys showed that students whose interests were mismatched to strengths had the lowest degree of confidence in their course decisions, compared to students whose interests were better matched to strengths. They needed guidance on the process of making decisions that reflect their interests and vision for their future: "How do you decide on course pathways when your interest is in conflict with your strength?"

To address this question, teachers recently tested a creative approach for encouraging students to dig more deeply into decisions. Students scripted and performed role-playing "psychodramas" that explored pathways to careers aligned with interests and the emotional struggle that occurs when interests and strengths are mismatched—or when they are not aligned to family or cultural expectations. Teachers reported a high degree of student enthusiasm from this activity, and analysis of a sample of student reactions showed an increase in self-reflection about decision-making and perspective-taking. Based on this success, the Hangzhou team plans to further test, before scaling, this approach to raising students' confidence in course selection decision making.

Denver, Colorado

The Student Equity & Opportunity department of Denver Public Schools is spearheading an effort to develop practices to support the district's goal of eliminating out-of-school suspensions for all elementary school students and the disproportionate suspension rates of African American students in particular.

This policy spurred the district to explore a new system of support, better calibrating central office resources to school needs. The 21CC team—including leaders from the Student Equity & Opportunity department and school psychologists—invested significant time in obtaining feedback from teachers, principals, instructional superintendents, and community stakeholders about what it would take to reduce suspensions in each school. In response, the district created a menu of supports from which school leaders could choose to tailor and implement school-level plans to reduce suspension. Teachers were trained in restorative practices and trauma-informed approaches and offered professional learning to build capacity to respond effectively to challenging student behaviors.

In the first year of the new district policy, suspension rates are shifting in the right direction. But the district knows teachers are central to generating buy-in and sustainability for practices that will increase not just "seat time" but "quality seat time." The 21CC team believes that teachers will be more willing to invest in learning and adopting new practices when they are confident that there will be increased student engagement and learning—not just reduced suspensions.

Therefore, starting in the 2018-19 school year, the team plans to work closely with two elementary schools to pilot and refine approaches. The team knows that educators need a "hook"—beyond the district mandate to reduce suspensions—for teachers to buy in to the need for change. A key step in this process will be to identify measures of improvement that are meaningful to both teacher instructional practice and student development, to demonstrate the impact of new approaches and inform refinements.

Hiroshima, Japan

In 2019, Hiroshima will launch the Hiroshima Global Academy, which will be open to all students and will provide financial supports for those who face economic barriers. The academy is aligned with a national goal to enhance competency-based education. Ultimately, the 21CC team believes that students need competencies beyond academic skills to engage successfully with society and the workforce, particularly in light of a rapidly changing Japanese society.

The 21CC team knows that teaching practice is a key driver to enhancing student competencies. Education in Japan has traditionally been driven by content, not competencies, and as a result, the 21CC team recognized a need to change the teaching style. An exploration of perceptions of candidate teachers for the new school revealed that while they understood the importance of supporting student competency development, they were less clear on implementation. Therefore, the team has focused on strategies for teacher development. Teachers traveled abroad to observe competency-based education practices. These trips enhanced teacher mindsets about the value of competency-based learning, but teachers' monthly reflections revealed remaining gaps in confidence to implement these methods.

In response, the team is testing different approaches to building capacity. A group of candidate teachers, for instance, collaborated with the curriculum coordinator to create and pilot test unit plans. This revealed that having a clear rubric for assessing unit and lesson plans was necessary to provide effective feedback to teachers as they change their practice. Based on these early experiences, the 21CC team—including teachers—is creating that rubric and forming a learning community that will continue to support curriculum refinement and teacher practices.

Lessons From These Education Systems

What are common lessons learned about developing supports for 21CC across these varied contexts and goals?

  1. Teachers are leaders in system change. "Teachers are key to change," reflected Hangzhou researchers. Improvement starts with teachers experimenting with innovative approaches. But teachers need to first see the value of change and become confident in their ability to implement new practices. A Hiroshima administrator noted, "Changing mindsets of teachers is the most difficult thing. Education is a powerful tool: students change easily. But we have to change teachers' attitudes." Denver is working to shift from a perception of system leaders as "experts" providing answers, to instead creating an environment where teachers have a "willingness to fail forward without looking to perfection … but to be willing to try and learn and grow."
  2. System leaders are key learning partners. System leaders can provide resources to support the innovation occurring at the classroom level. For instance, Hangzhou researchers have provided expertise in data analysis to assess the ways in which tested approaches are having an impact on student mindset and are exploring the relationship between student confidence in decision-making and the extent to which interests are matched to strengths. Denver and Hiroshima leaders are offering new resources and professional development to respond to teacher needs.
  3. Start small to get to system change. Innovation takes time and iteration, a challenge in systems under pressure to improve quickly. According to a leader in Denver, "There is tremendous pressure to innovate and change and to be very outcome focused—and to move things districtwide." With guidance from Asia Society—and aligned with the Carnegie improvement principles—the city teams have each shifted over time to focus on piloting new practices in fewer schools and classrooms to "go deeper" on learning about the impact, and to refine practices before they are scaled to the entire system.

With ambitions to help all students thrive, the pace of system change can sometimes seem slow. But three years into efforts to improve 21st-century competencies, city teams are enthusiastic about what they are learning and on the verge of identifying practices that will accelerate the development of competencies needed for meaningful work and life. The next challenges to be tackled by this international group? Identifying measures to assess the effectiveness and impact of new practices and taking these innovative approaches to scale.

A version of this article was originally published on Education Week's Global Learning blog.

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