Value “leadership.”

I have traveled the country now for a decade visiting 21st century schools and districts. I haven’t found one yet that doesn’t have a strong leader. Having a strong leader with a compelling vision is an essential component of 21st century education.

We must value strong leaders in education. Leadership in education is often a very lonely enterprise. That is one of the reasons we have created a professional learning community for 21st century education leaders, EdLeader21.

Many state and federal policies undercut and devalue leadership instead of empowering it. Many of us are working to change that.


Value great pedagogy.

As I’ve watched K-12 classrooms the last 15 years, I’ve been made breathless by the simple elegance of great pedagogy.

Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning tells the story of Austin’s Butterfly. He shows a copy of a butterfly that Austin drew. It is very complex and textured. You would think the student is a child prodigy.

He then shows Austin’s first draft and it shows a very simple, age-appropriate line drawing. The final version was actually the sixth draft of the butterfly and each time Austin improved his draft significantly by simply following the advice of his peers who gave him suggestions on how to improve his latest draft. He wasn’t a child prodigy; he was the recipient of great peer-oriented pedagogy.

We need to focus on the power of pedagogical strategies. In fact, we need a new generation of educational R&D focused on a set of breakthrough pedagogical strategies for K-12 education.


Value great questions.

As a recovering attorney, I still appreciate the value of the Socratic Method. I continue to be astonished by the power of questions.

In Indiana, it was middle school teachers who transformed their classrooms through a set of questions at the front and back end of each assignment, regardless of its subject. At the front end, the question was, “What is your goal for this assignment?” At the back end the questions were: “Did you set a good goal for yourself?” “Would you set a different goal next time?” “Did you work effectively?” “What could you do to improve your performance?”

These elegant questions took a simple content or literacy assignment and enlarged it to include goal setting, self-assessment, self-direction and continuous improvement strategies.

Today the power of great questions should not focus just on the questions of the teacher, but the questions of our students. A professor at the University of Arizona School of Medicine, Marlys Hearst Witte, describes her strategy as “Ignorance University.” She wants her medical students to focus on what they don’t know. A well-known professor at Harvard doesn’t begin his lecture until he knows all the questions his students have about the subject.

Next time you’re giving a presentation try this: before you start, ask your audience what questions they have about the subject.


Value collaboration.

We seem to finally have a consensus that collaboration is a skill we need to teach our students. Educators also need to bring collaboration to their own pedagogical and educational leadership strategies.

We can’t expect students to be effective collaborators if our teachers and administrators don’t model collaboration in their own work.

I often get asked, “How do you know if a school or district is headed in the right direction?” My response is: If in that school or district teachers are working in teams to improve their teaching and assessment and their work is focused on both content and 21st century outcomes, they are headed in the right direction. If the teachers and leaders have not created collaborative communities of practice focused on 21st century outcomes, they are still stuck in the isolated siloes of the 20th century.


Value a culture of continuous improvement.

After working with leaders in high-tech companies for over 20 years, I came to deeply respect their commitment to continuous improvement. They were often able to set bold, aggressive goals for improving their processes, products, services and productivity and accomplish them.

As a whole, the education sector has not yet fully embraced a culture of continuous improvement. Often when I meet with teachers and talk about a topic like critical thinking someone will remark, "I already do that." The issue is not whether you "do" critical thinking, but whether you're committed to continually improving your practices in support of the critical thinking capabilities of your students.

When leaders in schools and districts embrace a culture of continuous improvement, they are not only on the right path; they serve as powerful models for their students.

The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.


Ken Kay is the Chief Executive Officer of EdLeader21, a professional learning community for education leaders. He has been the leading voice for 21st Century Education for the last decade. He co-founded the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in 2002 and served as its President for 8 years.

As Executive Director of the CEO Forum on Education and Technology, he led the development of the StaR Chart (School Technology & Readiness Guide), used by schools across the country to make better use of technology in K-12 classrooms.

Ken spent 28 years in Washington, DC, where he gained a national reputation as a coalition builder on competitiveness issues in education and industry—particularly policies and practices that support innovation and technology leadership. He founded a landmark coalition of US universities and high-tech companies focused on research and development issues. He also was the founding Executive Director of the premier CEO advocacy group in the US computer industry.

Ken has co-edited the book “New Directions for Youth Development: The Case for Twenty-First Century Learning,” and has written the foreword to the book, “21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn.”

Currently, he serves on the boards of Edvantia and the Buck Institute for Education.

Ken is a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Denver College of Law. He and his wife, Karen, have three adult children, a daughter-in-law and a grandson. They live in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona with their golden retriever, Bisbee.