3 Often-Overlooked Essentials of School Transformation

This column was submitted by Richard Long, Ed.D., Executive Director of Learning First Alliance.

Amid the excitement of schools shifting from 20th– to 21st-century learning environments, there are several realities that educators —and their communities—need to manage. These realities highlight key, often overlooked aspects of school transformation: communications and expectations about what students should learn and who should learn it.


At the elementary school my children attended, staff redesigned the entire 3rd-grade experience.  But they feared the announcement would launch a firestorm of protest, and they implemented it without notifying parents.

The change: the school was instituting team teaching at this one grade level.  My kids were getting the best from each 3rd-grade teacher!  It was a really great change, and one that should have been communicated to parents beforehand.  Learning that both instruction was being improved and educators were collaborating is positive, but compromised because it was done in secret.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time when 21st-century instructional approaches were hidden.  A few years later, the same school system handed out tablets for every student in one grade, with little communication to the community.

With some concern, several of my friends asked, “Isn’t it silly to just give out these expensive items?”  I responded, “It all depends on how they are going to be used and how much support is being given to the teachers.  They have to integrate them into the curriculum.”

Transparency around the program would have put it into context and allowed educators to focus on the instructional aspects of their work, rather than defend a misunderstood policy.

Social Emotional Learning

While many in both the education and general communities are talking about the 4C’s (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity), there are also a lot of people who talk about the basics, especially when they think schools aren’t doing a good job.  Interestingly, this debate can become an either-or argument and crowd out discussion about the need to integrate social emotional learning into the school program.

Social emotional learning is more than simply figuring out how to control one’s emotions.  It is also about learning how to be a self-monitoring, self-motivating learner.  In another school my kids attended, they were given three hours of homework each night —with the admonition that they should only do all 50 of the assigned math problems if they were having trouble and needed practice.  If they demonstrated they understand the concept after two or three, they were done.

They were being taught how to monitor and impact their own learning, not waste time on what they already knew.  This is a positive and forward-looking approach—and it was developed with a clear purpose. But, at home, we parents were making students do all the problems.  The school was clear in its academic expectations, but not communicating to parents what other skills they wanted students to develop.

For students to meet all expectations, educators need to explain them.


Equity is a critical issue in the 21st century. And it plays a role in how we approach the transformation of both schools that have historically been low-performing (which frequently have large numbers of students who are faced with the additional challenges of speaking a language other than English, living in poverty and/or coping with a disability) and higher-performing schools that include populations of such students.  Unfortunately, these students are not typically considered prime candidates for 21st century learning.  The result is that they are placed in remedial programs.  This is backward and, even worse, boring.

These students need the most exciting curriculum available. That means, for example, teaching them how 3D printers work or using virtual reality to explore the human body, strange geological structures, and/or fractals. It also means developing musical and other artistic talents, and exploring and writing meaningful fiction and nonfiction pieces.  When schools are not clear about this, and when communities don’t understand it, the students who most need 21st century experiences at school become the least likely to get them.

Becoming a 21st-century school is an ongoing endeavor, the result of a series of changes.  It is not just about the adoption of new technology or implementation of a new curriculum.  For any school to achieve that transformation requires that they are active communicators—open with their community about these changes, including the how and the why.  And while this transparency is key, it is also still not enough. 21st century schools need to integrate social-emotional learning, required if students are going to graduate truly ready for college and the workforce.  But perhaps the greatest challenge they must overcome is the belief that to help historically low-performing schools and students, we need to focus on the drill and kill of the 20th century.  This denies the pure excitement of learning that opens doors to the future.

Creating 21st century learning environments is a complex process that requires more than simply providing a piece of equipment – it is an entire mindset of changes.

About the Author

Richard M. Long became Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance in February 2016. Dr. Long is a nationally known advocate, writer and commentator on pre-K-12 issues and federal policy.


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