Charlie Coleman

Charlie Coleman is principal of Cowichan Secondary School in Duncan, British Columbia. He has been a principal at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels in ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities.

21st Century PLC

There is a great deal of talk in education these days about 21st Century learning. A quick Google search of this topic produces thousands of hits. Much of it focuses on 21st Century skills. These are often referred to as the ‘soft skills’ in education. According to much of the research and online discussion, these so-called ‘soft skills’ are really the skills students will be required to have in order to be successful both in school and in life beyond school. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) makes a compelling case for this. While there is general agreement that these soft skills are important, there is less clarity about how we incorporate those skills into our teaching and learning, and into our assessment and reporting. In my work with schools and districts on building and improving their Professional Learning Communities, a new question has been bubbling up: “How can we incorporate the 21st Century soft skills into our work as a PLC?”

There are three big ideas that drive the PLC process: a focus on learning, building a collaborative culture, and a results-orientation. Collaborative teams of professionals with PLC schools and districts focus their collective inquiry on four essential questions:

  1. What is it we want our students to learn?
  2. How will we know each student has learned it?
  3. How will we respond when some students don’t know it?
  4. How do we extend and enrich the learning for those students who have learned it?

Most collaborative teams initially focus on the ‘hard skills’ of academic learning outcomes. This is important work. Schools and districts that have used these guiding questions and collaborative PLC structures and processes, have successfully created a professional culture focused on student learning with measurable results. Now, as we must pay more attention to the new soft skills of 21st Century learning, it seems to me that we can use the same framework to focus our new efforts.

Each organization and jurisdiction has slightly different terms for these soft skills, but most of them are similar to the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). According to P21, these skills are the “Four Cs” – Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. Regardless of where you work in education, some form of the Four Cs will be coming your way. The challenge and opportunity for us as educators is to find a way to incorporate these new skills within the work we already do, not have it as an add-on or after-thought. Fortunately, the structures and strategies we already use in a PLC have prepared us well to move into the realm of 21st Century skills.

This is a global movement, with many countries and jurisdictions exploring the same themes. In the Province of British Columbia, Canada (where I live and work) we are engaged in a similar journey. We are now working to embed the soft skills of 21st Century learning into an already existing successful educational program. We refer to these skills as the Core Competencies. Slightly different words and names, but essentially the Four Cs of P21. We will be using the same approach with the new Core Competencies as we have already been doing with academic content. What does that look like? We have to go back to the four essential questions.

  1. What is it we want our students to learn? Within our PLC school, we need to get clarity on what these new skills are, why they are important, and then come to consensus on what it is we expect to see in our students at different age and grade levels.
  2. How will we know each student has learned it? In collaborative teams, we need to work on ways to define, observe and assess students’ progress on these new ‘soft skills’. In many jurisdictions, including British Columbia, work is underway to create rubrics and other authentic performance-based assessment tools that will help us with this. The power of these rubrics is not the words in each box, it is in the professional conversations and collaborative inquiry of the educators as we co-develop and co-refine our understanding of these skills and our ability to teach and assess them.
  3. How will we respond when some students don’t know it? As with all things in education, not every student will be at the same place at the same time. Students learn in different ways and at different rates and we need to find responsive ways to both honor and support that. Similar to the academic support model of Response to Intervention (RTI), we will need to find ways to help kids develop these soft skills alongside the essential academic skills. The rubrics are a great starting point. Using student exemplars (in print, video and other forms) will enhance this work. Being overt about these skills, with both adults and students, and talking about why they are important and what they look like in the ‘real world’ will make it more meaningful.
  4. How do we extend and enrich the learning for those students who have learned it? If kids learn in different ways and at different rates, it should be expected that some of our students will already have many of these skills and aptitudes. The challenge for educators will be to find ways to tap into those existing student strengths and help them find ways to extend their learning. In terms of the soft skills of 21st Century learning, enrichment should be easy. These are the real-life skills that business and industry are looking for. They are also the skills that set people apart from the crowd in just about any workplace or endeavor. There are many opportunities both within the school and the outside community, where students can use their talents in these areas to shine.

Interestingly, these so-called soft skills, are also required of the adults within a successful PLC. Educators in a Professional Learning Community will be much more successful if they are able to articulate and demonstrate the Four Cs themselves. Powerful collaborative teams require all four: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity. So, as we work to develop these 21st Century skills within our students, we can be co-developing them within ourselves and our colleagues at the same time. We can all be learning together.

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