I decided to write this article for a number of reasons. Firstly, and probably the most obvious, I wanted to challenge tradition and stimulate discussion around what seems be an ever increasing topic of conversation, not just in Scotland but across the international scene also.

I’ve already talked about the strategic drivers and desired outcomes of a 21st Century School in Part 1. I’d like to take this further and describe some of the more practical aspects of this vision, hopefully describing what such a school would look like. Most likely, there will be a Part 3 to this story, if not a 4 and a 5.

Society will always undergo significant change. Culture is the first brick in the proverbial foundation of transformational change. The structure and process which delivers services to children young people can only be developed and integrated once ethos and cultural progress has advanced to a stage where leadership and management is capable of driving forward innovation and creativity.

It is the way of all things to evolve; but what will a 21st Century school look like? How is it different to the traditional learning establishments of the late 20th Century? How will schools need to shift the focus of their core business; accommodating and progressing young people, growing up in a world where information and knowledge is a powerful commodity? Does it mean the adaptation of traditional values and beliefs, practice and pedagogy? Or does it mean something else entirely? How can we deliver our own ambition to vulnerable young people?

Examine the legacy of the traditional school. Look closely at the culture, structure and processes aligned within a traditional establishment, certain values come to mind; bureaucratic design, autocratic leadership, centralised control, compliance, conformity and compartmentalisation. Whilst this legacy may present a narrow perspective; indeed some schools broke from tradition and embraced modern principles, on the whole, we would all recognise even the smallest element based on experience.

Perhaps, through the nature of our experience, we know that this type of school is not the best place to work, let alone develop and teach our young people how to become confident individuals, responsible citizens, successful learners and effective contributors.

What type of school would deliver opportunity and progression? A bureaucratic, hierarchal design, focussed on senior management would be better served up as a slice of team pie, with senior leadership at the heart of the organisation. Integration of distributed or transformation leadership would generate diversity and initiative and deliver autonomy with accountability. This is a much better work place; where teachers are encouraged to take risks and learn from mistakes and set-backs. A place where young people can learn who they are and what their potential, within the four capacities, actually aspires to; a responsible confidence which reflects self-belief, self-esteem and self-determination.

Let us take a paradigmatic approach to principle, practice and outcome.

Whilst there is a great deal of effort modernising a forward thinking establishment, one of the key reasons why schools struggle to make transformational change is because there is confusion about the purpose of change and the impact that this has on the methodology of change. We are not just producing systematic change; reforming school leadership, introducing new technology or changing the curriculum. These are simply elements which affect a system-wide transformational change. We are not aiming to tweak or amend the status quo in order to effect continuous improvement and align policy, but instead we have an opportunity to redesign the culture, structure and processes which deliver teaching and learning to all our young people. I’ll talk a bit more about this in Part 3.

There is not a one-size-fits-all model which will suit every unique establishment and as such each school will need to recognise that societal transformational change is occurring, recognise that current design is incompatible with the 21st Century and recognise the paradigmatic outcomes as described within the table below. Advocates for individualised learning believe that there will be a dramatic decrease in the numbers of young people who would traditionally be left behind. We need to empower all young people, providing more choices and more chances, where individual interests, abilities, skills, achievements and progress are at the core of all we do.

The outcome is not to measure against the four capacities. Why would we want to measure a young person’s level of contribution or confidence? This goes against the very nature of personalisation; encouraging every young person to be the best that they can. Measurement against the four capacities is not needed; instead, measure how the young person proceeds on the journey to excellence within the context of the four capacities. This is fundamentally different and it is this pedagogy that will deliver the vision and practice of a 21st Century School.

The learner’s journey is now the core business of every school.

Below, the table illustrates the paradigmatic outcomes. Reflect on these and identify areas which have been adopted and areas which still require attention to detail within your own school or authority.

The 20th Century School The 21st Century School
Standardised, one-size-fits-all, teaching Customised, tailored and individual teaching
Autocratic school environment Democratic school environment
Young people learn by being told Young people learn by doing
Linear thinking Creative, abstract and systematic thinking
Teaching and learning delivered to young people Teaching and learning delivered with young people
Teacher directed learning Self directed learning
Aged based groups Readiness and interest grouping
Emphasis on discrete subjects Emphasis on skills and interdisciplinary learning
Teaching and learning is process orientated Teaching and learning is content orientated
Extrinsic motivation is used to encourage student learning Intrinsic motivation creates meaningful engagement
Limited access to knowledge Plentiful access to knowledge
Limited resources Multiple resources of various kinds
Textbooks and teaching aids Multimedia and web-based technologies
Lock-step progress Customised progress based on learning and need
Norm-based, completive assessment Assessment in progressive levels
Fixed response testing Authentic testing
Convergent learning with rote memory Convergent and divergent learning
Unmotivated and disengaged learners Motivated and engaged learners
Young people dependent on teacher for learning Independence and interdependence for learning
Compliant learner Life-long learner

Posted by Lee Dunn

Academic Staff University of Glasgow and Author of Science Fiction


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Creative Identities, Lee Dunn. Lee Dunn said: A 21st Century School Part 2 – The Need for Change: http://wp.me/pUhln-2j […]

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  15. […] Indeed, I have written about this before in some depth and you can read more here. […]

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