Leadership for 21st Century Learning

by Marco Kools
Analyst, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Against a backdrop of increasing globalisation, rapid technological innovation and a growing knowledge workforce, few would dispute that the primary task for management today is the leadership of change. The education sector is no exception to this.

Contemporary learning environments (schools) must be able to keep pace with the changing times, while delivering on their core task – equipping students with the knowledge and skills for life in the 21st century. This requires leadership to set the direction, taking responsibility for putting learning at the centre and keeping it there. Sounds simple, but what does it really mean in practice? Where does one start? Who does what?

These are some of the challenging questions that the recently released OECD publication Leadership for 21st Century Learning responds to. The publication builds on the prominence given to the concept of learning leadership in the recently released Innovative Learning Environments. It addresses the “Why? What? How? Who? Where and When? of learning leadership and presents a selection of leadership strategies from Austria, Australia, Canada, Israel, Norway, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The analysis of the leadership strategies, international literature and the contributions to this volume by leading international experts shows that by its very nature, learning leadership is social and connected. It shows the importance of participating in professional learning communities and networks as a vehicle for learning leadership to flourish and to make it more effective. This is not argued principally in order for community members to feel more positive about themselves through a sense of belonging. Rather, it allows professional learning communities and networks to serve as a means for shared strategies and visions to emerge within learning environments, and for developing appropriate expertise through sharing. A key role for government therefore lies in creating the conditions that facilitate networked professional learning opportunities.

For 21st century learning to flourish on the ground, learning leadership must be exercised at different levels of the education system. Although the initial impetus for change might come from any level – from within the system or outside – it needs the corresponding decision making and action at other levels of the system in order for it to be sustained at scale. This is increasingly relevant as learning environments become more innovative and involve a range of different non-traditional partners like businesses, foundations or cultural bodies from outside the formal system. 

A key question for governments to consider therefore is what these changing leadership dynamics mean in terms of issues like quality assurance, governance and accountability when the education system’s boundaries deliberately become more blurry. These are some of the key issues being investigated in the last strand of work of the OECD Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) project on “Implementation and Change” and its sister project Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES), which are activities of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI).


Photo credits: Cover © Inmagine LTD.

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