Educational Reform for 21st Century Learners: A study on Teacher Perspectives


About the Authors

Amy Christiansen has taught middle school for 17 years with Chinook’s Edge School Division and is currently an instructional coach at Olds College.

Lacey Elliott is a teacher and inclusion coach at Ponoka Secondary Campus with 8 years’ experience.

James Fuller is a senior high school teacher and social studies department head at Caroline School with 6 years’ experience.

AJ Mahoney is a senior high school teacher and science department head at Notre Dame High School in Red Deer, with 7 years’ experience.

Erika Pottage is a vice principal, inclusion coach and technology coach at St. Elizabeth Seton in Red Deer, with 12 years’ experience.



Our world is constantly shifting, changing and evolving. This study sought feedback from educators to consider what elements of learning and which values are seen as necessary to prepare students for success in this rapidly-changing world. Qualitative data collected using both a survey and a focus group interview, involving 13 educators, revealed five areas of development focused on education reform: (1) collaboration, (2) curriculum, (3) diversity and inclusion, (4) grassroots leadership, and (5) focusing on educating the whole child. These findings aligned with our reading of research literature on curriculum foundations and educational priorities. This study confirmed our belief that teachers are ready to take ownership of educational reform.



This study has two components. We begin with a review of current literature on education reform, which discusses three primary issues. The first issue is historical curriculum development and its implications on current curriculum reform. Second, our literature review outlines professional development for teachers and leaders to facilitate learning in the 21st century. Last, the review examines classroom dynamics and constructing learning environments that develop active learner participation and engagement. The second component of this study summarizes data collected from a sample of educators to determine perspectives on education reform. Our data analysis highlighted five themes from the data and presents future considerations for enhancing student learning in a 21st century environment.


Literature Review

This literature review explores current research in educational reform in the 21st century. Historically, curriculum design has been inundated with ideological influences, often ignoring important voices in society, such as learners, parents, and the community. However, current research is exploring aspects of curriculum design and how to prepare learners for the dynamic nature of the 21st century (Soulé and Warrick, 2015). Furthermore, because teachers are expected to bridge the gap between research findings and student success in 21st century learning, the need to access professional learning for a changing landscape is growing.


Curriculum Foundations and Educational Priorities

Curriculum redesign is not an avant-garde idea. Zsolnai and Lesznyák (2015) explore the history of the political, economic, and social influences on ideological values and their impact on a country’s curriculum. In Hungary, as the country shifted from communism to democracy, Lesznyák noted how the values of society changed the focus of the national curriculum. Similarly, Bloch’s (2014) qualitative study in Canada noted that global influences and local political arenas affected curriculum policy and creation in Ontario from 1985-2008. Bloch underlines the notion that, as a result of the public’s loss of trust within Ontario’s education system, changes were made to represent the values and attitudes of Ontarians. Elsewhere in Canada, Broom (2015) explored the influence of power, politics, and democracy on curriculum redesign in British Columbia from 1920-2000. Broom presented the importance of ensuring democratic action during curriculum creation, both to perpetuate the process of democracy and to further include the values British Columbians felt would lead them through the 21st century.

Curriculum redesign truly is a global endeavor. Chapman’s (2011) case study explored the impact of politics on implementing environmental studies within New Zealand’s education curriculum. Chapman showed the disconnect between the values the residing political authority claimed to support and the lack of follow through on a campaign promise to prioritize environmental protection within their education reform. Unfortunately, as New Zealand’s economic concerns deepened, politicians refocused their attention to issues directly influencing the people, such as job creation and diversifying the economy. As a result, the priority of changing the curriculum was abandoned.

We strongly agree with those who believe the process of curriculum redesign should not be left solely in the hands of government. Jagersma and Parsons (2011) analyzed the potential of including student voice in creating and designing curriculum, where the intended learners also become part of the decision making process. This inclusive approach to curriculum design might be accomplished at a local level with individual teachers. Engineering instructors have created a tool for teachers to design and redesign curriculum based on student input through collaborative teams (Talon, Sagar, and Kolski, 2012). When teachers model effective leadership, collaboration, and communication, students will mimic this democratic process, ultimately preparing them to be responsible, active participants in our society (Parsons, McRae, & Taylor 2006).

A dynamic, tech-savvy and interconnected world requires curricula that attempt to keep up. Soulé and Warrick (2015) advocate that education must adapt to support global and economic changes. Partnership for 21st Century Learning (2010), an organization of educators, business leaders, and policy-makers, currently works to provide input on skills necessary for workforce and post-secondary readiness. Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and innovation are considered the competencies widely valued for future student success.

Furthermore, Bialystok (2004) recognizes the need for social justice education to promote empathy and engagement where students have voice and choice, reiterating the importance of active citizenship to encourage critical thinking and democratic values. Roland Barth’s research (2001) aligns with Bialystock and illustrates the positive impact on students who are invited to participate in democracy within schools, creating a nation of engaged citizens. As society strives to create an education system that empowers student leaders, entrusting our teachers to model these values through greater distributed leadership and ownership of professional development is a momentous step towards systemic change.


Developing Teachers and Teacher Leaders

Grassroots leadership and professional development intersect at a time when teachers are recognizing the abundance of existing skills within their own schools and districts. Creating a system of distributed leadership improves student learning (Parsons, McRae, & Taylor 2006). Distributed learning can happen outside of a classroom through indirect processes like instructional coaching, or inside the classroom in direct processes such as action research and project-based learning. As Barth (2001) asserts, recreating our nation’s schools to improve learning for all students starts with empowering teachers to take the lead.

Embedding leadership within the teaching body provides opportunities for those on the front lines to take control of their own professional growth. Such embedded leadership can take on many unique forms. Distributed leadership puts the directive for professional development firmly in the hands of teachers or, more accurately, students (Barth, 2001 & Parsons, McRae, & Taylor 2006). From outside the classroom, teachers can become instructional coaches or mentors who support colleagues’ efforts to strengthen student learning opportunities.

Inside the classroom, teachers can work in collaborative groups to affect student learning through processes like action research and project-based learning (Zuniga and Cooper, 2016). In action research, Aslan (2015) and Fandino (2010) suggest teachers need to craft purposeful research questions, apply those questions in a classroom setting, and evaluate their practice through individual and team reflection. The essential component of distributed leadership is empowering teachers to combine their collective skills, providing a meaningful learning environment for all students in the school.

Creating a school culture focused on student learning requires a commitment to continual growth. Leadership efforts must ensure that teachers learn howto think and teach in new ways (Thomas, 2004). Mangin and Dunsmore (2015) suggest that instructional leaders need training in adult learning and cognitive coaching skills. For purposeful professional development to occur, an awareness of teacher experience is necessary. New teachers often inherently embody the need to continually improve their practice, but veteran teachers may be more resistant to self-assess their practice and step outside their comfort zones to discover innovative ways of teaching (Brody & Hadar, 2015). Something as simple as physically redesigning learning spaces requires challenging educators to maximize students’ learning potentials within those environments (Neill and Etheridge, 2008). McMahon, Forde, and Dickson (2015) recognize that teachers advance at different rates based on their level of expertise and comfort with specific material and that systems must be in place to make transitions between teacher roles more fluid. Our experience as educators reiterates our findings that together we are better. Our students are the direct beneficiaries of our collaborative efforts.


Classroom Implications

Considerable attention to the design of learning spaces as well as the methods of instruction within them is crucial in creating success for 21st century learners. Scott-Webber (2012) indicates that designers and educators must understand the history of classroom design and how to properly construct effective spaces to facilitate active and meaningful 21st century learning. Scott-Weber asserts that successful forward motion will require support from leadership, changes to teaching practices, and partnerships between schools and designers to create and provide furniture and accessories to support learning in new environments.

Therefore, prior to consulting furniture catalogues and ordering new equipment, teachers must consider the purpose for redesigning the classroom space. Teaching and learning environments must reflect a shared vision between teachers and leaders, with a focus on student learning (Oblinger, 2005). Learning spaces influence how students think, feel and behave. Roskos and Neuman (2011) suggested that the process of designing a classroom should be intentional. Spaces within spaces should be created with purpose to allow for individualization, the use of educational technology, and collaboration. When a classroom is designed with learners in mind, there is a higher probability of student engagement.

Recent studies suggest that focusing on student engagement using collaborative learning strategies is effective. Clark (2015) saw positive results engaging students in high school math by adopting a flipped classroom model. His study examined the effects of making lectures available online for students to view outside of class time, then working during class to enrich, reinforce, and extend understanding. Clark found that flipping the classroom increased active participation of ninth grade learners. Rather than taking an entire class to get through a lesson, the teacher was able to use class time to engage learners in enrichment activities. Similarly, Maxwell, Lambeth and Cox (2015) studied the effects of inquiry-based learning on the engagement and achievement of fifth grade science students. Their study found that off-task behaviour dramatically decreased. The findings of both studies suggest that students exposed to collaborative instructional strategies are more engaged and show a higher degree of academic improvement than students restricted to traditional teaching methods.



The purpose of this study was to explore educational reform and its implications on policy makers, educational leaders, teachers, students and various community stakeholders. This study can provide context to educators, community members, and policy makers by outlining the need for progressive and democratic change. Our main purpose was to review current literature on education reform, better understand the components needed to successfully change an entire education system, and empower teachers and leaders to enact change.



Study participants (thirteen in total) included three vice principals, one district inclusion coordinator, five learning coaches, and four teachers. These participants ranged in specialization from elementary to post-secondary. The ages of the thirteen participants ranged from twenty-seven to fifty-three and their years of experience from five to twenty-eight years. Several participants fulfilled multiple roles in their school.



Using Google Forms, participants were given ten minutes and asked to individually respond to the following questions:

  1. 1.      What elements are required to enhance student learning in a 21st century environment?
  2. 2.      What values do you feel are essential to the future of education, for teachers, students, leaders and society?
  3. How should we set up schools and school systems to meet these values?

After participants individually answered these three questions in an online format, they were then engaged in a focus group discussion of these same questions for 15 minutes. This conversation was video-taped and transcribed. Following the discussion, participants were given five minutes and asked to reflect on the discussion in the Post-Discussion Thoughts section of the Google Form.


Analysis of Data

Data generated from these two forms of data collection were analyzed by individually examining the survey results highlighting recurring themes. We collectively organized these themes. Analysis of this data generated five themes: (1) collaboration, (2) curriculum redesign, (3) diversity and inclusion, (4) grassroots leadership, and (5) educating the whole child. These themes are explicated below.


Theme 1: Collaboration

The importance of teacher collaboration was noted in the initial survey, in the focus group, and in the post-discussion feedback. Modifying the design of schools and classrooms to promote collaboration, a team approach to teaching, and creating time to collaborate were elements teachers described as requirements to enhance student learning. It was indicated the importance of developing a “community approach”, with all stakeholders working together to transform the education system. To create a system where collaboration is valued, one participant noted schools need to be set up so that “governments, school boards, administrators, teachers and the community work together” to find ways to create collective responsibility. During the roundtable discussion teachers agreed physical spaces need to be redesigned to properly facilitate a collaborative culture. Participants highlighted the need to create a “culture of trust and respect.” Participants also believed timetables, bell schedules, physical spaces, teachers, and leaders need to change to create an open, flexible and collaborative space, which “ultimately focuses on the needs of students.”


Theme 2: Curriculum Redesign

Participants responded that curriculum content and development must represent 21st century elements and values. Participants described a need for curriculum that prioritizes the process and skills of learning, rather than content knowledge. Critical thinking, technological literacy, diversity and inclusion, active participation, and a collaborative approach to learning were recognized as major values necessary for developing curriculum representing 21st century learning. Furthermore, focus group data indicated a need to ensure the development of curriculum incorporates students’, parents’, teachers’ and community stakeholders’ voices in determining curriculum content and direction. Last, participants indicated a desire to influence and develop curriculum at a “grassroots” level to promote real-life 21st century learning opportunities.


Theme 3: Diversity and Inclusion

Ensuring all students are valued and included emerged as a priority from the survey, focus group, and post-discussion forum. Participants suggested that diversity among students should be celebrated. To do this, one teacher believed schools must have “ethical leaders who respect diversity...model [this practice] and have the expectation that it is carried out by everyone”. Participants’ responses indicated a shift in mindset is required; as one participant stated, “diverse students have always existed and they always will...schools need to change shape physically and ideologically to accommodate all kids”. One participant highlighted the need for “a system that meets the needs of all learners and [relies on] researched approaches to help obtain these goals”. Participants recognized that student success is as diverse as the population of learners themselves, and it will be critical for Alberta to design an education system embracing this reality.


Theme 4: Grassroots Leadership

Participants focused on a need for innovative leadership practices to improve school structures and systems. Several participants mentioned grassroots leadership where decision-making rested in the hands of teachers, who advocated for the needs of students. The importance of ethical leadership practices should model a culture of respect for diversity. The context of a school should be the foundation of decision-making, not division initiatives. One participant suggested partnerships between schools would achieve the desired values “by sharing resources, expertise and ideas horizontally between schools.” Creating an environment centred on meeting the needs of all learners was a key point from the data. Distributing leadership at a local level was proposed to create an innovative infrastructure, allowing individual schools the flexibility to create time and space for collaboration.


Theme 5: Educating the Whole Child

Our research data showed a recurring theme of providing safe and caring schools with a focus on mental-health. This topic was not present in the initial questionnaire, and its prevalence in discussions was unexpected. Several teachers participating in the focus group noted that, within curriculum redesign, student health and wellness must be a priority. During conversations, teachers recognized the need to ensure whole child education to develop a culture of respect, understanding, inclusion and an appreciation for the diversity in our world. One respondent highlighted social and emotional awareness as an underdeveloped aspect of the current curriculum. As a result, during the post-discussion section of the survey, many participants agreed that focusing on mental health and wellness should be included in any discussion on education reform.



A great deal of research has been conducted in the area of educational reform. Many countries going through ideological changes have already demonstrated a shift of pedagogical values concurrent with the introduction of new societal values. New teaching practices have emerged from what the global community perceives as a necessary evolution from rote memorization of knowledge, and the belief that a teacher should be the keeper of that knowledge, to a learner-centred approach highlighting critical-thinking skills and student adaptability. We agree with the need for this change.

As educators in Alberta, we believe more comprehensive reform is needed to reflect new societal values. Alberta has begun the process of curriculum redesign to align with public perception; but, until more evidence-informed curriculum becomes a reality, educators are left to piece together different parts of what they believe is the overall direction of education reform. Despite a large body of research, the ideas presented need to be applied in a cohesive way to transform Alberta’s education system. We believe student learning will only flourish when all stakeholders work inter-connectedly on the implementation of education reform.

The findings of our small research study reaffirmed our conclusion that educators recognize change is imminent. Furthermore, educators collectively believe we have a responsibility to restructure Alberta’s education system to benefit student learning. The major themes that emerged in our research echoed the findings of our literature review, with a few surprises. Participants agreed enhanced collaboration, celebration of diversity, curriculum redesign, and the need for innovative teaching and leadership practices are important for lasting education reform. However, the focus on mental health and wellness that materialized as a theme during the discussion was an addition to past research. Our research found that teachers agree that educating for the wellness of the whole child must be a priority. Education reform is an opportunity to create authentic learning for students, a perspective strengthened by our data.

As educational professionals, we believe Alberta’s citizens are looking for a change in education that reflects the values of a global community of learners. Furthermore, we believe education systems need to be reshaped to focus on the skills necessary for students to be successful in a 21st century environment. Teachers and leaders need to recognize that old practices are inadequate to implement a new curriculum focused on student engagement in varied learning spaces. Teacher education and leadership require educators to create cultures and programs that generate relevant student learning which mirrors our current societal values. Professional development must adapt to the rapid development of new knowledge and ways of knowing, facilitated by technological advancements and globalization. Teachers have advanced past the time of waiting for education to happen to them and are ready to take ownership of the evolutionary process itself.



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Key Words

Education, reform, 21st century learning, curriculum, leadership, redesign