Monday, July 27, 2009

Education Focused on Today, not Tomorrow

Daniel Bigler is my guest blogger today. Daniel's blog can be found at

I don't think ever before in our history as America have we rested so much or asked for so much from a single system. It's as if education, if only we could unravel its mysteries and at last get it right, will solve all of the problems of the future, problems whose prospects so horrify us today. We hold education high, with great expectations, and perhaps rightly so – its impact can be great, it's potential unlimited. Education can dramatically change what Tomorrow looks like. But with such promise comes a hefty burden – an encumbrance that comes in the form of the diligent many, with all their priorities to emphasize, proposals to make, suggestions to offer for education.
Alfie Kohn recently made a "simple proposal": of his own for crafting an Education that truly addresses our future as a society:
"Many school administrators, and even more people who aren’t educators but are kind enough to offer their advice about how our field can be improved, have emphasized the need for “21st-century schools” that teach “21st-century skills.” But is this really enough, particularly now that our adversaries (in other words, people who live in other countries) may be thinking along the same lines? Unfortunately, no. Beginning immediately, therefore, we must begin to implement 22nd-century education.

What does that phrase mean?  How can we possibly know what skills will be needed so far in the future?  Such challenges from skeptics – the same kind of people who ask annoying questions about other cutting-edge ideas, including “brain-based education” – are to be expected.  But if we’re confident enough to describe what education should be like throughout the 21st century – that is, what will be needed over the next 90 years or so – it’s not much of a stretch to reach a few decades beyond that."

Kohn jests, delightfully poking fun at much of the hyperbole surrounding the promise of education. But I'm afraid he's far too right in his underlying sentiment: In facing the future, I'm afraid we've become obsessed with fixes. With proposals. With plans.
There are too many – especially those wonderful civil servants making the decisions, in the upper-echelons of the American public education system who feel that it's their job to fix things and come up with all the answers. George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative might have left our system wounded and our schools overwhelmed, but now the promises of a new start – a new beginning, with exactly what's needed to fix the system – are commonplace. We need more funding, more accountability, more planning. These are the solutions to fulfill the unfunded mandate of NCLB and rechristen education as the means for a golden future.
But in reality, these offer only limited hope because they still fail to address the real problem.
To discover the problem – and find the answer to it – I think we have to fundamentally reconsider the philosophy of the entire education system. What is the role of education in society and how has it changed throughout time? Why is it that our classrooms today remain fundamentally unchanged from the classrooms of the early 1900s
It's easy to forget the roots of the educational system we know today – roots that began in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was then that we saw American public education emerge as a systematic movement, predominantly out of an industrial age mindset to accommodate what were largely and exclusively economic purposes. At the time there was a fairly linear, predictable path of economic progression allowing us to reasonably, though not completely judge what the future workforce would need to be like to accommodate it. And we assumed we knew how to engineer a given set of educational experiences to fill the social "deficits" of children, to get them "ready" for this unforeseen future. Education was then – as best articulated by the sociologist Émile Durkheim, whose writings were popular at the time – a way to maintain social order and cohesion, allowing society to control its own evolutionary trajectory and continually improve upon itself.
But the world has changed, and changes still. Of that simple fact there is no doubt. I could argue that the world has always been in flux, never as fully within our control as we expect, and thus education – at least in the Durkheimian sense – has always been on some deeper level inherently flawed.
Yet today, despite the radically accelerating technological and global change happening breathlessly all around us, the sheer unpredictability of the future, and an ever-flattening globalized economy with impacts we can't imagine, we remain more intent than ever on using education to fix tomorrow.
Author and teacher Ken Robinson quietly articulated this in his 2006 speech at the TED conference. "It's Education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue ... what the world will look like in five years time and yet we're meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary."
If we know anything about the future, it's that we can't truly know it or predict it. And who are we to say that we can craft a "21st Century Education" to match this that we do not know?
 Robinson went on in his speech to make a compelling argument for the need for education to emphasize children's unique and extraordinary capacities for innovation and creativity – capacities he sees schools today as having done a remarkable job at squandering. Robinson believes, and rightly so I think, that "Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."
Take away the expectations, the assumptions about the skill sets and knowledge children will need to be "ready" in for the future, the drive for a competitive edge in an unseen economy and we will be left simply with the children right in front of us and their natural creative capacity. Children, as we discover, are born with an insatiable spirit of inquiry and curiosity. The children in our classrooms now have an enormous ability for creative thinking, a keen willingness to make mistakes and to learn. It's only in our misguided efforts to ready kids and fill them with answers for tomorrow that they lose all these things.
What's truly ironic is that it is this creativity, this willingness to make mistakes that is at the heart of real economic innovation. We've educated it out of kids to satisfy the needs of the economy and society, but if it weren't for the outliers who escaped education's impact, we wouldn't have an economy or society today. We need to recognize this and choose to honor and respect children for their innate creative abilities by working with them to help develop these abilities. We need to let them ask questions, and spend our classroom time allowing them to explore their inquiries and think critically about every day problems and ideas they might be interested in. We need to build supportive communities around them, where children truly feel empowered to learn – where they truly feel they are valued as individuals and members of the community. We need to allow the world of the classroom to be oriented to their needs, and not some standard of the future.
Literacy and knowledge-building alone, implemented out of a desire to fill future deficits, will not prepare our children. To pay homage to John Dewey, education needs to align with the needs of each individual child – trusting in that child to serve as the system's center of gravity. Education needs to comes from those students in the classroom, rather than being systematically imposed on them from outside. We need a system oriented in the present instead of the future, an education that strengthens and upholds the creativity and curiosity children have today.
We need to pull education out of the future and put it back in the present. It's this philosophical shift, and this only, that will make the difference. A "21st Century Education" will always and continually fail, as long as it looks forward toward tomorrow. Only in meeting kids where they're at now and letting them explore the present can we help them truly develop the creative skills, love of learning, and spirit of innovation they'll need for the future.
That's my proposal for 21st Century Education.

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