Shifting Views; 21st Century Schools

Gordon Brown, former Chairman of the MIT Faculty and Dean of the their School of Engineering once made the claim that ‘To be a teacher you must be a prophet – because you are trying to prepare people for a world thirty to fifty years into the future.’

As we close out another election season and begin a new cycles of educational policy discussions and budgets, we must be mindful of Brown’s claim and ask ourselves this critical question: How do our current decisions best prepare students for the world in which they will live? Locally and nationally school transformation discussions center on creating 21st Century teaching and learning environments; preparing our students to be college and career ready; and how the adoption of the Common Core State Standards will require shifts in classroom instruction and the measurement of student understanding more through competency assessments.

In Thomas Friedman’s book, That Used To Be Us’: What Went Wrong with America – and How It Can Come Back, he identified America’s “Five Pillars”, one being education, that have allowed the country to grow and prosper these past 200 years. Friedman wrote that we have always “educated our people up to and beyond whatever the level of technology is, but with the hyper movement of technology advancements, we haven’t kept up as a nation.” Schools, even more so, have struggled to keep up with advancements in the flexibilities technology can offer due to the competing factors of budgets and standardized testing that define transformation and agendas.

To parlay Friedman’s claim that our educational options haven’t kept up with levels of advancing technology with Brown’s thoughts on preparing today’s students for a future more than 30 years out, we need to be asking another critical question: To what extent do we want to provide 21st Century teaching and learning environments in our schools; and by not acting sooner rather than later, how are we doing a disservice to current students who will be living in a world 15 to 30 years out?

The questions can begin to be addressed by attempting to reframe our thinking about schools and schooling beyond the traditional reasoning that is based on our own experiences. Our notion of literacy for instance is based on time-honored conventions for teaching reading and writing, along with how a student’s ability to functionally read and write is measured. Many of those measures are reliable, but are they enough when we consider the following two factors:

  • Students are coming to school currently with a much different and expanded skill set that doesn’t necessarily connect with the traditional modes for teaching reading and writing. It doesn’t mean the traditional modes should or need to be marginalized, but they must be more personalized.
  • There are multiple surveys indicating that both colleges and industry do not feel students are leaving high schools with college and career ready skills. Certainly technology and the speed with which work and educational landscapes are changing keep moving the expectation calculations of a high school graduate.

Perhaps futurist Alvin Toffler provided a more contemporary dimension to the additional elements for measuring literacy that we should consider as part of a 21st Century teaching and learning environment. It is as much about one’s attitude toward learning and understanding that learning is a lifelong effort. Toffler maintained that, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who are unable to learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Toffler foresaw an issue that is well supported by data today- People will need to be able to change and relearn skills in workplaces that will change several times over during a career, schools included. Listening, communication, collaborative learning, critical thinking, and systems thinking skills need to be included in the 21st century definition of literacy. Those skills are core to creating an environment where learning, unlearning, and relearning is the norm. This is not a paradigm typical to school cultures in our current environment. Neither is it one that most of us grew up with or experienced in our own formal education.

With the role technology plays in making the flow of new information available to us a constant, the notion of literacy has a much broader application than just word recognition and meaning in a limited context. We need to be able to apply meaning to a word in a greater world context. According to Peter Kline of Stanford University, “…only 17% of people in the United States have that level of reading skill. The other 83% must catch up or be left out.”  This currently plays out in a job market with thousands of unfilled positions that lack qualified candidates…or perhaps, as Toffler suggested, not enough candidates with the ability or available pathway to “unlearn and relearn.”

In their most recent book, Disrupting Class, authors Clayton Christianson, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson, make several claims that we must consider as we discuss our schools and the need to support transformation to a 21st Century environment. They note that:

  • Despite the rapidly changing technology available to schools, much of it is still being utilized in traditional ways, with too much time spent on whole class instruction rather than using the technology to create student centric(centered) classrooms.

Schools face several challenges in their transformation in this regard, and most notably, it isn’t solely a lack of or access to technology in our classrooms. It is also moving to the use of competencies to assess student understanding not only at the high school, but on a K-12 basis as well. The current competency debate takes on many forms; and is often situated in the traditional realm of assessment that today’s adult decision makers experienced. However, the norms for determining student achievement and instructional effectiveness though traditional assessments, such as standardized tests, fall short for authentically assessing 21st Century skills or skill sets that colleges and industry claim students need to have before leaving high school. The competency debate can’t be dichotomized into an either-or discussion that values a particular type of assessment over another. In a personalized, student centered classroom, a range of assessment options need to exist.

  • By 2018, 50 percent of high school seats will be taken in some form of online delivery; by 2024 up to 80 percent of high school courses will be taken through multiple forms of technology

It is critical that schools create equity of opportunity that all students can access with a rich choice of pathways and options. Unfortunately, because schools are not keeping up with technological advances, private online options are defining choices made by local schools. Those choices tend to offer to less desirable range of options; often producing poor results  at a coast that can burden budgets. If the metrics for the numbers of online seats that Disrupting Class claims, it is important to note that choices to blend technology options with current curriculum and instruction in brick and mortar schools don’t need to be costly. In fact, schools approaching transformation to blended environments are often able to save or redirect funding while in the midst creating 21st century teaching and learning options that are homegrown, personalized, and create additional learning paradigms.  As schools and communities plan and do future visioning, it is critical that they know their current options and maintain a flexibility to evolve in a world with constantly changing technology.


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  2. […] their own experience.  To paraphrase Gordon Brown, former Chairman of the MIT Faculty cited in a previous post, to be a teacher and a parent you must be a prophet- because we are trying to prepare people for a […]

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