So what if schools don’t prepare kids for the 21st century?
I’m going to do something I’ve never done before as a blogger: resurrect an old post. Over the past few months I’ve read all or some of Innovation Nation, Five Regions of the Future, Sixteen Trends, and The 2010 Meltdown. I then decided it was time to finally read Teaching as a Subversive Activity and The End of Education. So I started on the former and then today I picked up the latest issue of Educational Leadership, which is focused on reshaping high schools. As the echoes of K-12 naysayers reverberated through my head, I found myself asking once again:
So what if schools don’t adjust to the demands of the digital, global economy? So what if schools don’t prepare kids for the 21st century?
As McLuhan stated, school may be irrelevant. As Wiener noted, schools may shield children from reality. As Gardner said, schools may educate for obsolescence. As Bruner stated, schools may not develop intelligence. As Rogers noted, schools may not promote significant learnings. As Friedenberg said, schools may punish creativity and independence [all closely quoted from Postman & Weingartner, 1968, p. xiv). And yet the economy chugs along, sometimes up, sometimes down, but mostly up. And the overall well-being of most citizens continues to improve by most historical measures.
So, without further ado, below is my post from March 2007, which I’m hoping will spark some additional conversation 14 months later, particularly now that both the TechLearning blog and Dangerously Irrelevant have larger audiences. I hope you find the post to still be as challenging and relevant today as I do.
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Overblown alarmism and empty rhetoric
[Law students learn to argue both sides of any issue because as attorneys they may be hired for either side of a case. Knowledge of the other side’s arguments also allows attorneys to counter those arguments and thus strengthen their own side. So with that in mind, here’s a little contrarian perspective on School 2.0. As technology advocates, we must be able to offer real solutions, not just empty rhetoric.]
Dear School 2.0 advocates,
We’ve heard it all before. The sky is falling. America is in danger of losing its role as lead actor on the global stage. What else is new?
National commissions? Esteemed task forces? Corporate leaders as education critics? We’ll see your Bill Gates and raise you a Sputnik.
We heard it in the 1950s:
We are engaged in a grim duel. We are beginning to recognize the threat to American technical supremacy which could materialize if Russia succeeds in her ambitious program of achieving world scientific and engineering supremacy by turning out vast numbers of well-trained scientists and engineers. . . We have let our educational problem grow much too big for comfort and safety. We are beginning to see now that we must solve it without delay. – Admiral Hyman Rickover, 1959
We heard it in the 1980s:
The risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently than Americans and have government subsidies for development and export. It is not just that the South Koreans recently built the world’s most efficient steel mill, or that American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being displaced by German products. It is also that these developments signify a redistribution of trained capability throughout the globe. . . If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all–old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the "information age" we are entering. – A Nation at Risk, 1983
We heard it in the 1990s:
America’s education system is broken. – IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, 1994
And we’re hearing it again today:
Whereas for most of the 20th century the United States could take pride in having the best-educated workforce in the world, that is no longer true. Over the past 30 years, one country after another has surpassed us. . . . While our international counterparts are increasingly getting more education, their young people are getting a better education as well. . . . Our relative position in the world’s education league tables [continues] its long slow decline. – The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, 2006
America’s high schools are obsolete. – Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, 2005
And yet, somehow, despite our educational system’s long history of alleged mediocrity, our country and our economy keep chugging along quite nicely. Our standard of living is the envy of most of the world. Our gross domestic product per capita literally dwarfs those of China or India, the latest international competition du jour. Despite our country’s creativity-stifling schools, our citizens and workers continue, quite astonishingly, to build upon our nation’s well recognized and long-standing traditions of innovation and excellence to create new products, new systems, and new markets.
We’ve heard it all before. Creative thinking. Problem solving. Independent, self-directed learning. Daniel Pink, Richard Florida, John Seely Brown…
Ho hum. Ever heard of progressive education? The turn of the LAST century? Summerhill? John Dewey? Neil Postman? The 1960s? Been there, done that. Why is THIS time any different? Why is it that THIS time we should replace the entire system?
Yes, we get it. Most kids think schools are boring. Big surprise. John Goodlad told us that long ago. As if we needed ANYONE to tell us that. Isn’t that just the way school is?
Fine. School 2.0 is the “right” thing to do. Technology has the potential to transform education. Our educational institutions could be doing so much more. Educators should feel more of a moral imperative to do things differently. Blah blah blah… Let’s be honest: isn’t this true for ANY bureaucratic government entity? Do we really expect our public schools to be any different?
We’ve heard it all before. The status quo is inadequate. Too many kids drop out, our assessment systems are all wrong, and we’re squandering our children’s future. The problem is that you offer no concrete, tangible, publicly- and politically-viable alternatives.
It’s easy to throw stones at glass houses. It’s much harder to replace a venerable system that’s served us well for a century with something else. The old saw, “Never make a complaint without offering potential solutions” applies here in spades. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say that we “tore down the walls” tomorrow. What would education look like instead? How would we ever get there from where we are now? How are you going to persuade educators, and politicians, and your local community members that this is worth moving toward? That it’s not just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking?
What’s your plan? We mean a real plan. Not just “kids learning independently on matters of personal interest, taking advantage of the power of digital technology to help them do so.” What will the structures look like? Policies? Laws? Funding streams? How will we know if kids have learned anything important? How will we handle parents’ very real needs for someone to take their kids while they go to work?
Quit offering us wishes. Quit offering us dreams. Quit preaching to us about what is morally right and educationally appropriate. Help us realize, in terms we can understand, what this new thing might actually look like AT SCALE and how we might reasonably get here. Even if we agree with you that this is important, without a vision AND a plan we’re just as stuck as you are.
We’ve heard it all before. What else you got?