So what if schools don’t prepare kids for the 21st century?

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

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.

– – – – –

Overblown alarmism and empty rhetoric

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

[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?

19 Responses to “So what if schools don’t prepare kids for the 21st century?”

  1. Scott,
    Powerful thoughts! The most annoying self-diagnosing that a tech person can get is that “nothing works!” We can’t fix “nothing works!” We have to be more specific in our diagnoses of what the problem is and how to solve it.

    As you point out, every decade has its share of people screaming “nothing works!”

    I heard someone talk last week about all of the “drive by shootings” we get in education. The self-proclaimed experts that come to your district for a day (or more) and charge a ridiculous fee for their services. Get everyone thinking and buzzing about new ideas and new jargon. And then their gone… and nothing significant happens as a result of their visit.

    The only change that is going to be meaningful, is change that occurs one district, no …, one teacher at a time. One project that takes a classroom teacher, with a task they have to perform on a regular basis (curriculum embedded) and matches that with available, accessible technology (technology embedded) and puts in a context that is meaningful to the students they are teaching (community embedded) is a meaningful change!

  2. Dave, thanks for the thoughtful note. I don’t know if I’m a ‘self-proclaimed expert,’ but I’m often asked by districts to do the one-shot, ‘sit and get’ session. Sometimes it gets people moving, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the culture of the organization and how inspiring / thought-provoking / helpful I was on that particular day. I do know that I prefer longer, ongoing, interactive relationships with schools, which I get to do sometimes (depends on the vision of the leaders).

    A thought for you: Is incremental, evolutionary change (‘one teacher at a time’) sufficient in an exponential, revolutionary time?

  3. Postman saved me when I was about half way done with a big glass of ed-tech kool-aid. The End of Education and Technopoly should be required reading. Many of Postman’s ideas still ring true today. Just because it is new doesn’t mean its better, and in order for education to be successful the motivations must be clear. Either of those thoughts could be posted after each pendulum swing you have described above.

    That said, I think the majority of us are looking at the structure and the curriculum to see where changes could be made, but the process of making those changes is laborious and extremely frustrating. (ex. try moving a novel from 11th to 9th and see what happens to the English dept.)

    I don’t know if we will see major curricular changes in my time, (I have 25-30 yrs left) but we will see structural changes. While in Pittsburgh this past weekend I heard no less than 3 radio ads for different cyber charter schools. Are those schools revolutionary in curriculum and pedagogy? No, the are simply a different delivery of the standard American curriculum.

    I think the next decade will be similar to this one. If it involves computers it will be championed by most as “21st Century!” In the end the kids will still graduate, go get a job, and have to forget everything they know in order to assimilate whatever structure/operation their employer requires.

    That is why Postman offered values and rhetoric as the core content areas to focus on.

  4. Scott – I thank you for bringing this up again as this is really “it”; the real heart of the matter.

    As to schools plodding along and the United States being OK in terms of economic development, I think we will continue to be mediocre without change.

    But, I am hugely concerned that, sometime soon, a convergence of external forces will eventually cause us to destroy and reconstruct the system – especially if we just keep on “playing school” while we are, in reality, asleep at the wheel.

    The outside world has been dissatisfied with the skills of children since schools started, but as society is polarizing towards haves and have-nots, the strain is increasing. Please do not mistake this as a plea for 21st Century Skills – which amount to nothing more than “the same skills we should have been focusing on 50 years ago”. It is just that I believe dissatisfaction is growing.

    School is boring. It was when I was in school, it is today. But, is it possible that that the mean age at which school becomes boring is lower today than it was? This is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

    My general sense is that it used to be tolerated that schools did a mediocre job at preparing kids as a whole. Some did well, some did poorly, but it was OK. I think that tolerance is waning at the same time society is becoming more demandingm, at the same time we are seeing students with significantly higher needs.

    Throw all of this into the mix with competition, technology-enabled virtual learning opportunities, abysmal school systems in areas of high poverty (I am not blaming the schools, it is a system issue), and strained funding systems, and I think you get a call for overhaul instead of a tweak. We’ve had a 100 years of tweak which has amounted to very little.

    So, specifically what is it going to take? It will take a pressure so great that it cracks the shell of resistance to change. After that happens, it is anybody’s guess as to what that means for schools.

    We have to examine what we teach as our “what” is a million miles wide, and really a lot of it doesn’t matter. We teach a hidden curriculum as well – and that matters, but so often we don’t acknowledge or operationalize it (kindergarten teachers do).

    Essentially flipping the notion of teaching over learning on it’s ear will probably lead us to abandon, to some extent, time and place. Kids today are into a schedule of exposure to what we teach, when we want to teach it, and where we want to provide it. All because we focus on teaching.

    But, your final points ring too true for much hope. Changing the system is too big of a task.

  5. I just finished reading this issue of Educational Leadership and, being fairly new to education and especially new to the leadership side, I am thankful to Scott for posting his thoughts.

    Even during my short stint in education (6 years in the classroom and a year in my current position as Instructional Technology Specialist), I see the pattern of “this is what’s wrong” and even some of “this is how everything will be fixed” without real viable solutions, but the bottom line is exactly what Scott says “…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.” In other words, life goes on.

    I don’t feel, and don’t think Scott intends this either, that means we just sit back and let things be what they will be, but I do feel it’s exaclty what Dave points out in his response when he says “the only change that is going to be meaningful, is change that occurs one district, no …, one teacher at a time.” We inform and instruct teachers and administrators (and not in “drive-by” professional development) and become part of the solution.

    I can honestly say, as an educator who is still young in the field, it is so helpful to me to have information at my finger-tips to help give me “the big picture.” I believe information, the right kind of course, is a part of that solution.

  6. Scott:

    What a great post! Very thought provoking and timely for me, since we are just putting the final touches on a district project that will attempt to “transform” 8-10 of our K-8 classrooms into 21st Century Learning Environments. Our goal is to create curriculum focused, technology rich, project based classrooms that are both rigorous and relevant.

    I don’t think I have all of the answers as a district administrator. We are hoping that the teachers and students in our small project can help us better understand the dynamics of this type of change and how it could scale up to a school or even a district.

    We are planning a full assessment piece to the project, so hopefully we can get some good documentation. Whether our findings support change or not, we should know more when we are done.

    Again, your post is great and I plan to use it with my staff as a discussion article!

  7. What makes everyone so sure that the system can’t be changed, that the status quo is beyond repair, that school is boring– so take your medicine, that every generation has to be told their schools suck (by people, I might add, who have never worked a day inside them) and that we lack the ingenuity, and moral conviction and imagination to fix them? Who are you all listening to? What are you reading?

    You want a new model? Try this one:

    We are a K-8 school of 1000 students. 90% of our students are children of color, 75% qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch, 60% are learning English as a second language, and we have a 20% mobility rate. Yet we have never missed a single one of NCLB’s contrived goals and we have gained over 230 points on California’ Academic Performance Index. We are closing the achievement gap. We are keeping our kids healthy and alive. They are challenged and valued and they love coming to school as evidenced by the fact that we rank consistently among the top three schools in our district (of 45 schools) in daily attendance. How? Here are 10 reasons:

    1. We are driven by a belief in the capacity of our students to excel, 2. Our organizational mission far exceeds any politician’s prescription for what schools should be doing. 3. We have no teachers’ union. 4. We are fiscally independent… we have our own budget…apx $7.5 million dollars 5. We are our own Board and utilize every penny of our budget to get results 6. We have created extraordinarily efficient systems 7. We invest mightily in our teachers…(and by the way… we scrapped the old union designed evaluation system and replaced it with a value added model that promotes intrinsic motivation while it nurtures instructional expertise.) 8. We integrate technology in how we monitor our at risk students, collect and analyze data, differentiate instruction, provide English language enrichment, bring the world into our classrooms, offer tools to otherwise low income children 9. We are experts in using formative assessments and even better at using data to make on-going adjustments… 10 And we change CONSTANTLY. No stone goes unturned. We might be America’s most agile public school… we will spot a gap, create a solution, then turn on a dime.

    Enough alternative solutions? There are dozens more.

    We are Mueller Charter School and we call ourselves “El Milagro”…the miracle.

  8. Scott, we’ve heard it all before because that’s all we know. I seriously wonder if we have the guts of change on a large-scale meaningful level. We simply don’t have the collective impetus. So far on a national and state level, it’s better education by legislation. Maybe I’m a little out of sorts after a legislative debrief today… Schools as Worker Incubators and Education Reform

  9. Schools can change. It takes vision, leadership, and a tremendous amount of collective will on the part of the faculty. I agree that public education has a few more bureaucratic elements to worry about. Reforming secondary schools will take a total rethinking of what we do from calendar, scheduling, and grading all the way through pedagogy. Best practice, research on learning, and brain theory all need to be accepted and acted upon. We are paper and penciling kids to death with irrelevant non engaging curriculum.

  10. I think that evolutionary, one-teacher-at-a-time change is too slow. I agree with Joel – expectations and external forces are converging on us very quickly.

    What I see is that there are “pockets of excellence” – sometimes one classroom, sometimes entire schools or districts – that are doing amazing things!

    The thing is, that excellence is based on the personal strength, creativity and persistence of the individuals involved. The excellence happens “in spite of” the system – not “because of” the system!

    My experience is that educators are absolutely passionate about kids – about helping them achieve and grow and learn. But then “the system” gets in their way, creates frustration and generally makes it hard to be that passionate. So teachers give up – because “THE SYSTEM IS BIGGER THAN I AM” and I can’t keep fighting it!

    So I think the transformation we have to look at is not so much about how we implement technology integration, or whether we use constructivist or constructionist or project based learning, etc…

    The transformation we need to implement is about what we can learn from those “pockets of excellence” – what structures can we systemize to support that kind of innovation?

    What kind of systemic changes can be made in order to make it EASY TO BE GREAT and HARD TO STAY THE SAME?

    How do we support a system that is STANDARDIZED ENOUGH to provide a consistency of education but FLEXIBLE ENOUGH to support individual strengths, abilities, passions and needs?

    No small tasks – I know. But if we’re going to talk about really big changes, I think we have to focus more on supporting people and less on telling them what to do.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  11. I think we may be hearing again what we have heard before because we are asking ourselves the wrong questions or at least collectively making and perceiving these statements from the wrong view. Perhaps school is not something that should change, at least not in fundamental ways. Perhaps school ought to stay as it is and as it has been. Perhaps the change we seek lies somewhere else beyond the walls of our schools.

    I have quite a few tools in my garage. Off the top of my head I count ten different types of tools for cutting wood alone: the hand saw, the coping saw, skill saw, router, dremil tool, table saw, jig saw, radial arm saw, miter saw, and sawsawl. Now, I am sure in the history of these kinds of tools the hand saw must have come first. It is clunky and doesn’t do most of the wood cutting jobs nearly as efficiently as some of the more advanced tools. It would drive me nuts if I only had the hand saw for all of the many different projects I have that I need a tool that cuts wood. However, there are times when it is exactly the best solution, when none of the other tools will do. As the technologies behind these tools became more advanced the saw did not change, there were just more saws to choose from. Thus the reason I have at least ten different types of tools for cutting wood in my garage.

    Maybe school is a saw. Perhaps the status quo exists in our school systems because change is not possible within the system. Perhaps we need new systems, not to replace the school but rather to do for us what it can’t do. I think we have many of these other systems already, we just have to identify them and give credibility to their status as important educational tools. Maybe in time school will spend most of its time on the shelf in a students educational garage but will still be needed for those learning tasks the other tools are not good at. Lets take a serious look at what schools are supposed to do and see if there is a more efficient and effective way of achieving those results with other means. What remains is what schools will be used for.

    Every instance I have heard or seen of a school changing drastically toward a 21st Century learning model or even a progressive model, it has been because the school was restructured into something else. We got rid of this, we did away with that, we put teachers into private practice, we opened a new school and built it from scratch, etc. etc. etc. In other words, they built new tools. They did not change school, they created something else. A different tool for educating people.

  12. Change.
    No… bigger than that…. REVOLUTIONARY change.
    No… bigger than even triggering a revolution…

    TRANSCENDENT change. Yes.

    Transcendent change happens when you go so far beyond rearranging the deck chairs that you are messing with the very spiritual core of an organization. When teachers and aides and parents and custodians and the UPS guy all know with certainty that they are in an extraordinary place. I’m telling you… it happens. I am a witness.

  13. So what if schools don’t prepare kids for the 21st century? I’d ask look at the kids we didn’t prepare for the 20th centaury; because as is clear education has been irrelevant for some time yet the economy has chugged on?
    Because, here’s ‘the rub’, the previous faulted education system actually served the previous economic model, the difference is the economic model is changing and in the 21st century if we fail to prepare the students then we will fail to maximize prosperity.
    Schools didn’t add value they culled and demarcated abilities so as to direct us to our position of greatest efficiency in the factory of life. Those that didn’t succeed in school went to create a sea of low/semi-skilled workers that assisted in keeping the price of labor efficient.
    ‘Flat World’ – labor outsourced to computers or a new, cheaper and bigger sea of low/semiskilled/university graduated/speaking 3 languages workers else where in the world. Heard it all before sure – I guess Scott’s devil’s advocacy is challenging us to put some skin on the bones?
    I don’t believe in revolution they are often over romanticised and socially costly. I believe schools will evolve (and continue to evolve if they have already started) by changing what and how they assess. The more we assess and value a constructivist approach to learning then it is more likely it is to happen.
    Change may not happen quickly enough for some but it is the only way that will allow what are large institutions to support the shift in pedagogy necessary, the redesign of school space and time issues and the return of the student to the centre of everything.
    Many schools around the world are already engaging in this shift; and nothing changes a school more than getting it in the paper work, report cycle and policy documentation. ‘Heads of department should be able to articulate a vision of AFL both within their subject and at a meta-cognitive level and provide evidence of the practice in the annual report’.

    We can only initiate change to the extent of our influence. New teachers may feel limited by conservative heads of department or year. Those of us who have ascended the sandwich of promotion know there is no top slice to be had – there is always someone pushing down challenging progress. We must all be the best ‘advocates’ we can be with a 360 degree view to the solution.

    Scott’s statement is a classically adversarial and indicative of the backlash we all face, while it is a good thought experiment in practice we need to become less adversarial, as at best we get a settlement. Rather than pursue conflict resolution we need to exploit the dynamic tension to generate a collaborative solution.

    The old education model was good for the old economic model; it was never based on what was good for learning. At the most basic level of brain science (as Charlie mutes above) we should be shifting pedagogy and engaging with changing student sensibilities, using technologies to prepare them for an uncertain future.

    If however scare mongering is needed to motivate the more entrenched the worse case scenario could be – Economics will chug on, so will blind consumerism, obesity, debt, and the abuse of resources (including human). In an age where we have increasing amounts of information and decreasing abilities to deconstruct and synthesis the messages, we will be attracted to extremism and more likely to respond violently as the population becomes more disenfranchised.

    Either way we have got to get on with it – use assessment, administration process, be tactical and above all be an advocate for change, influence positively where you can.

  14. I don’t think that we are failing all kids. I think we are probably better serving more kids than we every have. The difference lies in that our students are no longer ensured an economic advantage just because they were born in the United States. We are now in competition with people from around the world who are now entering an era where transportation and communication have become very well established world wide. In the 20th century, individuals in the united states who dropped out of school could still find work in a manufacturing center, a mine, or field. Now other countries have reached a point where they can and will do this type of work and do it for less. Not only for less, but often better as well. We have become a society of entitlement. There are opportunities in schools for students who have a desire to be challenged, excited and even entertained. The difference these days is that children no longer strive for a better life, they now considered it their right to have it. Children, and their parents, expect to see an A on the report card. They feel it is their right and all they need to do is show up once in awhile to claim it.
    There are a great many students who enjoy school just as there always have been. We just seem to focus on those who don’t. In the past those students didn’t tend to be around for us to focus on. They quit school went out and got a job. I know a great many of these individuals as they are the parents of the students I have in school right now.

  15. @David W. Keane

    David says, “We are now in competition with people from around the world…”

    Why do we always need to be in competition? We are in competition because we choose to see the world as a game in which we must win. We see the world from a competitive standpoint. We have to have more, we have to do better, we have to be the best… What happens when one of the players in a game decides they don’t value the same rules as the other players? What happens in a game where a player doesn’t care about winning? What happens when opponents start intentionally doing things to improve the game of each other? Lets get rid of comparative assessments and just focus on the things in life that really matter. If we have to compare ourselves to each other, why not change the rubric. Lets measure our levels of contentment, our measure of self worth, our measure of satisfaction.

  16. Scott, for me, the meat of the piece was in the next to the last paragraph, “What’s your plan? We mean a real plan…”

    As a retired educator/trainer/consultant I facilitate workshops that focus (ultimately) on integrating technology into the teaching and learning process. Most schools don’t get it. They continue to do more of the same, applying technology for all the wrong reasons. Your point of changing structures, policies, funding, etc. is what is needed for real change to occur. Yes, there are “some” schools doing it -as noted in some of the above post, but I keep going back to Lew Pearlman’s Technology and the Transformation of Schools point that we can’t just reform, but rather must transform [Transcend? as suggested by Kevin Riley] schools as we know them.

    Keep challenging the status quo!

  17. If you want a simple PROVEN plan, designed by someone who was in the trenches over a 50-year span, knows all the politics and in-fighting and offers WORKABLE solutions, go to:
    and learn how to “Set Our Teachers FREE!”

  18. “And yet, somehow, despite our educational system’s long history of alleged mediocrity, our country and our economy keep chugging along quite nicely.”



  1. Viral Notebook » What’s the harm? - October 17, 2011

    […] when choosing to use technology as test preparation tools and devaluing problem solving tools. “So What if Schools Don’t Prepare Kids for the 21st Century?” by Dr. Scott McLeod on May 21, […]

Leave a Reply