Monday, December 11, 2006

It's About Time

Hold on to your horses, the venerable mainstream media is starting to talk about what we've been talking about in our staff development. Here are some excerpts from the cover story from this week's Time Magazine (via Christian Long - here's the free summary, or you can read the entire article if you're a subscriber or if you watch a short ad):
For the past five years, the national conversation on education has focused on reading scores, math tests and closing the "achievement gap" between social classes. This is not a story about that conversation. This is a story about the big public conversation the nation is not having about education, the one that will ultimately determine not merely whether some fraction of our children get "left behind" but also whether an entire generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can't think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad or speak a language other than English.
Gee, where have I heard this before? And this is exactly the conversation I've been arguing that we must have with the LPS community, and we need to have it now.
This week the conversation will burst onto the front page, when the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a high-powered, bipartisan assembly of Education Secretaries and business, government and other education leaders releases a blueprint for rethinking American education from pre-K to 12 and beyond to better prepare students to thrive in the global economy. While that report includes some controversial proposals, there is nonetheless a remarkable consensus among educators and business and policy leaders on one key conclusion: we need to bring what we teach and how we teach into the 21st century.
I'm sure that this report will include some things that I completely agree with, as well as some things that make me say, "No, no, that's so wrong." (Like the well-intended but misguided recommendations of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which not only take a one-size fits all approach, but equate "more of the same" with "better.") But in any event, I think it has the potential to broaden the conversation significantly, to expand the number of folks who are talking about these ideas - and I think that's a good thing.
Right now we're aiming too low. Competency in reading and math--the focus of so much No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing--is the meager minimum. Scientific and technical skills are, likewise, utterly necessary but insufficient. Today's economy demands not only a high-level competence in the traditional academic disciplines but also what might be called 21st century skills. Here's what they are:

Knowing more about the world . . . needing workers who are "global trade literate, sensitive to foreign cultures, conversant in different languages" . . .

Thinking outside the box . . .Kids also must learn to think across disciplines, since that's where most new breakthroughs are made . . .

Becoming smarter about new sources of information . . .kids need to rapidly process what's coming at them and distinguish between what's reliable and what isn't . . .

Developing good people skills . . . "We have to emphasize communication skills, the ability to work in teams and with people from different cultures."
Again, what we've been talking about in our staff development. Yes, "basic skills" are still necessary, but not sufficient. We need to be asking more of our students. Not more of the simplistic "rigor" that we hear so much about, not more of the same industrial-age education, but more thinking and active participation and construction of knowledge by our students. More collaboration and learning in context, with meaningful and relevant topics and assignments. And, yes, more use of technology so they are comforable using the tools necessary to live, learn and work in the 21st century.
. . .Many analysts believe that to achieve the right balance between such core knowledge and what educators call "portable skills"--critical thinking, making connections between ideas and knowing how to keep on learning--the U.S. curriculum needs to become more like that of Singapore, Belgium and Sweden, whose students outperform American students on math and science tests. Classes in these countries dwell on key concepts that are taught in depth and in careful sequence, as opposed to a succession of forgettable details so often served in U.S. classrooms. Textbooks and tests support this approach. "Countries from Germany to Singapore have extremely small textbooks that focus on the most powerful and generative ideas," says Roy Pea, co-director of the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning. These might be the key theorems in math, the laws of thermodynamics in science or the relationship between supply and demand in economics. America's bloated textbooks, by contrast, tend to gallop through a mind-numbing stream of topics and subtopics in an attempt to address a vast range of state standards.
Fewer concepts taught in depth. Less is more. Essential learnings. Focus on the "big ideas." Go deep. Has this commission been sitting in on our staff development sessions?
. . . Teachers need not fear that they will be made obsolete. They will, however, feel increasing pressure to bring their methods--along with the curriculum--into line with the way the modern world works. That means putting a greater emphasis on teaching kids to collaborate and solve problems in small groups and apply what they've learned in the real world.
Well, I'd say this fits pretty well with what we've been talking about in our staff development. Bring our schools "into line with the way the modern world works," not stick with a system that was designed for an industrial age that no longer exists. But I'm not sure I completely agree with the line "Teachers need not fear that they will be made obsolete." I think that teachers who refuse to think about this, who refuse to consider that the world might be changing and they need to change as well, that refuse to consider that what the students they are teaching today need might be different than what students needed 100, 50 or even 20 years ago - I think those teachers should be a little afraid. And I'm not saying that everything we've ever done is bad, or that everything we are doing rignt now isn't worthwhile - we do a lot of good things, but I am saying that we better take a hard look at what our students are going to need in their future, not what they might've needed in our past. I'll go back to the questions I've asked teachers before (stolen from somebody, but I can't remember who):

Are you ever going to be 18 again?

Are your students ever going to be your age?

Should we be preparing them for the world as it was when we were 18, or for the world as it's going to be when they are our age?


  1. Wow, this is definitely some food for thought and it parallels all that we have been discussing in our critical thinking meetings and 21st century meetings. I truly feel that this globalization happened over night, or maybe it is just that I just woke up to reality. Either way schools and we, as teachers, need to get on change train. This is not to say that everything we have done is obsolete or irrelevant; however, our students need to be worldly educated people. What is really interesting to me is that science imbeds mathmatics and social studies imbeds reading and writing and yet these subjects are often put on the back burner (so to speak) In addition these subjects allow students to really apply math and language and use their skills to problem solve, hypothisize, and critically think. Why don't we integrate more cross curricular activities/learning? Why are some elementary schools continually lowering the number of hours a week that science and social studies are taught? And where is the technology literacy classes in elementary, middle and high schools? I feel that the ability to sift throught the vast amount of information out there and really question the validity and source is essential for this generation. As a matter of fact, I think most of us (adults) could use information literacy classes as well.

  2. I am glad to see these questions being asked and the conversation emerging. When I first read the Time article, I forwarded it to my team of one to one classroom teachers. One of them replied with this this article from the Washington Post that argues that laptops don't make a difference... I read both articles and then read the comments...This is what we are battling when we put laptops in a classroom.

    BKitch made an interesting point..."schools and we, as teachers, need to get on the change train" We can't just give kids laptops to replace 20th Century skills / learning we need to utilize them to build 21st Century Skills. We need to continue this conversation and helping folks (from both sides) make some changes.

  3. Thanks Kristin. Yes, that article from the Washington Post has made the rounds here as well. Here's what I wrote back to our district CIO:

    Most (not all) of the story contradicts the headline. It all comes back to teacher training – and staff development time. If we try to shoehorn laptops onto an obsolete, industrial-age system of education, then of course they won’t be used effectively. But if we integrate them into a 21st century education, they are indispensable.

  4. Karl, thanks for this conversation. I'm in an elementary district that is actively setting up Professional Learning Communities. Across our district, teachers are looking at state and district standards, trying to determine what our essential outcomes should be for each grade and subject. It seems as though we keep drifting toward the assessment of isolated skills rather than looking at what we really want our students to be able to do as learners. I certainly haven't heard any conversations about being competitive on a global scale!