Wednesday, September 15, 2010

21st Century Learning - Coming to a school near you?

I hope to mostly write my own commentary, but I just can't match Alfie here are his comments on the latest fad in education....

When “21st-Century Schooling”
Just Isn’t Good Enough:  A Modest Proposal

By Alfie Kohn

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.

Essentially, we can take whatever objectives or teaching strategies we
happen to favor and, merely by attaching a label that designates a
future time period, endow them (and ourselves) with an aura of novelty
and significance.  Better yet, we instantly define our critics as
impediments to progress.  If this trick works for the adjective
“21st-century,” imagine the payoff from ratcheting it up by a hundred

To describe schooling as 22nd-century, however, does suggest a
somewhat specific agenda.  First, it signifies an emphasis on
competitiveness.  Even those who talk about 21st-century schools
invariably follow that phrase with a reference to “the need to compete
in a global economy.”  The goal isn’t excellence, in other words; it’s
victory.  Education is first and foremost about being first and
foremost.  Therefore, we might as well trump the 21st-century folks by
peering even further into the future.

You may have noticed the connection between this conception of
education and the practice of continually ranking students on the
basis of their scores on standardized tests.  This is a promising
start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  Twenty-second--century
schooling means that just about everything should be evaluated in
terms of who’s beating whom.  Thus, newspapers might feature headlines
like:  “U.S. Schools Now in 4th Place in Number of Hall Monitors” or
“Gates Funds $50-Billion Effort to Manufacture World-Class Cafeteria
Trays.”  Whatever the criterion, our challenge is to make sure that
people who don’t live in the United States will always be inferior to

This need to be number one also explains why we can no longer settle
for teaching to the “whole child.”  The trouble is that if you have a
whole of something, you have only one of it.  From now on, therefore,
you can expect to see conferences devoted to educating a
“child-and-a-half” (CAAH).   Nothing less will do in a 22nd-century
global – or possibly interplanetary – economy.  To cite the title of a
forthcoming best-seller that educators will be reading in place of
dusty tomes about pedagogy, The Solar System Is Flat.

In addition to competitiveness, those who specify an entire century to
frame their objectives tend not to be distracted by all the fretting
about what’s good for children.  Instead, they ask, “What do our
corporations need?” and work backwards from there.  We must never
forget the primary reason that children attend school – namely, to be
trained in the skills that will maximize the profits earned by their
future employers.  Indeed, we have already made great strides in
shifting the conversation about education to what will prove useful in
workplaces rather than wasting time discussing what might support
“democracy” (an 18th-century notion, isn’t it?) or what might promote
self development as an intrinsic good (a concept that goes back
thousands of years and is therefore antiquated by definition).

How can we redouble our commitment to business-oriented schooling?  If
necessary, we can outsource some of the learning to students in Asia,
who will memorize more facts for lower grades.  And we can complete
the process, already begun in spirit, of making universities’
education departments subsidiaries of their business schools.  More
generally, we must put an end to pointless talk about students’
“interest” in learning and instead focus on skills that will
contribute to the bottom line.  Again, we’re delighted to report that
this shift is already underway, thanks to those who keep reminding us
about the importance of 21st-century schooling.

This is no time for complacency, though.  Not everyone is on board
yet, and that means we’ll have to weed out teachers whose stubborn
attachment to less efficient educational strategies threatens to slow
down the engine of our future economy.  How can we rid our schools of
those who refuse to be team players?  Well, we can insist that all
classroom instruction be rigorously aligned to state standards – a
very effective technique since most of those standards documents were
drafted by people steeped in the models, methods, and metaphors of
corporations.  We can also use merit pay to enforce compliance by
stigmatizing anyone who doesn’t play by the new rules.  (Come to think
of it, here, too, we’re already well on our way to creating
22nd-century classrooms.)

The final distinguishing feature of education that’s geared to the
next century is its worshipful attitude toward mathematics and
technology.  “If you can’t quantify it or plug it in, who needs it?”
Of course, the reason we will continue to redirect resources toward
the STEM subjects (and away from literature and the arts) isn’t
because the former are inherently more important but simply because
they’re more useful from an economic standpoint.  And that standpoint
is the only one that matters for schools with a proper 22nd-century

One last point.  We will of course continue to talk earnestly about
the need for a curriculum that features “critical thinking” skills –
by which we mean the specific proficiencies acceptable to CEOs.  But
you will appreciate the need to delicately discourage real critical
thinking on the part of students, since this might lead them to pose
inconvenient questions about the entire enterprise and the ideology on
which it’s based.  There’s certainly no room for that in the global
competitive economy of the future.  Or the present.

1 comment:

  1. Whatever Alfie Kohn has read it most certainly didn't come from the 21st Century Learning Initiative. He's apparently read something vastly different entitled 21st Century Schooling. If anyone has read the work of John Abbott and the 21st Century Learning Initiative they will understand that it is pretty much the exact opposite of what Mr. Kohn is railing against. Please don't prejudge the 21st Century Initiative, yes it's yet another buzzword or fad, but it has to be titled somehow, no? Mr. Abbott's work is quite refreshing in that it has nothing to do with "competition...blah,blah,blah...higher standards...blah, blah, blah... what business wants..blah, blah, blah"