A '21st Century' Education Is SO Last Century

It's empty phraseology designed to sound like we are preparing for the future when we are already living in that future; and no one believes that what passes for a typical classroom today will be the classroom experience even 10 years from now, let alone for the next 87 years.
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It's not rational, but I'll admit that whenever I hear "21st century classroom" or "21st century skills" -- I tense up. Why? Because we are starting the 13th year of this "future" century. It's empty phraseology designed to sound like we are preparing for the future when we are already living in that future; and no one believes that what passes for a typical classroom today will be the classroom experience even 10 years from now, let alone for the next 87 years. We can't know what the classroom will look or feel like. We do know, however, that most school districts are organized to deliver education that inhibits rather than encourages innovation. That needs to change.

Does Google refer to its corporate aspirations to be a "21st century" company? No -- they don't say that because they are being a "21st century" company right now and you can see it in their products and services. They know they won't survive as leaders in their field unless they continue to demonstrate highly adaptive organizational practices that result in products and services that produce great customer experiences. Google is a company driven by data and harnessing knowledge-based work. I suggest schools and school districts in the U.S. demonstrate the same adaptability and adopt the same aspirations.

I try not to complain without presenting alternatives, so let me share that I like "Deeper Learning" as a way to convey both the acquisition of knowledge and the transference/application of knowledge along with developing skills employers find valuable -- collaboration, communications and critical thinking. Using the "21st century" moniker feels inadequate; it doesn't really convey the depth of what needs to be a school's function and invites a debate over "soft" vs "hard" skills taught in schools. Enough. We need both.

It's time to move on and work together to develop education systems that meet students where they live and provide a relevant education to develop cognitive and non-cognitive skills. From kindergarten through high school, students everywhere are a "connected generation" and 24x7 connectivity is the norm for teens. They can't conceive of a world without social media, texting and the Web as their starting place for getting answers and working with other people -- or even experiencing the world outside. Does anyone think today's classroom should represent a step back from the connected world students live in?

If we let students be real consumers, would any student pick a 20th century (or 19th century) educational experience over one that feels relevant and rigorous and prepares them for the life they are living today and will face after high school?

This faux debate over moving to the 21st century is reminiscent of another topic that is a waste of time and energy: debating the role of technology in schools. Today's educators need to be connected -- that means they need to embrace social media along with utilizing online resources -- designing ways to integrate smart phones and iPads, along with laptops. Frankly, they need to have digital literacy skills at least as strong as their students. And all students need access to bandwidth and technology. Figuring out how we solve the technology equity disparity across this country is a worthy debate.

Of course, schools and classroom practices need to be current -- what teacher or district leader would say that we should continue to teach the way we did back in the "good ol' days?" Can you show me a successful organization or business that prides itself on keeping things exactly the way they were? We expect Apple to give us products we didn't even know we couldn't live without. Why don't we expect our public education institutions to do the same?

Those of us who offer innovative ways to educate believe we need to replace a factory method of teaching with a student-centered learning environment in which the roles of the teacher, student and administrator function differently at every level.

We need to believe the adults delivering education services are capable of being innovative, adaptive and collaborative and welcome being accountable for student outcomes. Then we need to invest in this belief by providing both the professional development and the infrastructure to make this belief a reality for all students and all teachers.

Ultimately, it is about delivering core education in today's world by today's standards of success. We graduate too many students ill-prepared for college or career. Just changing from textbooks to laptops won't change that success rate. Flipping classrooms doesn't begin to address systemic change needed.

At the risk of dating myself, it is time for our own Paddy Chayefsky Network moment. You know the line: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." Let's not spend another year using content-free phrases to talk about changing the face of education. I believe this is the basic approach: Education needs to be more relevant and rigorous for students. Educational institutions need to be more engaging and empowering for teachers. A high school diploma needs to be more directly applicable and valued in the economy. These are attainable goals; all education investments should be measured against these objectives.

Oh, and to really ignite the flames, let's also acknowledge that Deeper Learning requires fundamental changes in how teachers teach and recognizing how students learn. As my friend Ron Berger, the Chief Program Officer at Expeditionary Learning Schools, writes in this beautiful blog highlighting Deeper Learning "...the choices we make about how to use time in school are often the enemy of quality or value. Our patterns in leading classrooms are so ingrained that we do not even realize when we are making poor choices."

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