Education 2020 -- An Emerging Consensus About Learning

We're in the midst of a profound and far-reaching educational revolution that spans two centuries and bridges the industrial and information ages. And, when it's completed sometime over the next decade, I believe that this sweeping transformation will be known as the one that redefined what schools look like in the 21st century.

Obviously, this isn't the first time that change has come to the classroom. Whether it was Noah Webster, who upgraded dumbed-down textbooks; Howard Gardner, who pointed out that children process information in a variety of ways; or Geoffrey Canada, who has shown that less-advantaged youngsters can achieve if they're enveloped in a challenging, supportive environment, the educational truth has consistently spurred significant action and fruitful reforms that have helped enhance learning.

But today, as we look toward 2020, the educational truth is worrisome. All the data -- both quantitative and qualitative -- indicates that legions of American students are just not fulfilling their potential for learning.

There are many conflicting theories about why our children are not expanding and enriching their knowledge horizons -- and lots of finger-pointing about what's holding them back, too.
But there's also a new and growing consensus that could lead to sensitive and fresh educational standards, benchmarks, models and teaching styles designed to help students discover the joys of meaningful and responsible learning.

The developing consensus will take some time to fully take hold in schools and classrooms across the country, and there are still pockets of fierce resistance, but the unmistakable outlines of this new philosophical accord are already emerging. Here are five key elements well worth pondering:

First, an increasing number of people have concluded that we need to add a truly human dimension to our educational benchmarks.

It's no longer enough to simply ask if our children can read and write effectively; that, on its own, is lowering the bar. Obviously, mastering these skills is a critical part of any solid and sound education, but we need to go well beyond this, and we need to ask if students are engaged and connected in the classroom, if they're excited about learning.

We can't afford to bore our children in school, because disinterested students tune-out or drop-out. And we know -- from experience -- that if a lower school subject area like hands-on science is taught in a way that students understand, they go on to high school and college and explore biology, chemistry and physics with greater enthusiasm.

As Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, recently wrote: "Parents, teachers, and lawmakers want a system that measures not just an arbitrary level of proficiency, but student growth and school progress in ways that better reflect the impact of a school and its teachers on student learning."

In other words, the new key metrics must be whether students find school interesting; whether the material challenges them; and whether they actually like school enough to continue their studies. Measuring by testing just doesn't get at these all-important human variables.

Second, there is a growing realization that children are constantly learning. They are naturally curious; eager to master new things; patient -- and even tenacious -- when it comes to grasping knowledge; and able and willing to construct their own understanding through personal investigation. Additionally, we must continue to acknowledge that it is the role of the teacher to ignite this fire under the students.
I believe this realization will deepen over the next decade, and the accepted wisdom will eventually be that there are no limitations on what children can learn. This acknowledgement and celebration will also include a recognition that students from all socioeconomic levels and backgrounds thrive when academically challenged. And, finally, there will be an appreciation of the fact that children are preparing themselves to become lifelong learners when they question, analyze, compare, collaborate and listen in the classroom.

Third, there is awareness in an increasing number of schools that children learn differently and at different rates. As a result, teaching must be individualized and responsive to each student's talents, way of thinking and level of understanding.
This new learning diversity in the classroom has also resonated among many educational policy-makers, who have voiced concerns about one-size-fits-all mandates that get in the way of flexibility and meeting students where they are. That's why a program like No Child Left Behind is undergoing such scrutiny in Washington D.C. today.

Fourth, there is a strong sense that the teacher's role must change in the 21st century. Indeed, we're beginning to see teachers act as coaches who model thinking, planning, risk-taking and reflection for children. We're also starting to understand that teachers -- like their students -- are real learners; and, when these two groups embark on an intellectual exploration together, bountiful knowledge is exchanged.

Unfortunately, standardized testing mania has forced many teachers to become insecure achievers who believe that they must cover all the material in a textbook to succeed on behalf of their students. Over the next decade, however, I'm convinced that this will fade away, and that more and more teachers will feel free to become learners who can safely tell their students, "I don't know; let's find out."

Technology is transforming how we think about education today. The Internet, for instance, has virtually all the information in the world, and it can serve as a real-time reference tool that takes some of the pressure off teachers who feel they have to know and impart everything to their students. Social media and a variety of Web sites are also allowing teachers to connect and share their experiences on virtually every continent.

Fifth, and last, there's broad agreement that we don't have all the answers to unleash a torrent of learning in America's schools today.

But we're getting closer.

One of the reasons is that we now have unprecedented and almost instantaneous access to the very best brain research and instructional practices in the world.

Some of these insights are truly changing the way we think about learning.

Dr. John Medina's "Brain Rules," for example, has shaken up many schools. "If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing," says Medina, "you probably would design something like a [traditional] classroom."
And some of these insights reinforce the notion that learning really contributes to success in life. Daniel Coyle, who wrote "The Talent Code," for instance, shows that practice over time, plus motivation and mentoring, yields excellence and mastery.

That said, as we contemplate 2020, I'm certain that there won't be one model, one benchmark, one standard, one curriculum, or one teacher training program that ultimately helps us reach our educational goals.

But I strongly believe that a decade from now we'll be able to look back and know that we made learning more interesting for each and every child in our country.