21st century (fill in your educational consideration)

This post is an omage to a friend and colleague, David Jakes, series: “Words Matter.” You can read his thoughts about the vocabulary of education at Strength of Weak Ties and djakes posterous (follow him on Twitter).

The current debate about education is primarily focused on a product – test scores. All the subsequent discourse focuses on how best to prepare students to take tests, how to use those scores to decide who is and isn’t a good student, who is and isn’t a good teacher, and which schools to keep open and which to close. It’s all about the wrong things.

It is amazing to see the speed with which education has moved to the top of the political debate agenda. Where were are these ne’er-do-wells five years ago, ten, twenty? The debate is being driven by a growing number of individuals who are exponentially further and further from the actual experience of school. What are we to do then, not having access to the same size bully pulpit, to force the conversational focus where it needs to be?

We have to define the focus, the thing that really matters, the thing that has been lost in the process.


I just finished reading Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond E. Callahan. The movement to use business models as a way the organize and manage schools has been part of the educational landscape for over a century now. Currently it has taken its most conspiratorial step with a myopic focus on testing and privatization. The current dialog and debate are solely focused on these considerations. Educators have taken to the defensive (which isn’t surprising considering the L.A. Times McCarthy style writing about testing as a means to determine good teachers). The proponents of this focus are not reformers at all – they are merely drawing the efficiency movement to its most reasonable conclusion: Students are a product that comes off a teacher assembly line. You can control the assembly line by defining the way in which you evaluate the quality of the end product. They are successfully framing the conversation that way.

Educators need to change the focus of the debate. We need to simplify our language, stop trying to brand the work of education with catchy adjectives and adverbs and talk about what matters. It’s time we stopped using phrases like:

  • 21st century learning
  • 21st century learners
  • 21st century skills
  • 21st century schools
  • 21st century thinking

We are nine years into this century, that is less than 10% of the century. How do we know what any of the above phrases mean? That obvious consideration aside, what do we hope to accomplish by using catch phrases like these in the first place. We have to simplify the discussion, talk about what really matters. We need to talk about: learning.

Learning is a process that transcends century. It is an act we all engage in daily in any number of situations as we go about our lives. Is the act of learning any different today than it was on October 11, 1910? Or October 11, 1810? 1710? No. The difference is, there is a lot more to learn. There are many more ways to find that information; many more people to learn with and from; many more ways to connect to those people, that information, and many more ways to take that learning and innovate/create with and from it. Learning is still learning and is the very core of school – or it should be! It isn’t part of the current debate about reform, however, and won’t be, unless educators around the globe step up and actively bring the debate back to the center: learning.

Not only do we need to stop filling our own dialog with needless adjectives and adverbs, we need to start taking active measures to design our classrooms to be places of learning. These places of learning must eliminate the focus on an end product (test scores) and must be founded on the idea that content driven curriculum is an industrial era concept foisted on schools by business as a means to insure that the end product of schooling was easily plugged into the assembly lines of the factory. Society has moved on, so must we. We can’t let business dictate what happens in schools. Their focus is on, “What we need now to plug into what we’ve replaced the assembly line with.” Business is not concerned about the future that students will create, only on what they need to meet the bottom line projections and demands of their investors. As educators we are not in the business of filling the human resources offices with pre-packaged (programmed?) workers ready to step in and “do the job.” We are in the business of equiping young people with the tools they will need to build their future . . . helping them develop the insight and understanding to be able to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (its Epilogue)

Educators, especially classroom teachers, need to take the lead voice in the process of rethinking schools. Yes, that does mean more work, a deeper commitment, and a collaborative effort. But, if we believe in the act of learning, we are morally obligated – by our belief and the young faces that look to us each day – to do that extra work, deepen our commitment, and build a massive voice that will wrest away the megaphone from people like Oprah, Gates, Broad, Rhee, Duncan, et al. Rather been the implied object (apologies to Chris Lehmann: Blog, Twitter Read this post: Growing the Movement) of the reform movement, it’s time to become the reform movement.

Simplify the language, bring it back to the center, raise your voice locally and expand it globally. And please, stop using “21st century” to describe what we do in school.

Photo Credits:

Statistics: Elgin County Archives on Flickr

Out Stretched Hand: by Funky46 on Flickr

Contemplative Girl: by Funky46 on Flickr

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About Greg Thompson

I'm a dad, Educational Freelancer, Edupunk thinker, EdTech Blogger, Paralegal, Foodie, and I love inspiring and facilitating change in education.
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8 Responses to 21st century (fill in your educational consideration)

  1. Isn’t that just the most amazing book? It frames so much of the way I think about school reform and school structure. And yet, I’d argue that almost no one in the edu-world has read it. So frustrating.

  2. The business model doesn’t work for education. That’s been proven. And you are right – the discussion must be about learning. Learning hasn’t changed, but perhaps teaching should?

    As a parent and a school board trustee, I see patterns of behaviour repeated by teachers and administrations that are counterproductive to learning. At the same time, I see transformation in teaching/learning everywhere. Blog posts, books, articles, comments on the internet, etc., continue to provide evidence to me that tremendous changes in thinking are translating to fundamental change in culture and practice that benefit kids now, and also give me hope for the future of public education. Oh and just a small thing – can you correct the “it’s” that should be the possessive “its” in your post? ;-)

  3. JenWagner says:

    Very good post

    I had similar thoughts in August 2009 —
    and I think we need to continue to have these discussions.
    http://projectsbyjen.com/blog/?p=1153

    Thank you for sharing this —
    Jennifer

  4. Just this afternoon, the twitter discussion on centered around the idea of how teachers can be a louder voice in the ed reform debate. There were a few good ideas that all center on more teachers speaking up. It is more work, and some (many?) teachers are uncomfortable in the limelight. However, if each teacher does not grab the spotlight, then papers like the LA Times will shine the spotlight on their terms.

    Some of the ideas: comment on blog posts that have a positive ed message, upload 1 minute video showing PositiveEd, old-fashioned letters to the editor, ask more teachers to get involved, on and on.

    Thank you for writing and posting your opinion about this.

  5. Pingback: leadership and organizational structure | The REAL School Design Blog

  6. Michelle says:

    Sadly, I work for one of the post-secondary schools to which students turn so that they can be acceptable to the HR departments and actually obtain a job. Desperate students pay these schools an extortionate amount of money in student loans, gambling that what they learn will actually prepare them to work and pay that loan back. They do this because they haven’t learned any useful skills in high school. You say that educators shouldn’t be preparing students for business, but in fact, most people end “in business” one way or another, either as employees or as owners. Somebody has to teach them, and it makes more practical sense for this to be part of a required and guaranteed public education. Many of my students are in poverty because they graduated as new adults without the skills to make a living, since workforce preparation programs are no longer present in most high schools. It is impractical to consider that high schools should turn out insightful kids prepared to dream of what they want to be when they grow up, rather than adults prepared to work for a living; it does not help break the cycle of poverty. Having a massive student loan for the education which gave you only basic work skills hanging over your head does not help, either. Modern workforce skills preparation in schools is part of the reform that we need – programs in biological science, engineering, computer programming, math, and technical writing as well as bringing back business classes and artisanal and skilled labor programs. We’ve rendered 18-22 year old adults practically unemployable under our current system.

  7. Tahlia Newland says:

    Education needs reforming but evaluating teacher’s effectiveness on test results is ridiculous and so obviously flawed that I can’t believe that the pollies are still barking down that alley. Where are the educators educating the politicians. If they’re there the pollies obviously aren’t listening.

    Is it Ok if I put a link to here from my site. I’m trying to build up a network of sites for teachers, that involve the personal element of the job.

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