The trumpets are once again sounding for educational reform! Every few years, ideas come up in education; ideas which are marketed as the new thing that will fix education, things that will—this time—really work. Our fascination for whatever is seen as new takes hold and, after a while, everyone is talking about this new thing. It might be a Common Core Curriculum, Phonics, or Whole Language. It may be Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, or Open-Area Teaching. It may be Cooperative Learning, the New Math, or Singaporean Math. It may be coding or personalized learning.
We swing from one thing to another, always filled with good intentions, and often driven by an understanding of a changing world and a worry for our children. The world is changing. We are becoming more global, technology is changing our economies, and our lives and the nature of our work is changing. We are faced with a world awash in change. Some people claim that this is different than it has ever been.
Most of our families have heard of the idea of 21st Century Learning. It has become a common refrain: a new century demands a new set of skills, and so learning should be increasingly personalized to prepare children for a new and emerging world where the old, common content is not useful, and traditional content is diminished. The focus is on skills, and the role of a common content is not emphasized. There is much talk of preparing children for employability skills, including social and emotional skills and dispositions, and thinking skills, and technological skills, and collaborative skills, and so on.
Examine this list: does it seems like 21st century skills?
- Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning
- Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
- Integration of entrepreneurship into education
- Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
- Group work and development of social skills
- Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
- Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
- Education for social responsibility and democracy
- Highly personalized learning accounting for each individual's personal goals
- Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
- Selection of subject content by looking forward to ask what skills will be needed in future society
- De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
- Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills
- Assessment by evaluation of child's projects and productions
In fact, most of these ideas originate in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. This list is printed in Wikipedia to describe progressive education. Most of these ideas are older ideas which have been around for centuries.
John Dewey founded the University of Chicago Laboratory School in 1896; a school dedicated to “discover… how a school can become a cooperative community while developing in individuals their own capacities and satisfy their own needs.” That is, the school was dedicated to what is now called Personalized Learning. The School also focused on collaboration, community values, learning by doing, and preparing for a changing world. As Dewey said: “It is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him [or her] for the future life means to give him command of himself [herself].”
It is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him [or her] for the future life means to give him command of himself [herself]. John Dewey
Dewey was making the point—in the 19th century—that the world will always be changing rapidly, and that children had to be prepared for an uncertain future. Of course, he was speaking at a time of immense social change: industrialization was sweeping the country, agricultural revolution was underway, the telegraph was changing the nature of communication, and there were huge numbers of immigrants, numerous foreign wars, and unprecedented technological changes. The same conditions of dramatic change have been around for centuries. Just like now.
The challenge is not to prepare our children for the 21st century, or for any particular set of conditions in any particular century; it is to prepare them for any possible set of conditions. That has always been the task. The people who sent humans to the moon did not have mandatory coding lessons as students. The people who invented the computer had never seen one before. Plato, in The Republic, spoke of four levels of intellect—2,400 years ago or so. As one scholar noted, we do not refer to this as “3rd Century BCE Learning”.
So what should we do in schools?
Much of what is contained in the writing on the 21st Century Learning is good, if somewhat out of its time. Children should learn to think; to communicate in a variety of ways, old and new; to work with others and also to be independent; to be self-directed; to be able to figure out how to use new things well, such as computers, phones, video, 3D printers, and electronic portfolios, as well as older things like hammers and saws and clamps—the emphasis should be on figuring things out, not the tool. The tools will change; our children need to learn how to adopt new things continuously, just as people did in the 20th century, or the 500 years before that.
It is why we cannot sum up our school in simple ways, because real learning is not simple, and great schools are complex.
Children should learn in a variety of settings and with a wide variety of things. They should be outside a lot, and engaged in the natural world in they are to understand it and grow in a balanced way. The brain grows when it does many things, especially when the body is involved: Children need to make things, and to do things, and to move a lot. A lot of sitting in rooms in front of a computer is not a healthy way to learn, even though computers can be a great support for learning, and some computer use should be taught. Computer learning, however, cannot replace doing things, working alongside others, going places (imagine learning about a beach from a computer!), and designing things. And one thing is becoming more clear: screen time helps learning if it is a useful support to learning about things, but a lot of screen time actually slows learning and development. It can feed an unhealthy dependence on the computer itself. Children need to learn to use computers, not be used by them.
The emphasis on skills is not a bad thing. But skills are not well learned in the absence of content. In order to develop thinking, we need things to think about, what one professor calls “good things to think with”. We understand that knowing content is critical to the development of intelligence and thought. We become smarter when we know more. One cannot learn to analyze, synthesize, or evaluate without something that is worth thinking about. The role of subject matter is very important to the development of an educated person. One studies history to understand historical thinking – the role of cause and effect, and of structures and agency in life. One studies Science to understand inductive reasoning – scientific thinking. One studies the Arts to understand creativity and truth and goodness. We learn Mathematics to understand pure reason. We need to make sure that the subjects we study are thought-provoking, engaging, and relevant. But we also need to understand that everything can be full of wonder, and so we need to engage what interests our children, as well as leading them to new interests. They should be able to study what interests them, as well as what they will need to know, in a complex and interrelated way.
Children need to learn things of substance and in substantial ways. The idea that all we need to know is available through a Google search is dangerous; it assumes that we do not need to understand deep argumentation, and complex reasoning. The brain responds and learns in the way that information is packaged. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message”. Shallow media leads to shallow thought, and a Google search can be used to simply confirm unreasoned bias more easily than to change it. We are becoming a society where information is a mile wide, and about an inch deep. Children need substantial reading, and substantial discussion. In that way, they will learn to engage as citizens and as productive members of our society.
We need to make sure that the subjects we study are thought-provoking, engaging, and relevant. But we also need to understand that everything can be full of wonder, and so we need to engage what interests our children, as well as leading them to new interests.
The emphasis on what is called “thinking skills” is well intended. But thinking is not a package of skills. Thinking emerges when we want to think, when we stop to think, when we can remember things to think about, and when we understand the complexities of the subject. It is mixed in with the subject itself. I have watched people teach children to “compare and contrast”. The lesson could take hours. And it was made into a series of steps that the children had to memorize. And the kids forgot it almost as soon as they learned it.
I have also watched students as they spoke about choosing a phone, or a bicycle, or a haircut. They could go on for a long time about the features, about how the things compared and contrasted, about the fine details of each thing. Nobody had to teach them how – the thinking grew out of real interest, wanting to think, stopping to think, conducting research, remembering what they learned. Thinking arises from context, depends upon knowledge, and is driven by interest. What may be useful is to learn to recognize flawed thinking – the fallacies. These arise in context, and are learned best through the study of subject matter.
As we discuss critical and creative thinking, we had also best think about creating ethical and caring human beings. Thought is powerful, and can be used for good or for evil purposes. Some of the most effective advertising of the last century was for cigarettes – brilliant, but we may not want our children to use their abilities for such unethical purposes. Curing disease is one thing; building weapons is another. As we become more global and interdependent, we may need to ensure that our children learn to do good, and to build a better world. Social justice begins with learning in a just school community which engages the global community.
Children need substantial reading, and substantial discussion. In that way, they will learn to engage as citizens and as productive members of our society.
Times change, but children don’t. Our children need to grow in a healthy environment, using their heads, hearts, and hands. They need a school culture and environment which is cooperative and caring, so they also become socially adept. They should not come to depend on any particular environment or any particular tool. They need to do a lot of different things in a variety of settings. They need to be encouraged to figure things out, and to learn from their mistakes. They should learn to work by themselves and with others. They should notice how they learn best, and use that knowledge to help themselves. They need to know things about the world, and how it works and has worked. They need to be able to read and write and draw and listen and watch and record and dance and act and paint and, well, they should know the multiple other ways of acquiring, using, and sharing information and knowledge. They should have opportunities to create all sorts of things that are worth creating. They should know how to work, and how to play. They should learn, as humans, to be caring. And, as in every age, they will need some courage, and some confidence that, whatever may come, they can learn to thrive. We can support them as they move from dependence to independence in every way.
Children learn in multiple ways, and they learn best when they do things with what they are learning. That is why our school has gardens, and playgrounds, laboratories and forests, gyms, fitness rooms, and playing fields, a library and classrooms that connect to outside. That is why we teach complex content, and ways to think about that content. That is why we teach music and art and drama and theatre, and that is why we ask for personalized research as well as engaging common content. We ask our students to do real research and thought and design and creation. We ask them to speak several languages. It is why we seek international and complex assessments for every student, and why we spend so much on developing teachers. It is why we ask our children to do many things, to build and design things, to use computers and film and hammers and nails and everything from glue to laser engravers; we ask the kids to learn, to create, to provide service, to play hard and work hard, to lead and to follow. It is why we ensure a collaborative environment for everyone.
It is why we cannot sum up our school in simple ways, because real learning is not simple, and great schools are complex.
We learn to live well, with others and for others, in a just community. And that is learning for any century.