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02/06/2007

Ripping into 21st Century Learning

"We've got an information world; we're networked to the rest of the world; it's a global economy; and we're not preparing our young people for that world."
-- Bill Brock, former Secretary of Labor.

This week's TIME magazine dedicated its cover and feature story to "How to Bring U.S. Schools Out of the 20th Century". The article begins with what the author calls a "dark little joke," a story starring Washington Irvings fictional character, Rip Van Winkle.

For teachers, that story is neither dark nor a joke. The dominant message is as close as your neighborhood school and for those serious about equipping students for the 21st century, it's anything but funny. The article describes what happens when Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century, after a hundred-year snooze. He is understandably disorientated by what he sees everywhereexcept in the schoolhouse:

"Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls -- every place Rip goes baffles him. But when he finally walks into a school room, the old man knows exactly where he is. "This is school" he declares. "We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green."

The article spotlights questions many educators have been harping on for more than a decade. Is the schoolhouse keeping up with changes that are happening in other areas of life? Is our current focus on standardized testing impairing our ability to prepare students for the world in which they will find themselves working in a few short years, or will they, like the fictional Rip Van Winkle, arrive in the workplace bewildered and unable to contribute or thrive in the global economy?

According to TIME, the national conversation on education has focused on reading scores, math tests, and closing the achievement gap between social classes." But the rest of the article focuses on something every citizen should be concerned and knowledgeable about -- the conversation America is not having about education, the one that will ultimately determine not merely whether some fraction of its children get 'left behind,' but also whether an entire generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can't think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad, or speak a language other than English."

Strange as it seems, the same inventions and technological tools that have thrown society into this hard-to-manage information boom also has the potential to help us a dig ourselves out from under it. Using emerging technologies as thinking tools, and an increasing awareness of cultural and demographic changes, will help us develop what Walter Isaacson (President of the Aspen Foundation) refers to as the, new skills, sensibilities, and habits of the mind far ahead of what most education systems now can deliver."

I was interested to read that on December 14, 2006, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce released a blueprint for rethinking American education from preK-12 and beyond -- a proposal about how to better prepare students to thrive in the global economy. The report reveals what many people have suspected for a long time -- that the mismatch that exists between the demands of the economy and what our schools are supplying is closely connected to the fact that our education and training systems were built for another era.

The commission proposes that we can only get where we must go by changing the system itself, or as James Pellegrino (from the University of Illinois) so skillfully suggests, This is a remarkably bold and refreshing report. It is time for us to stop tinkering at the edges of educational enterprise The Commission is telling us we need to stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, reinvest the resources we have, and turn the ship in another direction."

RESOURCES

Executive Summary of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

All Children Left Behind, an online video from CBS News

Building a New Student in Michigan

Who Is Brenda?

Brenda Dyck is a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching preservice teachers, Brenda is the moderator of MiddleTalk, a listserve sponsored by the National Middle School Association (NMSA). Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in NMSA's magazine, Middle Ground. Brenda also is a teacher-editor for MidLink magazine.

Author Name: Brenda Dyck
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02/06/2007