Our district, like many others, has been having lots of conversations about “21st Century Education” and what it means for us. There are many books and articles written on the subject, but I think the big picture tends to get lost in the discussion, particularly at the local level. When one speaks of “21st Century Learning,” many people just assume it means adding iPads or other technology into the classroom. It’s much more than that, and actually speaks to a complete rethinking of the very structure of schooling.
These conversations sometimes generate controversy as well. I’ve witnessed educators (and school board members) instinctively go on the defensive because any talk about changing public schools appears to be an attack on what they have committed their life to and reminds them of the continual onslaught of attacks from “reformers” who often oversimplify problems and/or know very little about how public education works. So although I am a staunch defender of public education (and so many of our hard-working teachers, administrators, and other staff who do amazing work every day), I can also realize we have inherited a system that no longer applies to our current era. 21st Century Education, viewed very broadly, is critical because it is based upon a permanent change in the context of teaching and learning.
For 19th century public schools, there was a very logical reason why they were designed the way they were – there were few alternatives in how one could organize students, teachers, facilities, and resources in an orderly way. But today, almost all of those former constraints no longer exist. What has changed? Here’s just a sample:
- A networked infrastructure: All human enterprises are connected by series of information networks that allow both the creation of content and the sharing of content at unprecedented levels. Also, the “social construct” has changed the way we create and nurture relationships among individuals as well as share information.
- The flattening world: Traditional barriers among countries – both literal and conceptual – have broken down. Information travels freely and near instantaneously to all corners of the globe, and citizens around the world can participate in the political process like never before.
- Digital (& diverse) generation: Children today were born into a world where digital access to information was the norm. For these “Millennials,” it is not considered “technology,” but rather the normal way of interacting with the world.
- Facts are free: How do you educate children in a world where the sum of human knowledge is available instantaneously, for free, at their fingertips? Adults and children alike just “Google it” when they want to discover the population of a country or learn about some world event. The real challenge has shifted to understanding, analyzing, and using information.
- The primacy of mobile computing: The tremendous advancement in information technology has allowed us to hold a device in our hand as powerful as most computers, allowing it to be a primary information resource for most citizens. We have been freed up from “place” as a requirement for learning and sharing.
So although technology advancements catalyzed the above changes, just adding more technology into a 19th century classroom doesn’t make it a 21st century learning experience. We must understand the implications of our new context, including (a) the impact on both the content of our curriculum and the process of teaching and learning, (b) the design of the physical environment both inside and outside of “school,” (c) the human resource model to best leverage talent, and (d) the structure of the school day, school year, and the “categorization” of children. If we ignore these trends or their implications, we risk making public schooling less and less relevant for our children.
If we were to start over and design a public school system from scratch, would we have physical structures that have a single hallway with a series of equally sized “classrooms” with a single teacher assigned to single room and a few dozen students? Would we use time, rather than achievement, as the constant in our formula? Would we be likely to let all kids out for the summer to tend the fields? Or would we leverage all of the worldwide resources available to us to enhance learning? Would not the roles of our “educators” be much more varied? We must rethink all of the former “walls” that no longer exist.
Of course this is easier said than done. It’s hard to actually start over. Some schools, including both traditional and charter schools, are experimenting with some of these changes, but the real question is how do we create the policy and economic infrastructure to allow school districts to design an educational experience that will serve children growing up in the modern era? In many ways this task is daunting because the implications are so far-reaching. This task will certainly take time, but public education’s transformation appears inevitable. The question is how to best approach it and create a rational and effective transformation. Public school advocates can recognize that many of our schools are doing amazing things with the resources and structure they have inherited, but also admit that we must open everything up to potential change.
Download the complete white paper outlining the argument for structural changes to our public school system required by a 21st Century approach to education.
Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. In his business career, Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. Seth holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.