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Marc Prensky

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The Reformers Are Leaving Our Schools in the 20th Century

Posted: 02/04/11 10:39 AM ET

In his State of the Union, President Obama rightly proclaimed that we need to "out-educate." But what he should have added is that "We can't win the future with the education of the past." Despite the good intentions of the President, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and other education reformers -- and despite all the money being thrown at our educational problems -- I believe we are going to end up with an educational system that is incapable of preparing the bulk of our students for the issues and realities they will face in the 21st century.

The reason is not our will, but our misguided goal. Almost all the educational "improvement" and "innovation" efforts now in place are aimed at bringing back the education that America offered students in the 20th century (with some technological enhancements). Sadly, too many people assume this is still the "right" education for today, although it no longer works for most of our students. Despite the many educational projects and programs now being funded and offered, practically no effort is being made to create and implement a better, more future-oriented education for all our kids.

Most reformers are focused on fixing the educational "system." But it's not the "system" that is most important to fix; it's the education that the system provides. This distinction is critical because one can change almost everything about the "system" -- the schools, the leaders, the teachers, the number of hours and days of instruction and so forth -- and still not provide an education that interests our students and gets them deeply engaged in their own learning, or that teaches all of our students what they need to be successful in their 21st century lives.

Unless we change how things are taught and what is taught in all of our classrooms, we won't be able to provide an education that has our kids fighting to be in school rather than one that effectively pushes one-third to one-half of them out. And this is true for all our kids, both advantaged and disadvantaged.

Whether couched in terms of values, character building or behaviors, and whether or not they allow some contemporary technology to be squeezed in, the reformers fundamentally believe that they can bring back "what once worked" (That it ever worked for all, of course, is a myth). That belief has tragic ramifications for our students today because the context for education has changed so radically.

In the current environment, every field and job ­-- from factory work to retail to health care to hospitality to garbage collection -- is in the process of being transformed dramatically, and often unrecognizably, by technology and other forces. And while most reformers recognize that society is going through dramatic changes (even though few truly "get" their extent, speed and implications), they too often -- and paradoxically -- do not see the need for education to change fundamentally to cope with them.

Even the charter schools that many cite as "successful" -- KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Harlem Zone being a few examples -- are essentially succeeding at the old education. That, of course, is what they have to do to be called "successful" because that is all that's measured.

Unless we begin the hard job of deleting the huge amount of our overstuffed curriculum that is no longer needed and replacing it with useful things like controlling our increasingly complex machines (i.e. programming), understanding and correctly using statistics (especially polling statistics), literacy in non-textual and mixed media, systematic problem-solving, using technology to affect change, and the basics of communication in all the world's major languages -- all starting in the earliest grades -- our kids will be ready only for what was, and not what will be. I am not suggesting we totally abandon all the once-useful things we now teach, but it is now time to put a great many of them on the reference shelf alongside the Latin and Greek we once required for retrieval only when and if needed by particular students.

Yet too many of the reformers appear fixated on the "sit up straight, pay attention, take notes" educational fantasy of the past. "Discipline" (as opposed to self-discipline, or passion) is a frequently heard objective. Obama spoke of it himself. Consciously or not, the aim of these people is to repair -- not change fundamentally -- an education that is now obsolete. And because of this their efforts are doomed to failure.

Sadly, the biggest consequence of the reformers' false belief that 20th-century education can be made to work (if only better-implemented) has been the serious, continual and unwarranted attacks on our two most valuable educational resources: our 55 million students who are our future and the 3 million adults who courageously choose to teach them. Talk about bullying! These are the people we should be nurturing and helping, rather than beating up.

The failure of the 20th century approach is not the fault of our teachers. While there are clearly some who are not suited to the profession, in the main our three million teachers are people of competence and good will. And while there is certainly room for improvement, most are just trying to accomplish, often against their will and better judgment, what the old education asks and mandates of them -- that is, to "cover" the curriculum and raise test scores. Teachers are enormously frustrated by the fact that, while seeing that what they're told to do is not succeeding, they are handcuffed from doing anything else. If we take off those handcuffs and provide a better alternative, most teachers will, I believe, be eager to implement it.

Nor are students to blame for our educational problems. Young people are biologically programmed to always be learning something. The real problem is an education that gives neither the teachers nor the students a chance to succeed. Even if we are as successful as Arne Duncan wishes in recruiting talented people to replace the million teachers now retiring, the education model they are expected to deliver will almost certainly discourage them and beat them down, causing a high percentage to leave.

As a nation, we ought to be asking ourselves: Is the right solution to the hyper-changing world to push all students up to college, or to match their total education with the needs of emerging jobs? Is the right solution to kids' falling behind to demonize their schools and teachers with poor rankings, or to find ways to help each student individually? Is the right solution to America's lower placement in international comparisons to catch up on the statistics, or to take a different route to success? Is the right solution to the high number of dropouts to discipline our kids into getting an old education or to incentivize them into getting a new one? Is the right way to get kids to attend our schools to pay them (as some suggest), or to create an education that they fight to get into? Is the right way to spend our money and creative efforts to start or expand more charter schools, or to change what goes on in all our existing classrooms?

Why have so many failed to ask these questions? One possible reason is that practically all of them -- whatever their ideology -- received the old education themselves, and then succeeded in life. They may believe that since that education worked for them, it can work for everyone. But using oneself as a sole data point is one of the most elementary mistakes in reasoning.

It is sad for our children and America's future that we are so focused on re-creating and fixing the past. Our children deserve a 21st century education, one that prepares them not just for the day they leave school, but for their future careers and the rest of their lives.

Certainly, all of today's students should be able to read and write at some minimum level. But it is equally certain that those skills will be far less important in most of our kids' lifetimes than they are today as new core skills take their place. Without the changes to our goals and focus described here, Obama's much-hyped Race to the Top is nothing but a race back to the 20th century.

Yes, we need to "out-educate." But as any business school student or consultant will tell you, when competing it is far better to have a different, more clever, strategy than to just work harder at doing the same thing others do.

There is no point to our competing with the Chinese or Indians (or Finns or Singaporeans) on test scores; we should let them win (and brag about) those useless comparisons of the past.

America should be building, rather, on our unique strengths, focusing our main efforts and resources not on book-learning from the past and standardized testing, but on stimulating the passion and creativity of all our young people and honing our well-deserved reputation for ingenuity and entrepreneurship. If we do this -- and do it right -- our young people will flock back into our schools, and the America of the future will remain the envy of the world. That's the education message Obama should be spreading.

A longer, more detailed version of this thesis is online at http://bit.ly/g8LNOB.