21st Century Schooling Just Isn’t Good Enough–I Think Not

Don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy Alfie Kohn’s When 21st-Century Schooling Just Isn’t Good Enough. His whimsical treatment of the Friedman “The World is Flat” mentality is dead on:

First, it signifies an emphasis on competitiveness. Even those who talk about 21st-century schools invariably follow that phrase with a reference to “the need to compete in a global economy.” The goal isn’t excellence, in other words; it’s victory. Education is first and foremost about being first and foremost…Whatever the criterion, our challenge is to make sure that people who don’t live in the United States will always be inferior to us.

How many times have we been told we should be alarmed at the number of honor students and graduates from China and India? Most of us recognize the need to change our collective perspective of our role in the world, but fear-mongering is the wrong message. Why should we as educators–the very people whose core belief is that education is the absolutely crucial ingredient for bettering society–fear other countries who are dramatically increasing the education level of their own populace? Don’t we have more to fear of a country that does little to change the fate of their illiterate population?

My concern is Kohn’s criticism of 21st Century Skills (21cs)–it should be attributed to “Friedman think.” I would argue that 21cs embraces collaboration, adaptability, real-world problem solving–not preoccupation with competition based on fear.

Kohn continues his tongue-in-cheek conversation:

In addition to competitiveness, those who specify an entire century to frame their objectives tend not to be distracted by all the fretting about what’s good for children. Instead, they ask, “What do our corporations need?” and work backwards from there. We must never forget the primary reason that children attend school – namely, to be trained in the skills that will maximize the profits earned by their future employers. Indeed, we have already made great strides in shifting the conversation about education to what will prove useful in workplaces rather than wasting time discussing what might support “democracy” (an 18th-century notion, isn’t it?) or what might promote self development as an intrinsic good (a concept that goes back thousands of years and is therefore antiquated by definition).

While this may cynically apply to traditional business models, it doesn’t apply as well to the newer business models necessary for survival today. For example, Haque in his The Smart Growth Manifesto describes one of his pillars for smart growth:

Smart growth isn’t driven by pushing product, but by the skill, dedication, and creativity of people. What’s the difference? Everything. Globalization driven by McJobs deskilling the world, versus globalization driven by entrepreneurship, venture economies, and radical ovation.

The successful business strategy of today is less about volume of product and more about creativity and evolving services/product. These characteristics of smart growth align much more closely with 21cs that traditional business models. That’s why we need students who can embrace the challenges that other people fear; why we need students who view the changes of India and China as opportunity, not competitive disadvantage; why we need educators who can look beyond traditional content standards to develop process for students to utilize higher order thinking skills, collaboration, and self-directed challenges.

21cs are often touted as important for the wrong reasons–it is less about competing to win and more about students adapting to challenges, either collaboratively or competitively depending on the situation. So while I fully appreciated Alfie’s article, I really don’t attribute his cynicism to 21cs–rather to “old” ideas about how 21cs would be applied inappropriately to out-of-date business thinking.

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