Tommy Chang
Apr 5 · 6 min read

It has been nearly 15 years since Thomas Friedman wrote the book “The World is Flat.” In a N.Y. Times article summarizing his ideas, Friedman argues that historical and geographic divisions are increasingly irrelevant in the global economy and that “Globalization 3.0 is not only going to be driven more by individuals but also by a much more diverse — non-Western, nonwhite — group of individuals. In Globalization 3.0, you are going to see every color of the human rainbow take part.”

According to US Census Bureau, there are currently 350 languages being spoken in US homes. By 2044, less than half of all Americans will be non-Hispanic White alone, and by 2060, nearly one in five of the nation’s total population is projected to be foreign born. Between 2014 and 2060, the native population is expected to grown 22% while the foreign-born population is projected to grow by 85%.

We, as Americans, live within a global society that is increasing interdependent and ever transforming. At the same time, the global society lives within our country, adding cultural and linguistic assets that set us up to be more competitive than other countries. Yet we seem to struggle more than ever to embrace our diversity, including in our schools and instead of embracing ethnic, religious, political, gender diversity, we are witnessing the rise of nationalism here in our country. Immigrants are a source of innovation. Indigenous people are sophisticated civil engineers and ingenious social innovators. Thus, if we fail in our efforts to sustain and foster our students’ cultural and linguistic assets, we lose our advantage on the global stage.

I read Thomas Friedman’s book 15 years ago and since reading that book, I have been a classroom teacher, a school administrator, and system leader. I can’t help but wonder if schooling in America has failed to evolve with the pace of our ever changing times. The process to redesign schools and school systems is immensely slow. Do this simple exercise: do an image search on google with the phrase “classroom 1800” and do the same for “classroom 2019.” You will see the same basic format schooling except one search reveals pictures that are in black and white and the other pictures that are in color. The construct though is still the same- one teacher, young people in chairs, a confined space. This sort of paradigm for learning makes personalization difficult and often encourages ability grouping and segregation along racial, cultural and linguistic lines. Schools should be the starting point to prepare youth for the realities of this ever changing world and to create a society that is more equitable. So, where do we start?

“This sort of paradigm for learning makes personalization difficult and often encourages ability grouping and segregation along racial, cultural and linguistic lines.”

Below I will outline the why, the how, and the what of what we need to make the shift.

We need a new purpose for schooling- the why. Life in the 21st century is complex. Expectations in today’s workplaces are different from just a few decades ago with advances in disruptive technologies and globalization. Achievement gaps continue to persist despite elevated standards and strong accountability measures. While there are pockets of success, we are still not addressing systemic issues in American education. We need redefine the purpose of education, one that prepares every student for success in the 21st century, and frameworks can help us with the process of redesign. The work of the Next Generation Learning Challenge and The Mastery Transcript Consortium are promising and provide directionality for educators, schools and systems to create a new purpose for schooling. Also, districts and cities are also redefining graduate profiles and definitions for college, career, and life readiness. For example, Boston Opportunity Agenda convened a group of stakeholders from the city’s education ecosystem to define college, career and life readiness in a simple, elegant and innovative way.

We need a new design for instruction- the how. As Tom Vander Ark wrote recently on Forbes.com, “Most young people are going to lead lives full of novelty and complexity in an innovation economy powered by exponential technology and entrepreneurship. The majority of working adults will soon be freelancers but they’ll often be delivering value as members of diverse distributed teams.” If young people are to become the scholars, entrepreneurs, and innovators of tomorrow, they should be engaged in solving cognitively demanding, real-world problems alongside their peers of all backgrounds, with different ability groups together, not segregated; and working in physical and virtual spaces that encourage 21st century skills like critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration. Students should not just be “digesting content” from their teachers, they should be working both independently and collaboratively to create knowledge, and sharing that knowledge with others. Teachers should become more facilitators and coaches, and less content deliverers. This is a radical shift in pedagogy, one in which direction instruction is not the predominant modality for learning. This will require systemic rethinking of teacher preparation, professional development, and private-public partnerships, let alone the redesign of physical and virtual spaces, along with how time is utilized in and out of school.

We need to rethink the content- the what. For too long, the content of what is taught and how is taught has been the dictated by policy makers, with minimal consideration for the local context. It tends to create monolithic systems that do not consider the diverse assets of young people and their communities. America’s greatest asset is that the racial, cultural and linguistic diversity of the world exists within our borders and thus we have the opportunity and responsibility to foster and sustain our assets. That must start with challenging the biases and assumptions about people of color so not to support social norms that lead further marginalization. The American education system must stop acting as a vehicle for cultural hegemony, reinforcing the worldview of the dominant class as the accepted cultural norm. As I recently wrote an essay, America was “built upon the colonization of indigenous peoples and the forced immigration of enslaved people” and that “the vestiges of this subjugation through laws and practices have had a lasting impact for generations.” Forced assimilation and suppression of language and culture still happens today. We must “decolonize” the curriculum. That means fostering bilingual programming for the purposes sustaining linguistic assets of native speakers. That means teaching about the brilliance and innovation of indigenous cultures instead of the narrative that small groups of Europeans conquered inferior civilizations due to their superior technologies. That means reminding our students that there is a rich American legacy of Black, Latino, Asian, and White communities standing in solidarity. For too long, we have allowed biases to subjugate students of color, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students of low socioeconomic status with watered down, highly proceduralized curricula instead of the opportunity to do rigorous, cognitively demanding work. Rigorous, cognitively demanding work requires all young people to be engaged in academic discourse, working together on challenging and authentic tasks, and contributing to their communities and the world.


All this will not come easy. There is a lot of inertia in the current system. But systems are designed to get the results they get and since we are not liking the results, we must be willing to create a new design. We will need to take more risks and generate more prototypes of the schools we want, learn quickly from them and get better as fast as possible. This will require innovation to occur at all levels of school systems, in particular generated by those most affected, namely students, parents and teachers. We need to stop “waiting for superman” and figure it out ourselves. Furthermore, innovation is the result of dynamic human interactions and synergy, not one person’s epiphany. In a nutshell, in order to be equitable, we need to be innovative. In order to be innovative, we need synergy. In order to design for synergy, we need to practice bringing human beings together to collaborate and learn from each other. For the sake of America’s democratic and pluralistic society, we must figure this out.

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