The Future of School is Now.

Seven years ago I attended a conference on 21st Century Learning where I learned about a set of skills that students need in addition to Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. These 21st century skills are supposed to teach children how to communicate, collaborate, think critically and creatively. It’s not the first time that our education system has named these a priority. Look in district missions and visions and strategic plans and you will see all of these words listed as instructional priorities.

There has never been a greater mismatch between the way we teach and learn, and the way we work and live. This could be illustrated in my own education career. In elementary school when I learned to research, I was taught to look up topics in the tiny library card drawers that you might see in a hipster coffee shop or boutique with an ampersand in the title. My teachers modeled problems on an overhead projector, while we dutifully copied notes. We memorized states and countries from those maps that were impossible to roll up (they’re probably in that coffee shop now too). We had some testing, but nowhere close to the standardized, data-driven testing culture of today. It was my own responsibility to prepare for the high stakes SATs, and subsequent entry tests.

By the time I was in my doctoral program, the skill of memorizing facts had become obsolete, with the exception of synthesizing everything we had learned and remembering it in a comprehensive exam testing 3 years of learning. We were constantly tasked with working in groups to solve complex problems, and then communicating those solutions to a public audience. For the discipline of education policy and leadership, writing and public speaking were critical skills.

During the course of my education career, the following disruptions have forced me to to re-learn how to learn.

  • The internet
  • Email
  • The smartphone- the cell phone, for that matter.
  • Digital Collaboration
  • Social Media

And the list goes on. For students and teachers now, these disruptions are happening faster than ever before. Just in the last several years many schools have gone from computer labs, to laptop carts, to Chromebooks and tablets, all seeking the coveted 1:1 designation. But are we moving fast enough for our workforce?

Some schools are. If you pay attention to the most innovative schools the majority of them are either elite private schools or progressive affluent public schools. These paragons of digital excellence are preparing students for the jobs they will enter. These kids are making robots, blogging, coding, making, and whatever the “latest thing” is in education they’ve been doing it for years. But what about the other 95% of schools that are just trying to keep up?

The sad reality is that low income schools are likely to be much farther behind on the innovation continuum. Potentially even five to ten years behind their affluent counterparts. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Student access to internet in and out of school: The bandwidth needs of today’s learning tools require reliable internet both in and out of school. The “flipped classroom” won’t work if you still have to do all of your digital work at school. You can’t build a robot without programming it. Or maybe you can? I don’t know- they didn’t teach me that in school.
  2. Organizational culture: If there’s not a culture around innovation, trying new things, and taking risks, it is very unlikely that teachers are empowered to introduce new elements into the classroom. The tendency of large districts is to make everything the same- sometimes down to the same lesson, at the same time in every classroom.
  3. Low Expectations: The idea that students can’t handle the high level thinking that will help them succeed is one of the most insidious problems in our public schools today. If we never give them access to that kind of teaching and learning, we’re never going to know how able these students actually are.

It may seem like I’m entangling technology and innovation, but from my observations in education today you can’t have one without the other, not when the jobs we are preparing kids for are being absorbed by automation and new technologies. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

It’s almost 2017. Fourth grade students in school now will graduate in 2025, a quarter of the way through the 21st century. Whether they will be prepared for the workforce largely depends on where they go to school right now. And even the best schools are guessing at best what those students will need based on the present. If you are an educator, a parent, or anyone invested in producing our next generation of thinkers and producers — how are you doing? Are you teaching students to solve whatever problem comes their way? To work productively with others? To use their technology instead of being distracted by it? Or maybe if we ignore all this change it will just go away?

One thing I do know is that the most lucrative jobs right now are highly autonomous, require specialized skills, and require extremely high productivity and creativity. Our schools need to move as quickly as our companies, but often they are one of the slowest moving industries. As schools move at a linear pace, and business moves at an exponential pace, the gap between where our kids are and where workplaces need them to be is only going to widen — how much will it cost to ignore this trend? Before we find out, we need to start treating the future of school as right now. For students today, there is no time to waste.

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