Let’s Pursue New and Broad Possibilities

Columnist Andreas Schleicher, in TeacherMagazine.com, frets, “It’s so much easier to educate students for our past, than for their future. The biggest risk to schooling today isn’t its inefficiency; our way of schooling is losing its purpose and relevance.”

These days, people, cities, countries, and continents are connecting digitally in ways that vastly increase human potential. Any one person can shift the trajectory of most anything for better or worse. Collectively, people can address big problems and find ample solutions. The speed and power of digital technology, with all its complexity, introduces once unthinkable and still unfathomable possibilities.

Today, success comes to those who have ideas long before they have the financing. Ideas are not rooted in textbook knowledge. Recognizing a problem and conceiving of a solution involves the ability to see beyond what is obvious, formulate questions, conceive of concepts, apply practical skills and intuitions, and integrate what one comes to think and know. Through trial and error, flexibility, ingenuity, and perseverance people find an answer to a big problem or simple nuisance. 

In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse ideas and interests requires people to become adept in handling tensions and dilemmas. Progress requires people to strike a balance between competing needs for equity and freedom, autonomy and community, and innovation and continuity. Can this be taught in an education system that is inherently resistant and reluctant to change?

Undeniably, schools teach important and necessary skills. Society greatly benefits from a citizenry that can read, write, manipulate numbers, understand various fields of science, possess knowledge of global, social and political issues, and articulate thoughts, beliefs, and facts. However, this alone is quickly becoming woefully and obviously inadequate. Why are we complacent and complicit? What holds us back from expecting more for our students?

Some point their fingers at teachers who are comfortable in the status quo, teaching as they were taught. Others blame parents, who are resistant to their children learning skills they don’t know and studying subjects and concepts they were never taught. But at the heart of the problem is a large and cumbersome ecosystem called public schooling, that is driven by political and economic interests, antiquated beliefs, corporate motivations, and fear of failure. It’s a system that requires compliance and blind commitment to a teach-and-test approach. 

Today, people are no longer celebrated for what they know, unless they appear on Jeopardy; Google seems to know everything.  We marvel at people who have the capacity to theorize, search and sort through information, and deeply understand and make sense of content. Those who think, work collaboratively, develop new ideas, and contribute to society are leagues ahead of others. Knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it.

For education to be of service to its students and society it needs to emphasize the integration of subjects, of students and of learning conditions, be connected with real-world contexts, and cognizant of the resources in the community. Instruction needs to be project-based and co-created by students and teachers. This requires adults to see their students as resourceful and competent with ideas of value and worth. 

Educators need to model characteristics of collaboration and mentorship and tap into their own passions and those held by their students in order to create curricula that are responsive and innovative. The future is also about creating partnerships that unlock limitless potential. Schools should provide for, and educators should welcome, synergies that find new ways to enhance professional, social and cultural capital with others.

In the face of fast and furious advancement will our children be offered an education that inspires them to be nimble and curious inventors and social and cultural contributors? We can allow technology and globalization to lead or we can realize these are the tools to a new cultural, social, and economic landscape where original ideas grow and our children emerge as vital participants and contributors. Let’s imagine and pursue new and broad possibilities. Let us demand and help create schools where children and teachers collectively and vibrantly play with words and numbers, explore ideas and inventions, experiment and innovate, and step into the realm of risk, failure and success.

Published by Peter Swain