When “21st-Century Schooling” Just Isn’t Good Enough: A Modest Proposal
Are we serious about educating students for the global competitive economy of the future?
|by Alfie Kohn
Regular contributor to the Gazette
Reprinted from District Administration, February, 2009, with the author's permission.
April 1, 2009
Many school administrators, and even more people who aren’t educators but are kind enough to offer their advice about how our field can be improved, have emphasized the need for “21st-century schools” that teach “21st-century skills.” But is this really enough, particularly now that our adversaries (in other words, people who live in other countries) may be thinking along the same lines? Unfortunately, no. Beginning immediately, therefore, we must begin to implement 22nd-century education.
What does that phrase mean? How can we possibly know what skills will be needed so far in the future? Such challenges from skeptics – the same kind of people who ask annoying questions about other cutting-edge ideas, including “brain-based education” -- are to be expected. But if we’re confident enough to describe what education should be like throughout the 21st century – that is, what will be needed over the next 90 years or so -- it’s not much of a stretch to reach a few decades beyond that.
Essentially, we can take whatever objectives or teaching strategies we happen to favor and, merely by attaching a label that designates a future time period, endow them (and ourselves) with an aura of novelty and significance. Better yet, we instantly define our critics as impediments to progress. If this trick works for the adjective “21st-century,” imagine the payoff from ratcheting it up by a hundred years.
To describe schooling as 22nd-century, however, does suggest a somewhat specific agenda. 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. Therefore, we might as well trump the 21st-century folks by peering even further into the future.
You may have noticed the connection between this conception of education and the practice of continually ranking students on the basis of their scores on standardized tests. This is a promising start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Twenty-second--century schooling means that just about everything should be evaluated in terms of who’s beating whom. Thus, newspapers might feature headlines like: “U.S. Schools Now in 4th Place in Number of Hall Monitors” or “Gates Funds $50-Billion Effort to Manufacture World-Class Cafeteria Trays.” 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.
This need to be number one also explains why we can no longer settle for teaching to the “whole child.” The trouble is that if you have a whole of something, you have only one of it. From now on, therefore, you can expect to see conferences devoted to educating a “child- and-a-half” (CAAH). Nothing less will do in a 22nd-century global – or possibly interplanetary – economy. To cite the title of a forthcoming best-seller that educators will be reading in place of dusty tomes about pedagogy, The Solar System Is Flat.
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).