11 Things That I Wish “21st-Century Education” Evangelists Weren’t Doing So Much Of

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One thing I have noticed about those lists of “My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014” summaries favored by many bloggers is that many of the most widely read blog posts are comprised of listicles, urgent-sounding enumerated lists of must-dos or must-haves or pet peeves.

Because Not Your Father’s School moved—twice—in 2014, I’m afraid I can’t easily quantify the ten most popular posts here, and so instead I have created my own enumeration of themes that I have encountered in even some of my favorite educational leadership and idea blogs that I regard as pernicious and even harmful to students as well as to teachers and schools.

I try very hard to situate Not Your Father’s School at points of confluence between traditional, or at least current, educational values and practice and the waves of new thinking and ideas that show real promise in making teaching and learning—and the whole experience of school as we know it—more effective and more engaging. But I am not always patient with the tone (and often the content) of some of the evangelists of the new, who occasionally become so carried away by their own rhetoric that they miss what I think are salient and even helpful points in making the case for and then managing the change they seek.

My impatience is greatest with pronouncements that criminalize—by inference and occasionally by overt statement—the work that well intended and effective educators have been doing for the past decades and even centuries. I am equally impatient with pronouncements that imply that there is a magic bullet—be it the iPad, design thinking, or some form of “PBL”—that will by itself change the nature of education as we know it and bring students out from under some putative boot heel of repression and boredom.

If the reader is interested in what I do stand for, we humbly recommend a review of past posts here as well as Not Your Father’s School’s precursors, Admirable Faculties and The New Progressive.

In the meantime, here are my own, perhaps overstated, pet peeves in the world of 21st-century educational evangelism and some very brief thoughts on how these may be harmful.

1. De-valuing the education most children currently receive

A favorite tactic of keynoters and their live-tweeters is to issue blanket condemnations of all current educational practice. While there is plenty wrong with what goes on in many classrooms today, such blanket statements simply denigrate the current nature of schools. I fear that this serves, outside the echo chamber, to further harm the reputation of education, schools, and teachers in the popular mind and thus detracts from the worth that children see in their own work and lives as students.

2. Humiliating and undermining the worth of educators

When gurus speak of the harm they believe done by “traditional” teaching and teachers (whatever these terms even mean), it adds to the general level of disrespect that the world at large seems to feel toward educators. This in turn devalues the experience of learning in the minds of students, as in #1, above. Educators tend to be people committed to doing right by kids; let’s honor this.

3. Exaggerating the failures of traditional educational systems

The educational practices of the past may have created the world today, but I don’t think that we can blame worksheets, lectures, or even boring textbooks for all of the world’s ills. I’m optimist and even romantic enough to believe that effective learning (and creative, thoughtful teaching) was taking place even before the Age of the Internet or even the “discovery” of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We can of course do better, and most of us are trying.

4. Mis-characterizing and undervaluing ethics education

There is ethics education and then there is coercive moral and character education. All attempts to help students understand, clarify (if you will), and form their own values are not examples of pernicious regimentation or egregious moral relativism. I am of a mind that education is indeed a deeply moral enterprise, and I believe that we ignore or scoff at this concept at our peril.

5. Undervaluing the teaching and mastery of fundamental skills like reading and arithmetic

The multiple C’s of 21st-century education are critical to effective educational experiences, but so are the old three R’s: effective reading and written communication and the ability to perform basic calculations and estimations. The deep flaws in the Common Core and its presentation do not make an argument for ignoring the idea that kids need to be able to read and extract information from multiple kinds of texts or that they need to be adept at writing and basic math. I’d go so far as to suggest that there actually some kinds of basic information that kids need to know (some basic place geography is one example, as retro as this idea may be) in order to more deeply understand the larger concepts and issues that could underlie both greater relevance and deeper engagement.

6. Proclaiming that entrepreneurship is the only path to a better future

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the idea that every child must learn to be a junior business tycoon is a little wacky. Sure, it’s great for kids to know how to create, organize, collaborate, and advocate around an idea, but the current penchant for learning more informed by Donald Trump’s The Apprentice than by John Dewey’s Democracy and Education makes me sad for kids.

7. Failing to take on the real issues in American education: equity and justice

As the fallout from Ferguson and the Garner case continues, I’m not hearing the technology and technique gurus working terribly hard to connect “21st-century learning” with issues of social equity and social justice—or straight-up racism and violence. We hear much about “empathy” in the context of collaboration and or PBL (of whichever sort, problem- or project-based), but it feels too much as though education for “innovation” and education for social justice live on opposite sides of the house. They shouldn’t.

8. Ignoring the limitations of technology and the continuing digital divide

Every time there is a power outage even society’s haves should be reminded that access to all the benefits of technology is not equitably distributed in our society. Furthermore, there is a tendency among what some folks I know call “technology triumphalists” to speak of technology as the universal cure to all of education’s ills. Research suggests that some learning actions (e.g., note-taking, even reading) happen more effectively when not mediated by gadgets, and even if this is a transitional state in our evolution toward homo gadgetus, we need to acknowledge that human interaction and certain kinds of manual action (call it “making,” if you like) still have value as part of the learning process.

9. Underplaying the issues that most imperil the world

Maybe they’re just too big and scary to contemplate, but climate change, persistent totalitarianism, and waves of intolerance and extremism are massive and omnipresent blips on the globe’s radar screen. There is danger in making education fear-based (although we weathered education against the backdrop of the Atomic Age air-raid drills and the imperatives of Sputnik Panic), but there is a compelling argument for having authentic and urgent global issues explicitly inform more of our teaching and learning.

10. Pretending that deeply reflective and creative thinking about education are their own invention

Perhaps it is that my immediate forebears were what I believe to have been thoughtful and even innovative educators, and perhaps is that I am fascinated by educational history, but I happen to be rather convinced that the generality the educators in the past were neither numb-skulled servants of the industrial state or child-hating cretins. Let’s give our ancestors in this enterprise credit for being caring, insightful, and creative men and women who were deeply committed to doing their best by the children in their classrooms. Just because some of those classrooms were single rooms with programs built around slates and McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers doesn’t mean that all teaching was horrid or that students were universally bored.

11. Failing to sustain their (our?) own enthusiasms

This might be the worst thing educational enthusiasts do to their (our?) schools, their (our?) colleagues, and their (our?) students. Every teacher can tell you about the serial enthusiasms that have washed over their schools in successive tsunamis of urgency, whether the urgency is based on market worries or sincere concern for students. And as everyone in schools knows, the defense mechanism that some educators develop against these tsunamis is cynicism that takes the form of passive(-aggressive) resistance to new ideas. As leaders we often haven’t done a great job of sustaining, or even making the case for sustaining, novel practices long enough to really see what really works or to build them into the culture of education.

With #11 first and foremost, I’m willing to count myself, at least occasionally, among the offenders in each of these areas. But my own primary goal for 2015 is to minimize the trash I talk or imply about educational practitioners and educational practice that haven’t quite caught up with the newest of the new or with the shiny ideas that attract my attention in the moment.

That, and also to minimize list-based blog posts.

Happy 2015!

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