Wednesday, March 11, 2009

21st century wrangle

The battle is on again. This time the front is called "21st Century Skills". When Russia launched Sputnik, beating America into space in 1957, it caused a national crisis. Fingers were pointed at our schools: they were obviously failing us. School reform moved to the front burner. Top scientists convened at Woods Hole, Massachusetts to rewrite high school science curricula;
"new math" challenged traditional teachers and parents alike; and the "open classroom" concept led to the construction of thousands of new school buildings to accommodate this new thinking In the midst of all this, Montessori education was re-introduced to the United States. Among these reforms of the late '50's, only Montessori survives, perhaps because it was already a proven idea, with 50 years of field work under its belt by 1957.

Today it is the global economy, not sputnik that has grabbed us by the scalp. We are falling behind! Our schools are obviously failing us! We need reform! Sound familiar?

"There's a dark little joke exchanged by educators with a dissident streak: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folks defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls--every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walkes into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. 'This is a school,' he declares. 'We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.' (Time 12.18.2006)"

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind narrowed focus onto basic skills, and ensured compliance via high stakes testing. These reforms made schools even more recognizable to Rip Van Winkle, and precipitated a new wave of school reform ideas.

An organization called Partnership for 21st Century Skills has the most memorable new name in school reform today, but they're not alone. Perhaps you've read Tough Choices or Tough Times by The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce . Or Time's "How to bring our schools out of the 20th century." Or Five Minds for the Future by Harvard's Howard Gardner . Or College Learning for the New Global Century . Or Dan Pink's best seller, A Whole New Mind .

Each of these sources identifies a set of skills required so our kids will thrive, and our country prosper in the future. Tough Choices or Tough Times calls for:

  • creativity and innovation,

  • facility with the use of abstractions,

  • self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion,

  • leadership,

  • and the ability to function well as a member of a team.

(Thanks to Pat Bassett, Executive Director of NAIS for this summary.)

All reforms get bludgeoned. We humans resist change, and our most change-resistant institution is the school. Check out Jay Matthews, education writer for The Washington Post: "Latest doomed pedagogical fad: 21st century skills." At the heart of Matthew's criticism is the absence of curriculum content in the 21st century skills agenda -- and a glaring absence of "How To".

For example, how do you teach "self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion?" Traditional schools say that is why homework is assigned, so they are already accomplishing this objective. No change needed.

I disagree, and so do the leaders of the 21st century skills movement. Freedom and responsibility are both required for students to develop self-discipline and the ability to manage one's own work. When the teacher mandates what work is to be done, for how long, and under what circumstances, students have no opportunity to manage their own work. In order to give students such opportunities, we must renovate the organizational structures of the classroom. The crystal cathedral is not built of concrete blocks.

As much as I agree with the objectives of "21st century education," I must also acknowledge that Jay Matthews is right. There is no evidence in the 21st century skills literature of how to accomplish their agenda. There is no description of what a 21st century school should look like, of how it will function, of how it actually differs from Rip Van Winkle Academy.

This is why Montessori education is so extraordinary. As a scientist, Dr. Montessori began by observing children. She identified their characteristics as learners. She was a pioneer of what we now call developmental psychology. From that starting point, she developed learning materials, a curriculum, and a set of pedagogical principles. She trained teachers in the Montessori method, and established an organization to grant credentials to teachers and to accredit schools. No other approach to education integrates developmental psychology, educational philosophy, curriculum content, classroom materials, teacher training, and school accreditation. By doing so, Montessori education bridges the agenda of 21st century education reformers, and the critics who demand attention to content and methodology.

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