Preparing Kids for the 21st C: "So What's It Gonna, Be, Eh?"
By Patrick F. Bassett, NAIS President
The crusty headmaster of one of America's most prestigious schools said a generation ago, "It doesn't matter what we teach, so long as most of it is boring and all of it irrelevant." There has always been in the more elite levels of schools and colleges this assumption, that what were supposed to emerge from the American "academy" were critical thinkers with a broad base of knowledge. Our European counterparts were more likely to specialize in a field (taking fewer courses to prepare for "A-level" exams in Great Britain, for example), but the expectations were similar: To create someone with a scholarly penchant and at least some level of deep knowledge in one or more academic disciplines.
The three-hundred year liberal arts tradition in American independent schools and universities was at first, partly pragmatic, but even then pointing towards a goal of an educated and well-rounded citizen, as indicated in the famous observation by one of America's true intellectuals, John Adams:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain. (From the biography, John Adams, by David McCollough.)
Our more contemporary fantasy has been that the academy's liberal arts and discipline-specific orientation is still perfectly situated for "knowledge workers" in the "Information Age."
What has always been understood but not acknowledged, however, is that only a small percentage of students actually becomes inspired to become both broadly educated scholars and an expert in at least one field-thankfully, since there's always been a glut of candidates to teach in the academy, at least at both the independent school and university levels. What better life could there be for a scholar than lifelong research, contemplation, and transmission of the culture of ideas and knowledge to the next generation?
Except, now, everything has changed, and we're rightfully worried that we're not even doing so well in preparing students for the last century much less for the current one.
For one thing, nationally, we've never had that good a "success rate" either in engaging students fully or graduating all of them from high school, much less college. Of one hundred 9th graders entering high school, 67 earn a high school diploma in four years, 38 enter college, 26 are still enrolled after sophomore year, but only 18 graduate within six years.1 Not a very good "return on investment" for the US educational system for massive expenditures of time, energy, and resources.
On a national level, our college colleagues don't seem to be any more effective than their school counterparts (the exception in the college ranks, like the exception in the K-12 market, being very selective public institutions and private schools where persistence is a given and graduation rates approach 95% or higher). According to the American Institutes for Research, only 38 percent of graduating college seniors can successfully perform tasks such as comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials. More disturbingly, many of our colleges and universities don't challenge their students academically or teach them effectively. In the latest findings from the National Survey of Student Engagement, about 30 percent of college students reported being assigned to read four or fewer books in their entire senior year, while nearly half (48 percent) of seniors were assigned to write no papers of 20 pages or longer.2
Apparently, the disengagement begins early. "Kids lose their mojo when they get to fourth grade," where it has been evident that declining interest in reading begins, accompanied by a gradual disengagement from school. It's also where American test scores, competitive internationally to that point, begin to drop.3
So, it turns out very probably that we pay a high price for teaching what seems to kids, increasingly in the digital age, that which is "boring and irrelevant."
What's quite ironic is that there is already emerging wide consensus among educators, scholars, and the business community about what's necessary to teach and how to teach it for what Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) calls the "Conceptual Age" of the 21st. C.

Skills and Values

In my work with schools in the US and around the world, I frequently address groups of leaders, not only educators but their boards of trustees, primarily comprised of CEOs, social sector leaders, professionals, and, internationally, the diplomatic corps. When I ask the kind of "generative" question these school leaders should be asking themselves, "What are the skills and values that will be rewarded in the 21st. C.?," I always, every time everywhere and anywhere in the world, get the same list:
  • integrity and character
  • teaming and leadership
  • communication skills
  • empathy, social and global consciousness
  • expertise/competence in some field
  • innovativeness and creativity.
What's interesting is that this "wisdom of the crowd" is actually confirmed by a whole host of researchers, observers, and commissions who have "weighed in" on the topic within the last year or so. If I had to pick the current books and reports most important for educators (leaders and teachers) and education policy-makers (boards and government officials) to read and seriously contemplate (assuming everyone's already read Thomas Friedman's, The World Is Flat and Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams' Wikinomics), I would choose be the following selections. And from those four, I would pay attention to the conclusions about what schools should teach and students should learn in order to succeed in life and in the marketplace of the 21st. C:
  • From Tough Choices or Tough Times - The New Commission on the Future of the American Workforce (February?, 2007): 1. ) creativity and innovation; 2. ) facility with the use of ideas and abstractions; 3.) self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion; 4.) leadership; 5.) ability to function well as a member of a team.
  • From Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future (May? 2007): 1. ) disciplined mind (expertise in a field); 2. ) synthesizing mind (scanning and weaving into coherence); 3. ) creating mind (discovery and innovation); 4. ) respectful mind (open mindedness and inclusiveness); 5. ) ethical mind (moral courage).
  • From AACU (Association of American Colleges and Universities)'s College Learning for the New Global Century (date?): 1.) cross-disciplinary knowledge; 2. ) communication skills; 3. ) teamwork; 4. ) analytical reasoning; 5. ) real world problem-solving skills.
  • From Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind - Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (date?): 1.) design (beyond function to beauty); 2.) story (beyond argument to story-telling); 3. ) symphony (beyond individual insight or virtuosity to synthesis and orchestration); 4.) empathy (beyond logic to empathy, social and global consiousness); 5.) play (beyond seriousness to play and flow-and discovering the intoxication of what one loves and is really good at); 6.) meaning: (beyond accumulation of "things" to "meaning in life," past "making a difference" to "leaving a legacy" and to experiencing the transcendent).
Thus, an act of "symphony" and "synthesis" coupled with an act of "meaning" and "discipline" to use Pink's and Gardner's terms, respectively, is to see from these disparate sources the same message and meaning: the need to re-engineer the curriculum of 21st. C. schools to align with these agreed-pon skills, values, and aptitudes if our students are to be well-served (and our economy and culture to prosper) in a much more competitive, global, high-tech, volatile and uncertain future.


So, to quote the late and great Kurt Vonnegut, "What's it gonna be, eh?"
How about starting with a modest re-direction, since whole-scale reform never has or ever will work in the education industry, and since Wikinomics points us to a much more bottom up "peer-negotiated" future that the next generation of teachers, already in our schools, could, for the first-time in the history of our industry, lead. So let's ask (in Mark Perensky's term), the "digital natives" of any age in our school (including not just the 20-something "net-generation" new teachers but also their younger brothers and sisters actually in school as students and their older innovation-minded colleague mentors) to co-design the school of the future. All of the following possibilities exist for "experimenting" and co-creating the new design:
  • schools within a school open to any or all for part of their program-with the opportunity to "concentrate" in an area of interest and strength: robotics; the arts; entrepreneurship; inventors workshop; design workshop; Web2.0 development; video-casting; or any of the traditional disciplines (foreign language, math, science, English, history) going way beyond what's possible in one's typical "survey" courses.
  • semester school option within one's own school or among a collaborative supported by many schools, like the Mountain School (VT), CITYterm (XX); or SEGL - School for Ethical and Global Leadership (DC);
  • a one-day per week alternative curriculum, like the service and career internships on Wednesdays at Madeira School (DC) or the tech internships at the Mater Dei schools (CA);
  • virtual collaboratives that match schools from all over world to develop "project"-based curriculum addressing real-world projects and problems, such as the online "Virtual Science Fair" for NESA (Near-East South Asia Schools Association) international schools, or the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Challenge 20/20 Program based upon Jean-Francois Rischard's High Noon: 20 Global Problems and 20 Years To Solve Them.
  • whatever else inspires the "R&D" design team made up of the volunteer team within the school community (students, faculty, venture capitalists, board members, and parents).
What is likely but sad is that it will be the well-resourced and "successful" schools in the public and private domains that will be equipped to move forward with the 21st. C. agenda. But poor kids in marginal schools need this level of experimentation as well: Isn't four days of "drill and kill" to meet the government "standards" and "testing" agenda be punishment enough for all involved? Wouldn't one day per week of truly engaging and exciting schooling be worth coming to school for the other four days of week for all students in all schools?
No top-down, government-mandated, administrator-required approach need apply: Just take the folks in any school who already possess the 21st. C. skills identified above and give them resources and a blessing to experiment and permission to fail. If we do so, in the new networked and collaborative digital model of the Conceptual Age, we will quickly find out what works and emulate it world-wide a million times over. Now there's a proposition that will attract just the right next generation of teachers ("Net-gen") to your school. Here's the cool thing: thinking and acting this way has the potential to attract and keep all-stars to one's school. And, it could even pay for them.
1 Ed Week, 3.22.06, from National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (Boulder, CO).
2 "Where Colleges Don't Excel," Thomas Toch and Kevin Carey, April 6, 2007 3"Fourth-Grade Slump," Newsweek, 2/19/07.