“When will we ever use this stuff?”

All teachers have had the experience of being asked the following question by the students seated in front of them: “Mr. Jones, when will ever use this stuff? The question is usually blurted out in the middle of a class session where students are being asked to recite some piece of information presented by the teacher or from an assigned reading. Teachers respond to this question with the following institutional responses: the course is required; the course is a prerequisite; the course is essential for future employment.

The first two institutional responses are what they are: institutional constructs that have nothing to do with educating, but, everything to do with certifying. The last response, however, does signal that course content might have some educational value. The claim that subject matter content is essential for future employment makes two assumptions about the acquisition of occupational skills and the high demand of those same skills in the global market place.

The first assumption would run counter to what we know about transfer of knowledge from classrooms to real world situations. Based on transfer theory in learning the knowledge and skills taught in classrooms would have to be directly related to the specific tasks of a designated occupation. The only discernible goal of the lessons taught in our nation’s’ classrooms is transferring information from textbooks or lectures to answers on a test, which, according to transfer theory is forgotten within minutes of handing in the test.

Even if students were able to retain the definitions, facts, and procedures transmitted in a classroom, the configuration of information that aligns well with multiple choice tests, does not align at all with occupational tasks demanding that bits of information be put together to solve workplace problems or perform workplace routines. Rarely, if ever, in classrooms are subjects or lessons designed to put the pieces of information together in ways that make sense out of the problems and tasks of different occupations. The claim by teachers that at some point in our career path we will need all of these facts, definitions, and procedures is both theoretically and practically false.

The second assumption that the knowledge and skills presented in classrooms is in high demand in a global workplace is not borne out by surveys of employers. When employers are asked what schools should be teaching, they overwhelmingly recite the “Four C’s:” critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Returning to our average classroom in this nation, the assign and assess model of instruction is not designed for students to engage in any form of critical thinking, or communication, or collaboration, or creativity. In fact, the institutional goals of standardization, compliance, control, and accountability, are in direct opposition to the skills employers are pleading with schools to teach.

The fundamental skill supporting the “Four C’s,” is the ability think conceptually. What this skill entails is the ability to make sense out of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is not important, and, above all, to combine many bits of information together in ways that will solve workplace problems and improve workplace performance.

The school’s systems we now have in this country were designed and continue to promote a production line theory of education. All communities have brick buildings, divided into many identical rooms, with each room equipped with rows of desks and chairs. At the sound of the bell, students move from classroom to classroom with an adult standing in front of the room transmitting large amounts of information. In one room the adult recites names and dates. In the next room the adult recites theories and formulas. In the next room the adult recites theorems and equations. At the end of the week, all of this information is produced on a test.

While this production line model of schooling aligns well for the functions and tasks of an industrial economy, it becomes obsolete in a knowledge-based economy. Employers no longer look for workers that can learn the how of their jobs. Employers now look for workers that also understand and can perform the what and why of their jobs.

The question remains, how would we design school organizations, classroom teaching, and curriculum to legitimately claim that what is being taught is essential for future employment. In designing twenty-first century schooling, fundamental to that design is acknowledging three realities about twenty-first century learning: first, we now have countless sources of information; second, that information is readily accessible from a variety of technology platforms; and, third, all educational preparation has a short shelf-life. With these three realities in mind, a school model that would best prepare student bodies for living and working in the twenty-first century would need to make the following changes to our current factory style model of schooling.

Buildings—>Work Stations

The easy access to all forms of knowledge from any place, at any time, renders obsolete the belief that all knowledge or work is lodged in a physical building. This does not mean that a physical building is necessarily obsolete; it does mean that educating or training can take place in a variety of ventures depending on the nature of the learning goal.

Timeless Information—>Just in Time Information

The amount and speed of information creation has rendered obsolete the often-stated classroom principle that students must learn a certain set of definitions, facts, and procedures which are universally applicable in the occupational and schooling world. The solutions to the number and complexity of the problems students will be asked to solve in this century will not be found in memorized “first” principles; it will be invented from the assembling of bits of information gathered from large domains of knowledge that are tailored to address specific realities on the ground.

Textbooks—>Search Engines

The accessibility of information through a variety of search engines has rendered obsolete the belief in the existence of a stable set of definitions, facts, and procedures housed in buildings, textbooks, lecture notes, or journals. In a web-based world, we have clouds storing countless pieces of information that can be accessed from any place, any time, in any venue.

Subjects–>Problems

The complexity of social, economic, and political conditions created by a post-industrial society has rendered obsolete the subject centered curriculum. The subject centered curriculum is an institutional construct designed to award a credit for time-served in a classroom. The design of school buildings, the certification of teachers, the seven-period day, the test on Friday, are all products of a classification system that reduces the content and methods of a discipline into bits of information that can be organized under a course heading. While subjects are perfect configurations for achieving the credentialing goal of institutional schooling, they are poorly suited for engaging students in the kinds of thinking and methods of inquiry for solving real world problems or for enhancing the fundamental skills of the 4 C’s.

Periods–>Projects

The complexity if the issues we confront in the twenty-first century has rendered obsolete the completion of assignments within stated periods of time. The processes involved in solving twenty-first century problems require concentrated periods of time solely devoted to gathering, analyzing, compiling, hypothesizing, experimenting, and implementing. Such a process cannot be limited to subjects studied, to institutional timetables, to scheduled team members, to a prescribed outcome, or to a team leader.

Teachers—>Facilitators

The depth and breadth of the knowledge and skills required to solve twenty-first century problems has rendered obsolete the role of teacher as the source and transmitter of all knowledge. Twenty-first century knowledge and skills demand the capability of working closely with a variety of technologies to acquire the information and processes required to resolve problems in which no existing social, economic, intellectual, or political models can cope with. The role of teacher in the context of resolving complex societal problems is transformed from telling, allocating, and inspecting to educating, facilitating, and coaching.

Written into all school mission statements are terms that mirror the knowledge and skills employers have termed the 4C’s. Although all members of the school community feel good about a school district committed to each of the 4C’s, they continue to support school systems whose organizational and instructional configuration work in opposition to the realization of the 4C’s.

I have summarized above the changes to school organizations and classroom teaching that would bring our school systems in line with the demands of a global economy and the human and physical problems we have created on this planet. I understand that these changes, in the staid world of schooling, would be considered radical. I also know that to put these changes off will leave our future generations unprepared for a radically different occupational world and a radically different human and physical world.

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