Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fighting Inertia in Teaching 21st Century Skills

In President Obama's first speech to the nation, he stated categorically that the United States' educational system is in crucial need of reform. He's not the first politician to say that. He's not even the first President to say that, but for the first time in my adult life, I didn't roll my eyes as I heard it. The reason is that he didn't say "our teachers aren't teaching" and pummel us with "higher accountablility" like every other politician does. He said we will be restructuring the way things are taught from the ground up.It's too early to really tell yet, but I get the distinct impression that he gets it. He really gets it. The world has changed so radically that new teaching methods and criteria are needed in education. The problem is that this is going to be an uphill battle on par with getting universal health care.

A big part of the problem is that for all the talk about 21st Century skills, by and large policy makers just don’t understand them themselves. The federal government wants higher standards to make the United States competitive, but in order to facilitate improvement, they require non-stop standardized testing that flies completely in the face of that goal. Politicians want results, and high test scores are closest thing to a tangible trophy they can get their hands on. Parents and community members often share this perspective as well.

In addition, we are fighting inertia. Countless times I’ve heard variations of “we’ve always done it this way, so that’s the way we should always do it” come from teachers who have been teaching for fifteen years or more. I’ve even heard “why mess with what’s working?” when the evidence has shown that what’s being done is NOT working. What they really mean is it appears to be working for the students who are highly self-motivated. The remainder is left in the dust, and that remainder is growing too rapidly to discount.

Certainly there are teachers who simply don’t want to make the effort to alter lesson plans that are so old they were printed on a mimeograph machine, but I believe a good number are simply frightened of appearing ignorant in front of peers and students. When you’ve been considered the local expert in your field for years, it’s very difficult to admit you don’t know how to do something. I think the most crucial thing we can do to truly initiate change is to get society in general and educational policy makers in specific to realize that education does not end with a bubble filled in on a standardized test.

One of my favorite sections from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” says it beautifully:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
You can never get to the horizon, no matter how far you travel or how fast you go. The margins of knowledge are also likewise out of reach, and it is the exploration and journey of education that are crucial. That is what needs to be reinforced.


  1. Very well put. You said exactly why I believe Obama means it too.

  2. Hope it's okay that I linked your blog on mine.

  3. Hey, no problem, Jeff. Link away!