Teaching for Tomorrow

The current Time magazine cover story (“How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century,” December 2006) highlights the need for students to learn 21st century skills in order to compete in the global economy. Specifically, we should be teaching our children to:

  • Know more about the world in which we live
  • Become innovative and creative thinkers and problem solvers
  • Develop information literacy skills
  • Learn to work well with others

Winslow_Homer_-_Snap_the_Whip_(Butler_Institute_of_American_Art)How do we do that? Well, we’re actually already doing a lot of it. Math programs like Investigations and Everyday Math grew out of the University of Chicago Project more than a decade ago. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, calling for an emphasis on problem solving, critical thinking, and making connections between mathematics and other subject areas. This project, in turn, inspired other curricular groups to issue their own subject-area standards.

We’ve been working on information literacy issues since getting Internet access in 1996. I’ve blogged about this before. Our media specialists are at the heart of these skills, just as our media centers are at the heart of our schools. It has certainly been slow going, but the good news is that our kids are more information-savvy than their parents (and teachers) are.

Anyone who has been in a classroom lately knows how much students work in teams on projects. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an elementary classroom arranged in rows. The desks are almost always in a table formation, with each table of 4-6 kids working together, as a team, on various projects. As the students get older, the classroom arrangements change, but teamwork is still a big part of their school experience. We don’t do a great job of teaming outside the borders. There aren’t group members in different classes, schools, time zones, etc., but our kids learn from an early age that they have to work with others to get the job done.

Where do we drop the ball? Knowing more about the world in which we live. Sure, we do teach some introductory foreign language in the middle school now. But we don’t teach any foreign language in the elementary school, where students are most likely to achieve fluency. We also do a pitiful job of representing world languages. In the Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools, we currently offer German, French, and Spanish as regular classes. While that’s a nice start, it completely ignores the continents of Africa and Asia, where most of the world’s people are.

What about teaching students to look at things from multiple points of view? We Yankees have anecdotally heard of the civil war referred to as the “war of northern aggression” or “that recent unpleasantness”, but do we teach our students about the American Revolution from the British perspective? Maybe if we spent more time taking a global view of American society and its influence in the world, we’d have a better understanding of why there are terrorists attacking America.

We work really hard to be an excellent school district. Our community expects us to be among the best schools in the state. In order to maintain this status, we have to focus on the criteria that are measured on the report card. Unfortunately, these things don’t always correlate well with 21st century skills. That’s a common argument. If we focus on doing what’s best for our children and our society, we risk being labeled as a bad school. Hopefully, articles like this one in Time will help turn the tide a bit, so schools aren’t so discouraged from teaching students relevant skills in a meaningful way.

Photo Credit: Snap the Whip, Winslow Homer, Butler Museum of American Art.

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Author: John Schinker

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