Last month’s column described a dilemma that our curious brain currently confronts. We’ve created wonderful technologies that have now taken us far beyond our biological limitations. For example, U.S. pioneers moved at a human scale during their five month wagon trip to the west coast — but I certainly didn’t during a recent cross-country flight that took but five hours. Further, a complex football play that lasts a few incomprehensible seconds when viewed in real time becomes much clearer via several slowed-down multiple-angle instant televised replays. Technology has thus allowed us to experience and understand a world minimally connected to human biology.

Six decades ago, my childhood schools were confident that what they taught would survive through my life. I accepted their stable curricular facts and cultural applications at face value — and they have served me reasonably well. I’m confident, however, that much of science and technology will have exponentially advanced beyond current levels when my grandchildren reach my age.

As factual knowledge becomes more transitory, this century’s schools will confront major curricular and instructional challenges related to the instability of science and technology and the complexity of their cultural applications. Schools have historically sought to communicate cultural stability. Their new challenge will be to function effectively in an unstable cultural environment. Two proposed educational approaches follow:

When science and technology remain reasonably stable, instruction and assessment focus on knowing the product (the correct answer) rather than on the cognitive processes that led to the answer.

The value of the product is often minimal in the total experience of an activity. For example, the final score is a small part of a game. Shortly after it’s over, the athletes start to think about the next game. Artists tend to sell the creations that occupied so much time and creative energy. They want to get to the next challenge. A crossword puzzle that may have taken well over an hour to complete is immediately forgotten. The unscripted preparations for a wedding are more often recalled over the years than the scripted wedding itself. It’s the process, not the product!

The times suggest that politicians and schools should back off their current obsession with product-oriented standards and assessment, and joyfully jump into the uncharted waters of exploration. At least some European educators must have advised their students 500 years ago to get a ship and go west to discover what’s over the horizon. We’re now in a similar period of great exploration — but now it’s into an immense outer space and a microscopic inner space. Explorers don’t want to be told the answer, they want to discover it.

Where should we start? I’ve recently argued (Sylwester 2000) that collaborative classroom management is an excellent initial area for teacher/student exploration, but why stop there? Many of the scientists and entrepreneurs who sparked our current creative explosion in science and technology were elementary students during the 1970’s when such marvelous, imaginative, process-oriented programs as The Elementary Science Study and The Science Curriculum Improvement Study were in their heyday. These programs created a wonderful open-ended environment in which teacher and students explored together.

It accomplishes little to muse about how we subsequently got so untracked. What’s important now is that 21st century educators take the position that an educational product that doesn’t emerge out of an exploratory process isn’t worth assessing. It’s appalling how much energy many schools currently spend on memorized preparations to meet politicized product standards. It’s such a contradiction for a wealthy society that’s very thankful for the creative folks who sparked the economic boom to now be seemingly uninterested in developing more creative folks.

For the past ten years, the Phi Delta Kappan has published Gerald Bracey’s annual thoughtful analysis of the current state of public education. This year’s edition in the October 2000 Kappan provides especially important information for educators who are appropriately disturbed by politically-driven misinformation on school assessment and accomplishment.

It’s one thing for a creative process to result in a new product. It’s another thing to determine the cultural value and appropriate use of the product. And it’s frequently difficult to achieve consensus on such issues. Atomic energy, computer technology, and genetic engineering are but three examples of recent important developments that carry troublesome cultural baggage.

The Values Clarification Movement and Man: A Course of Study were two programs (also from about three decades ago) that sought to help students responsibly explore difficult moral/ethical decisions. The programs were criticized vehemently by folks who felt the schools should not help students explore the dynamics of solving complex cultural issues, but should rather teach students what to believe (which was generally the various belief systems of the critics).

The intense criticism stifled these and related programs, and now we’re confronted by complex issues that require both an understanding of science and technology, and the skills to responsibly reach consensus on developments and issues our society has never faced. This ability doesn’t magically emerge at age 18 in new voters. It has to be nurtured.

The 21st century educators must thus respond also to this challenge, and discover ways to incorporate democratic decision-making skills in the entire K-12 curriculum. No simple solution exists to creating human-scale solutions to scientific/technological developments that range way beyond our human scale, but educators might begin by examining programs from several decades ago (such as those discussed above) that sought to do what must be done now. Perhaps such programs arrived on the scene too early, but they or something like them are sorely needed now.

Bracey, G. (October, 2000) “The 10th Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education” Phi Delta Kappan (82.2. pages 133-144)

Sylwester, R. (2000) A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom: Applying Biological Research to Classroom Management (Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.