August brings newspaper inserts about back to school clothing, student dread and anticipation, teacher preparations for the challenges of another year, and mass media reports on the state of the schools. The beginning of school simplifies life in some families, and complicates it in others.
Students who begin kindergarten this fall will graduate from high school thirteen years from now, in the spring of 2020.
At that point they’ll become voters, and so will need 20/20 vision about the nature of the complex 2020 natural and electronic worlds they’ll inhabit, and about the challenges our society will then confront. Helping 2007 kindergarteners attain 2020 20/20 vision during 13 years of school is compounded by the reality that it’s almost impossible to predict now what their adult world will be like.
For example, think back 13 years to 1994, when this spring’s high school graduates entered kindergarten. The Internet and email were primitive at best. You couldn’t take pictures with a telephone. Neuroimaging technology was in its infancy. Stem cells and mirror neurons hadn’t yet been discovered. Cloning wasn’t even on the horizon. Scientists were just beginning to research the underlying neurobiology of consciousness, teaching, learning, and a whole lot more.
Further, folks could get a boarding pass and enter their airplane without going through a security check. The concerns of global climate change hadn’t moved much beyond the laboratories of scientists. And although a terrorist bomb explosion in the parking garage of New York’s World Trade Center had killed six and injured about 1,000, war seemed something out of our past rather than a future reality.
The 1994 kindergarten students began their school experience in what now seems an idyllic optimistic world, and they graduated in an atmosphere of terrorist fear compounding a seemingly futile war.
Project ahead and try to imagine what sort of 20/20 vision the 2020 era will require, given the current rapid rate of scientific and technological advances.
Many of the complex challenges that our society will continue to confront are basically biological, such as issues related to the beginning and ending of life, our understanding of biology, brain, and cognition, the nature and treatment of crime and mental illness, education and belief in their broadest perspectives, the cultural role of the arts and technology, global climate change—and a whole lot more. None of these challenges has a simple solution. This fall’s kindergarten class will probably still confront them as adults.
Further, the 2008 election is already experiencing the cultural impact of recent technological advances. For example, political experts didn’t ask the questions during the late July debate of Democratic presidential candidates. The questions were submitted from across the country via You Tube—a technology that didn’t even exist during the last presidential campaign. It’s almost impossible to predict the nature of the campaign our 2007 kindergarteners will experience in 2020, the first election in which they’ll vote.
The current dynamic nature of our culture suggests that educators might focus on a few central concepts that permeate the challenges our society confronts, and provide the flexibility the search for solutions needs:
Be Optimistic. Formal education is for the long haul. The phrase No Child Left Behind that currently defines the K-12 educational enterprise was probably ill-advised. The first word (No) is a negative, and the last word (behind) looks backward. Why not begin this and subsequent school years with optimism: Every Child Learns. Parenting and education are optimistic operations, so it’s important to begin with and maintain optimism, rather than to perpetuate the pessimism that many currently feel.
Be Scientific. As suggested above, many of the major cultural problems we’re confronting emerge out of the massive advances that have recently occurred in science and technology. We now have a relatively small number of people who know a lot about science and technology, and very many people who are woefully uninformed. We can’t afford another generation of voters who are uninformed on socially important issues related to genetics, neuroscience, global climate changes, and computer technology. What’s the option if the schools don’t rise to the challenge?
Be Democratic. Authoritarian governments dominated during most of human history. The unprecedented decision of the United States to become a democracy meant that we had to feel our way, and 200 years later we’re still working out the organizational and procedural kinks.
About a dozen countries also became democracies by the end of the 19th century, and 120 of the some 200 nations in the world now have some form of democratic government. The move to a democratic government will certainly increase as the world becomes even more of an electronic global village, and the advantages of democracy over autocracy become universally known.
No single formula exists for creating a democracy. A rigid formula misses the whole point of the enterprise. A democracy is a constantly unfinished process replete with challenges, and a continuing collaborative search for solutions. Our nation began with a determination to succeed as a democracy, and then worked collaboratively to temporarily solve each successive challenge it confronted. Every constitutional amendment and legislative act represents something that was previously wrong—or that once may have been, but is no longer, appropriate.
Democratic societies are thus characterized as much by disagreement as agreement because democracy empowers citizens to express their opinion—and they do. A democracy’s power and therefore its basic educational challenge is to help students develop social and democratic skills: (1) to master rational thought and discourse, (2) to learn how to disagree without being unduly disagreeable about it, and (3) to discover that integrating the best ideas of all participants into a consensual solution is better than centralizing decision—making. That’s the broad power and appeal of a democracy that must be passed on to each generation. We had been a democratic nation for 100 years before the philosopher John Dewey arrived to argue forcefully for a collaborative school that would explicitly demonstrate and teach the social knowledge and skills that citizens in a democracy need (Dewey,1916).
By the second half of the 20th century, an increasing number of educators realized that classroom management (which had been decidedly authoritarian) could be viewed as a curricular rather than an administrative function. A classroom could become a social laboratory in which students would collaborate on many of the mundane-to-important decisions that teachers typically make—and in the process develop the problem solving and negotiation skills that citizens in a democracy need (Sylwester, 2003).
School is the only institution in our society in which young folks interact for 13 years with many hundreds of non—kin at a similar developmental stage. What are the options for solutions to our cultural problems if our schools don’t explicitly develop social and democratic skills?
A result of the current standards and assessment focus is the test—driven drive for efficient individual performance. It’s achieved at the expense of social interaction and group decision-making that are central to the development of democratic skills. We’ve discovered during the past several years how important it is for our culture to understand and negotiate with other cultures.
We can begin to change the K-12 schooling this year’s kindergarteners will get by developing a more optimistic perspective (what’s the point of pessimism?), by inserting the exciting new scientific and technological advances into the curriculum (why wouldn’t we want students to become informed?), and by making classroom life democratic (isn’t it what we adults demand in the civic arena?).
John Dewey arrived 100 years ago with a 20/20 vision to connect formal education to the challenges of the 20th century.
21st Century John and Jane Deweys must similarly connect education to the 21st century challenges this year’s kindergarteners will confront. If educators and parents don’t demand a 21st century education for 21st century students, who will?