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Preparing Students for the Future?

I just finished The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age, certainly the most useful book I've read lately on how to cope with what might be ahead in education. Whenever prognosticators discuss our collective ed-future--21st century learning, the disrupted class, the shift-- there are snazzy phrases and new, improved strategies to make learning more efficient. Higher scores in less time at lower cost, competitive learning through better tools.

Authors Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall write instead about human relationships, using new tools and ideas to build networks and communities that are well-designed but evolving, collaborative and sustainable. These groups focus on the work educators themselves believe is most important. The text is filled with probing questions and illustrative stories, but nary a value-added chart. Favorite section heading? Put People Before Things (or Test Scores).

While reading, I kept thinking about two distinct movements--OK, shifts--from the last century, to define what students needed to be successful.

Hanging in my office is an old photograph of a one-room schoolhouse, with 37 children clustered in the dirt yard around the door. The teacher, tall and bespectacled, stands behind the group; the smallest child holds a slate reading "11-02-1900." My grandmother, born in 1890, seventh child in a Dutch immigrant farm family, stands solemnly in the photo, as do four of her nine siblings. All of them, she used to tell me proudly, "finished school." Meaning they all completed the eighth grade--more free education than their parents, born in Groningen, the Netherlands, had--a testament that life in America was a pretty good deal.

My grandmother, Nancy Oudsema Linega, left school in 1903, going to work as a clerk and errand girl in a neighborhood grocery and produce store. She worked there until she married at 33, earning enough to buy a car (before she learned to drive it), put a down payment on a home and do some traveling. Widowed a few years after marriage, she worked steadily through the Great Depression, supporting a young daughter and a mortgage. She was employed full-time well into her sixties, and part-time until she was 80, keeping the books for the same grocery store, by then a modern supermarket.

I would describe my grandma as an educated woman. She was a whiz at numbers--one of those people who can add up long columns of figures in their head, or calculate percentages in a few seconds. She read newspapers, books and magazines, and wrote long, grammatically perfect letters to me when I left home for college.

Grandma spoke Dutch and English, and had encyclopedic knowledge about plants and gardening, among other things. She was well-informed politically, and voted in every Grandma motorcycle.jpgelection--not surprising, since she was 30 the first time she was allowed to go to the polls. She also had a taste for adventure as a young woman; I have unearthed travel souvenirs, postcards with mildly naughty messages and photos from her trunk. It must have been some fun, indeed--the photo is proof that motorcycles were involved.

My grandmother's formal education was bracketed by two major reforms in American schooling.

The Committee of Ten Report (1893), crafted by university presidents, professors and headmasters of exclusive private schools, set out to create the optimum standardized course of studies for high school students in the United States. The Committee, of course, was not thinking of poor immigrant or farm children--they were envisioning Young Men from Good Families. I imagine the ten learned men retiring to the smoking room after finishing their work to enjoy a tumbler of brandy and some bonhomie, confident they had shaped the intellectual direction of the republic for decades to come.

The Committee selected nine course threads. These included Geography, Greek, Latin and a third modern language (the Committee recommended German), Geometry in 5th grade, Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy, and similar courses in a 12-year template that looks familiar, even today.

Grandma studied precisely zero of those subjects.

The second major shift in defining educational goals for the 20th century, the Cardinal Principles for Secondary Education--deemed "goals for successful living"--were published in 1918. Their purpose was re-thinking high school, since increasing numbers of teenagers were showing up there, many of whom were formerly considered "not high school material."

The Cardinal Principles sound pretty mushy today, but they had considerable sway until mid-century--as well as strong criticism from those who felt that traditional intellectual rigor had been drowned in a sea of feel-good rhetoric. The Principles also led to a tracking model--honors, college, general, vocational--which burrowed deeply into the American educational consciousness.

My grandmother achieved every one of the Cardinal Principles in spades, from ethical character to vocation to worthy home membership and productive use of leisure time. As for the first Cardinal Principle--health--my grandma lived to 103, and voluntarily gave up her driver's license at 100. I'm not sure that she acquired any of those capacities--beyond "fundamental processes"--in school, however.

My point here is certainly not that my grandmother's one-room-schoolhouse curriculum was good enough. What I'm saying: the future is unknowable. Arguments over the definition of 21st century learning and a locked-in-concrete national curriculum are a waste of time. Especially while there are large subsets of American kids in truly wretched schools.

Entrepreneurs promising that their ideas, technologies and programs will make children ready for the future can't guarantee anything. Remember, the smartest, best-educated and most elite students of the last generation led this country into an economic abyss four years ago. Sniping over an exact delineation of what 21st century learners need is more about the snipers than the students.

I'm not particularly bothered by that murky road ahead. An excellent education really is built through lively relationships. Truly proficient teachers adjust the parameters of their practice constantly, to fit the unique students in their class, the resources available and, sometimes, the day's headlines. Planning blind is sometimes an effective change process--and connecting with other educators to support and learn from each is always a superb idea.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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