And Relevance Is All About the ContextIf we are going to talk about school reform designed to create meaningful education, we need to look at education within the context of the individual, her community, history, and the planet. And hopefully with as much sophistication as each context demands.
Today’s education reform narrative is filled with buzz words that are meant to capture the majority of perceived issues we need to address in schools. Most are about making today’s learners competitive in tomorrow’s job market. None does this better than “21st century skills.” I actually have little issue with “21st century skills.” It’s the common context and application that is more worthy of critique. They fail to appreciate the largest possible context within which education needs to be understood to be relevant.
“21st century skills” are birthed from the perspective that the function of education is to create economically viable products. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills says that their purpose is “to successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce.”
It remains a factory system, where the economically viable products being created are workers. Perhaps the products are a little more sophisticated than they were a century ago, just like the iPhone is a little more sophisticated than the rotary phone. But they are still fundamentally things severed from a larger holistic view.
Just like manufacturing products like the iPhone have environmental impacts, or “externalities,” that are not reflected in the price of the product, the education system has effects on students and the world that are often seen as outside the scope of public education. Accounting for the whole child as a human being living in a complex world is not common practice in the public education system.
We have no time to continue choosing to wear blinders because its convenient. Let’s look at the real picture of what it means to live in the world today.
Humans have fundamentally altered the planet that is our one and only home. We are pushing the planet’s life systems to the brink of shutting down. We have not known a day of peace globally in…have we ever? Slavery continues. An obesity epidemic is spreading while more people than ever are starving. The modern economic system is collapsing. Families are falling apart and more and more children are at a disadvantage to develop healthily.
So while we are talking about evaluating teacher effectiveness based on common standards that are intentioned to embody 21st century skills, we’re just having the wrong conversation. It’s simply not the most relevant conversation we need to be having. It’s not relevant because we are defining success in the wrong context.
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people,” writes David Orr in The Earth in Mind. “But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”
So what would be relevant? Educational experiences designed with and around students to understand themselves, their communities, and the planet. In the end 21st Century Skills would be gained, but through personally and collectively meaningful experiences that allow students to develop these skills through projects based on their passions and interests and in collaboration with others in their community–store owners, social service agencies, scientists, artists, etc. Humane education and systems thinking would be intrinsic to this kind of learning as it is designed to address the largest issues we face today.
Perhaps most fundamentally, education that is relevant is led by mentors who have developed a quality of wholeness in their own perspectives and lives. As a mentor said to me “a fractured world cannot be healed by fractured people.” Wholeness is achieved through ecological thinking as a process and extension of character development.
And so when we are talking about real education–meaningful education–let’s be sure to be talking in the largest and most comprehensive context possible. The problem is not inventing the next iPhone. The problem is how to develop a sustainable, just, and peaceful world. We need to worry less about being competitive for the Ivy-league schools and more about graduating solutionaries as Zoe Weil calls them.
When our graduates resemble the TED Fellows we’ll know we’re on the right path.