I have spent the last few days at the annual EARCOS Leadership conference. It has been an opportunity to sit and think, prompted by the thoughts of others. Listening to the various keynote presentations, small sessions and lunch table banter has given me much to consider. And yet now, as I sit awaiting a plane to fly me back to the educational reality of my international school in South Korea, I am despondent.
Very little of what I have been hearing has sat me up in my seat, opened my eyes wider or raised my eyebrows. The feeling of frustration has been slowly growing.
We are in the sixteenth year of the 21st century. As we talk about the need to be teaching 21st-century skills there are heads nodding, as if to say, “Hmm, good idea. I hadn’t thought of that!” Others take notes (twe-nty-fir-st-cen-tury-ski-lls…). Most silently wonder, “What ARE the 21st-century skills???”
The opening keynote of the conference was met with resounding approval over the break-time coffee and cupcakes. “Great stuff!” “A good thought provoking message!” “Makes you think, doesn’t it!”
And it was that last comment that did make me think. It made me think that I’ve been hearing the same or similar stuff for quite a few years and it seems that all we are doing is thinking about it. No one seems to be DOING anything about it! In three years my daughter will enter middle school. She will endure three years of that before she gets to high school, where she currently runs the risk of a high school curriculum of “stuff” designed by a group of people somewhere, taught by someone different to then sit a test designed by yet another group of someone-elses. A “just-in-case-you-need-it” bag of calculus, physics, literature, history of somewhere-considered-important and a language or two. She is going to hear people say, “you’ll need this for college” and I am going to SCREAM!
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find college particularly difficult. Sitting in lectures and classes and submitting assignments was fairly routine. The challenges began as I stepped out of the lecture hall. Part-time jobs to earn enough money to put gas in the car and pay the bills. Looking for a place, solving the problem of not having enough hours in the day to work and study and live, relationships. Wondering if there was a job for me once I had finished with college. And maybe wondering if this whole college thing was really what I wanted to do with my life!
If you have experienced college or university (and even if you didn’t!) you can probably relate to the above description. You are probably sitting reading this smiling and nodding your head, remembering some or all of your experience of similar situations. High school didn’t teach me any of that! I had to learn most of that myself.
Why aren’t schools preparing students for that reality? Surely if we, as educators, spent our time helping our students learn how to budget, plan, identify and solve problems, communicate, empathize, manage time, critically assess, etc, etc, etc the “college” thing would be so much easier! Preparing students for the easy thing and leaving them to learn the hard stuff themselves sounds to me like we’ve got things the wrong way around.
So back to the conference…
There is agreement. Heads nodded and the room erupted with laughter as the keynote speaker suggested what teachers do is ABSURD! “Teaching”, he said. “The only time we ask someone a question to which we already know the answer!” He illustrated the absurdity with an example and there is more laughter. Tomorrow, those thousand laughing school administrators and teachers will return to schools where tens of thousands of teachers will be replicating the absurdity they just scoffed at – and doing NOTHING!!!!!!!. My daughter will be one of those sitting through the absurd!!!
And I’ll sadly admit it, as a school administrator myself, I’ll be doing nothing.
The big question is, “What will it take?” In what year of the 21st century will we finally stop talking about needing to teach 21st-century skills because everyone is teaching them already? In what year of the 21st century will we stop saying we are “preparing them for college” because we understand the more critical need to prepare them for the life they experience as they step out of our classroom today (which will do a better job of preparing them for college anyway!)?
I don’t know the answers to some of the questions I have raised above, but I do know it will take some bravery. Some stepping out. Some willingness to stand up and say no. Some willingness to disagree. Some willingness to challenge and be challenged.
Where have all the brave educators gone?