Shift Happens: A Challenge for Education

Twenty-first Century learning requires a redefinition – a shift in the mental model of the American education system.  The current mental model is equivalent to the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that have been shaped by 150 years of stories, assumptions and practices in American education.  It encompasses the entire scope of education from the building to the basic bell schedule; from curriculum to instruction; from unions to boards; and from local control to Federal mandates.

This deeply embedded tacit knowledge is the strong hold that limits people’s ability to change – to see an image of education that mirrors the current state of our society.  Instead, it is a remnant of the industrial age; the age of channeling school age children from diverse backgrounds with unique skills and interests and funneling them through a teacher directed, text driven system characterized by isolation, memorization, and standardization.  According to Yong Zhao, school is the quintessential “sausage maker: designed to take all the parts, assemble them and make them uniform.”  The purpose; prepare students to find work, respond to predictable outcomes, and be good employees.

However, it is now the age of globalization driven by rapid technological advances and scientific discovery. The interconnectedness of global economies have created significant shifts in the job market and the homogenization of our education system will not provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary for them to compete successfully. The challenges and opportunities of outsourcing, increased automaticity, interdependence of economies and the ease of movement requires individuals to have the ability to acquire, as needed, the knowledge and skills that are qualitatively different; those that will set them apart, in order to be successful.

In order to adequately prepare students to be successful in college, their career and in their communities, significant shifts in the American education system must take place; it must keep pace with the continuing global economic and societal shifts.

In today’s world, the Internet provides a platform that allows any person to exercise voice, to create and share, and to participate globally.  Our connected world offers ample opportunities for exploration and learning and the personalization and customization of life – anytime and anywhere; education needs to mirror this current reality.

Twenty-first Century learning environments then are schools that allow students to map a pathway and respond to their current reality – whatever that may be.  It will combine rigor with the opportunity for students to construct knowledge and then apply it to new situations using various technologies to identify and explain problems and create new solutions.  Students will engage in product or service oriented learning and access local and international partners creating relevant and authentic interactions and experiences. The learning environment will encourage the pursuit of a passion, build on student interests and strengths, and foster marketable skills like collaboration, creativity, flexibility and critical thinking. It will prepare students to turn ideas into action; that is to be good entrepreneurs versus good employees and to successfully compete in the global economy.

Fortunately, in Vermont and within the Washington West Supervisory Union, assets exist; pockets of innovation and excellence, inspired professionals, strong student voice, and dedicated community partners.  Through the support of a growing body of research and new models locally and world-wide prompted by globalization, many steps have been taken to give rise to a new model of education; one designed to better serve the needs of our students and their current reality.  The challenge is implementing – bringing to life this new model in a timely fashion.

Educational shifts will include flexible learning environments built on rigor, relationships and relevance. It will allow students to identify their own trajectory, pursue their special interests and talents while demonstrating productivity, leadership, ethics and accountability. It will include structures that support all students in their individual academic, career, and personal/social development allowing and guiding students to make informed choices about their goals and manage their own learning options.

In Vermont, bold steps have been taken to support the shifts in education that are necessary: legislation for Dual Enrollment and Flexible Pathways is being enacted and policies related to the professional standards for educators and the School Quality Standards are in the process of being revised.  Districts are reviewing the school day and yes, even the school calendar along with options for learning anywhere at anytime.

The educational programs and structural changes at Harwood Union High School are beginning to take shape and reflect the type of education our young people need to be competitive – be successful, in our global society.