A personal observation: Back when I began my early education, the year was 1952. I don’t believe Pre-K even existed back then, so I started my education in Kindergarten. There is no doubt in my mind that in my early education I was exposed to educators who were students of a 19th Century education. Those teachers were teaching content to kids using methods they had learned in the 1800’s. Content back then was more solid and more trustworthy. Things did not change. Encyclopedias, the source of information back then, were very dependable. Encyclopedias were infrequently updated by today’s standards. I think the update cycle was about every six years. Yearbook editions filled in the gaps each year and they usually came out the year after the date of the title. It took at least a year to print, so content was dated on the first day any encyclopedia was opened, so relevance was never an issue. Even the news cycle was slow-paced. Newspapers and magazines had to wait at least 24 hours before they could address any change or present anything new.
The pace for 19th Century educators preparing kids for the 20th Century was much slower. It was easy to address change because teachers had time to absorb change and mull it over before they had to present it. Change had the luxury of being able to be pondered before acceptance. There was no rush. . As long as things in the system worked, we continued to do the same things over and over.
The concept of changing things came when the Russians put up Sputnik. For those who were not around then,that was the first satellite in space. That was when Americans began to ask, “How did this happen?” That was when Americans needed to play catch-up to be relevant. Before Sputnik, we were content with teaching from behind. We were fine with our education system. The system served us well until there was a competition. That is when that American competitive spirit kicked into gear and we were in the “Space Race” with the Russians.
It was time to move out the 19th Century ways, and race to the 20th Century, even though we were over 50 years into it. We ramped things up, and even relevance was not enough; we needed to go beyond relevance to innovation. A mere satellite was not enough, we needed a solid win with a moon landing. The benefits were enormous with Velcro, Tang, and Dried Ice Cream, as well as the NASA space program. Education was now in the 20th Century and we were never going back.
Once the Space Race was over, and we declared ourselves the winners, things began to slow down again. Educators settled in. Innovation was replaced by relevance, but that soon was overtaken by complacency. As long as things in the system worked, we continued to do the same things over and over. Technology, however, had again reared its ugly head. It comes not in the form of a basketball-shaped object hurtling through space, but in the form of digital information and content that dwarfs the total collection of ALL previously printed tomes of knowledge combined. As they were in the late 50’s, educators, the complacent content providers, are again caught with their pants down.
Again, we needed to call upon the competitive spirit of Americans in order to shake off the shackles of complacency. We needed another Space Race. We need some real competition to get educators beyond relevance and into innovation once again. If there is no real competition, we can make one up. We can use education itself as the motivator. We can put educators competing with other educators from around the world to see who will be at the top. That will drive the call to shake off the ways of the 20th Century and teach for the 21st Century even though we are more than a decade into it.
This “Race to the Top” and teaching for the 21st Century are only slogans. They are designed to be reminiscent of “The Race for Space” and “Teaching for the 20th Century”. That harkens to a time when educators were able to change things up, but it was a different era. We don’t compare modes of transportation from the 20th century to those capabilities of transportation today. A DC 6 airplane cannot be compared to a 747 Jetliner. Why would we expect motivations of the 50’s and 60’s to work today? Slogans and contrived competitions are poor substitutes for relevant professional development.
We can’t expect to teach kids for the 21st century today, because we are over a decade too late. We can’t expect to teach kids for the 21st century with educators in an education system steeped in methods of the 20th Century. We can’t expect to teach kids for the 21st Century with a majority of an educational infrastructure built between 1850 and 1950.
We can expect positive change, if we address these very real issues. We don’t need to teach for the future, we need to concentrate on today, and that requires relevance. Relevance requires continuous development for everyone. Before we can expect innovation, we all have to be on board with relevance. That will require a commitment to professional development. We can’t expect students to be relevant when their teachers are not. We can’t expect skills to be relevant, if the tools for those skills are not. Our culture strives for relevance at every turn except in education. Businesses pay top dollar to be and stay relevant. Relevance is the key to what we have called a modern society.
There is no way for educators who are among the most educated people in our society to stay relevant without continuously learning. It cannot be expected to happen on its own. Learning is not a passive endeavor. Teachers must be professionally developed continually over the course of their careers. It must be part of their work week. It requires a commitment on the part of the schools to provide it, and the teachers to do it. People need to be not only professionally developed, but supported in their efforts to be relevant, in order to move on to innovation. Let’s not teach for a century, but rather teach for now, and the ability to continually learn and adapt. We need our people, adults and children to be able to deal with any century moving forward.