Transforming Education for the 21st Century – Part One
We are ten years into the 21st century. We are entering the Shift Age. We all have experienced rapid and almost unbelievable change in our lifetimes. We sense even more change in the years ahead. Everywhere we look, we see institutions that we grew up with starting to crumble before our eyes yet their replacements are not yet fully discernable. This is a time of great transformation.
In the U.S. many of our institutions were created in the first part of the 20th century. It is now time to take them, one by one and transform them for the 21st century. Health care, transportation systems, infrastructure and the environmental caring for our beautiful land all must be looked at through the lens of this new century. Equal to, if not of greater importance to all of these is education, particularly the K-12 stage of education.
The history of K-12 education in the U.S. is largely mapped with the ages we have experienced. During the first century of our country we were basically an Agricultural Age country with the vast majority living in small towns and deriving wealth from the land. The single room school house of Abraham Lincoln was the educational system of the day. The town was small so kids of all ages went to the same one room school usually with a single teacher moving from student to student. The school day and the school year were scheduled to fit the rhythms of agricultural life. The school day ended in the afternoon so the children could come home and help with the chores of the farm. The school year ended in the summer time when everyone was needed to help with the crops. The school year did not start again until the harvest season was in large part over.
When the U.S. entered the Industrial Age after the Civil War and moved into it fully a hundred years ago, society changed so the schools changed. Industrialization led to urbanization and the creation of factories that led to structured, regimented work days. The growth in cities meant that instead of dozens of children in a town there were now thousands and tens of thousands of children in an urban education system. The K-12 model changed dramatically. Grades were created and children became segmented by age. The new large schools resembled the factory model of the day. Children sat in rows in classrooms where they had to remain silent while being taught by a teacher until a bell sounded signifying the move to the next factory like room. Recess was the one acknowledgement to childhood in this regimented system. This model lasted well into the middle part of the century and even later than that in poorer schools and school districts.
When the Information Age came along in the 1970’s the schools made changes. Language labs were introduced in the 1970s, VCRs replace the old film projector in the 1980s and of course computers came into the schools in the 1990’s There was a revolution in school furniture during these decades that started to break up the rows of desks model from earlier in the century. This was really just the layering of technology onto the existing structures.
The problem was that the building model was in place with solid bricks and mortar buildings from the Industrial Age. The explosion in students because of the baby boom only solidified this model as all the modular trailers added on to schools to handle the huge increase in students emphasized sterile, rectangular, factory like conditions. The children entered this system at age 6 or 7 and were popped out after high school at age 17 or 18. This became the assembly line of education.
Why all this looking back? It is now time to look forward and create the K-12 learning institution for the 21st century. The 21st century school must now become a reality in this country
I recently attended, and spoke at a unique conference of educators who spent two days together starting the process to create the 21st century model for K-12 education. It was an incredibly exciting event that I will describe in the next column.