The issue of American public education is controversial. Many have good feelings about their own education and the schools that their kids attend or at least feel good about some of the educators who spend time with their children. At the same time, national and international studies and surveys rate our K-12 system as seriously behind. A lot of us seem to have an opinion because we all went to school at one point, and that reality can at times lead us to underappreciate the current situation and challenges.
I am going to raise the bar on the importance of this discussion. I believe that, in today’s dynamic global economy, education risks becoming a key cause of the U.S.’s downfall from its world influence and leadership and, with that, the standard of living of many of our citizens. At the same time, education, a very different kind of education, holds the promise of being the greatest enabler of a thriving, sustainable future with unimaginable benefits for everyone. Certainly, education is not the only issue impacting our future, but it is very likely the most influential. I am writing this document in hopes of motivating and guiding more efforts for the kinds of change that are needed. I am also doing this because I have met so many truly bright, well intentioned educators who recognize that change is needed but just cannot seem to get where they need to be.
We often hear that our schools are broken. I believe that, while there are individual schools and situations needing improvement, the comment is an unfair characterization. Further, it steers improvement efforts in the wrong direction. Remember that our education system was designed to create, as Seth Godin has said, “homogenized, obedient, satisfied workers and pliant, eager consumers.” Graduates going to work in the farms, factories, and similar jobs that existed when our education system was designed and well into the 20th Century only needed some basic understanding and skills. Their employers would provide on-the-job training to perform a given function in exactly the way the employer wanted it done. Competition was fairly stable and predictable. The jobs were largely routine, and people would likely do the same job for the rest of their careers.
I observed this dynamic at work early in my life. While in high school in the late 1960’s I was connected with IBM’s chief customer engineer at the Johnson Spacecraft Center in Houston, who helped me with a science fair project. He had complete responsibility to maintain the most advanced computers in the world at that time which controlled all the manned space flights―complete with a red phone at his bedside to summon him in an emergency. Yet he had been a math major with no computer or electronics studies prior to joining IBM. In those days IBM preferred hiring good candidates with no specific experience so they could be trained in the IBM way. It obviously worked well for those times.
The problem is that we live in a radically different world than the one for which our education system was designed. The routine jobs that education prepared us for can now be done more cheaply and effectively by machines, and, if not by machines, by much lower wage workers elsewhere in the world. To thrive in the 21st Century companies must constantly enhance, adapt, and innovate, and to do that they need workers who are thinkers, makers, problem solvers, and innovators. Further, companies need students to have these skills well developed upon graduation. Today there is no luxury of gradually learning to apply your knowledge and skills on the job. The ability to deal with unanticipated challenges, learn new things, and collaboratively solve new problems is becoming a minimum standard for employment except for very low wage jobs.
Frankly, these new learning needs are dramatically different from those which drove the design of our education system and the training of our educators. So we have this dilemma. We have a massive institution of public education, and thousands of educators, which are well prepared to educate graduates for a world that no longer exists. This is how education will be a key cause of our downfall unless we change direction. One thinks of the U.S. as innovative because we have always been good at letting entrepreneurs do their thing. However, we have never learned to nurture that entrepreneurial or creative spirit in all our students. The issue is not that our schools are broken but rather that they have not been able to keep up with the radically changing demands put on them.
It goes one step further. The vast numbers of people who hold those routine jobs, as well as new graduates prepared for them, find their skills worth much less than before. The great middle class is evaporating right before our eyes. Companies are gradually shifting how they create value and where they do business so that the middle class jobs of the 21st Century require thinkers, makers, problem solvers, and innovators. Companies cannot find those workers because our schools were never designed for that kind of education, so they must find another way to compete. More important, the downgrading of formerly middle class jobs and the increasing gap between rich and poor have led to a breakdown in society related to the loss of the American dream. This breakdown in society creates further challenges for educators when kids growing up in this environment bring their frustrations and social barriers into the schools. These are tough times for schools particularly in declining urban areas.
So the challenge is not how to fix the problems with traditional education but how to transform a large public institution to provide the very different kind of education needed to thrive in the 21st Century. The ability to recall times, dates, places, math formulas, paragraph structures, etc. does not go very far today when information is readily available in a myriad of formats. Graduates need to master the application of math to solve problems, complex interpretation of language and inferences, and writing to persuade, among other “academic” skills. Further, graduates need to be financially aware, to be career aware, to have leadership skills, to effectively collaborate, to constantly learn new things, to address issues when there is high ambiguity, to initiate, and to innovate―to name just some of the key new demands. (None of these were needed by more than a very small percentage of past graduates.) Finally, a lot of students are harder to reach because they are living the breakdown of society that is prevalent and growing today.
Fortunately, in my experience, there are many talented and motivated people in education today. I cannot keep track of the number of times I have been introduced to programs and initiatives that truly inspire. Many of my associates, for example, are doing creative things in entrepreneurship education. Others are making noteworthy advances in STEM areas. Or engaging urban kids. Or financial literacy. Or career awareness. Or … These programs are good if not exemplary when viewed within their immediate context. Nevertheless, invariably these initiatives target a small segment of the new demands, and they too often come and go according to the motivation of the founding educator.
What is missing?
First, we must recognize that we can never address the wide range of new 21st Century demands by expanding the learning approaches that are familiar with improvements and modifications. We need not increments but giant leaps, and that is going to require a complete rethinking of how we implement education. Second, a systemic paradigm shift of that nature requires a concerted, collaborative effort involving the whole of the system moving together in the same direction for an extended time. If it were easy it would have been done. That systemic transformation requires leaders who can inspire trust and shared commitment across the organization. It also will not happen without a mutually supported vision among educators in every part of the system letting them see where they are going and where they fit. The vision must be concrete enough to guide and motivate everyone in contributing their own knowledge and experience while openly collaborating toward a greater whole.
This reminds me of a similar wrenching transformation that over took manufacturing about 30 40 years ago. At the time, manufacturers operated within a paradigm created years earlier based on scale and efficiency. High quality meant high cost extra steps. Several pioneers started promoting something called Total Quality Management (TQM). However, TQM was so different than current manufacturing practice that hardly anyone gave it serious attention. It was counterintuitive to the existing paradigm, and few could envision how it would work to advantage in their plants. This all changed when Toyota adopted TQM across the company, and as a result started to achieve quality and productivity numbers previously unimagined. All of a sudden manufacturers had to change or go out of business. Interestingly, Toyota was pretty open about what the company was doing, and several consultants and academics studied and taught Toyota’s methods. After grasping what Toyota was actually doing, other manufacturers found they could achieve similar results―and manufacturing was changed forever.
I perceive that many educational leaders and teachers see a need to change. Perhaps they are not threatened by going out of business as manufacturing was by TQM. Nevertheless, there is a lot of pressure on education (not necessarily constructive), and many educators desire to do what is best for their students. What is missing is a clear understanding of what it takes to make a transformation that will satisfy both the short term accountability requirements (passing exams) and the new 21st Century skill needs, and also be implementable without major new ongoing costs. Just as manufacturers missed TQM until they saw it working at Toyota, it seems that the institution of education will have a difficult time making the transformation without a similar model or demonstration to guide educators and give them the confidence to act.
While it seems like a very tall order, my own experience indicates that the missing vision is around today―if not widely acknowledged. The best research documents that inquiry forms of learning including project-based learning and collaborative learning are significantly more effective at teaching true mastery and related skills. I have experienced what is possible. After working with entrepreneurs for more than two decades, I have spent the last ten years focused increasingly on how to teach the spirit and thinking of entrepreneurship to high school students who are not natural entrepreneurs. Certainly there are aspects of starting a business that are straightforward and can be taught in conventional ways, but the essence of how entrepreneurs tackle new issues and develop novel solutions is more of a non-linear, intuitive skill that was previously believed to be granted at birth. My team has found, however, that we can nurture even those highly sophisticated skills through a type of guided hands-on practice. Our approach is a form of project-based learning, but taken further where students identify their own projects and teams and practice leadership and innovation while solving problems. This learning experience is highly engaging and inherently differentiating, and it has been effective with almost every student. Further, those innovative development skills best exemplified by creative entrepreneurs form the essence of what all students need to master in the 21st Century. Thus, education research reinforced by experience provides strong evidence that effective use of project-based learning across the curriculum can form the core of the new learning paradigm we seek.
There are a few schools today that are using project-based learning for 100% of their instruction. Their success verifies the power of this approach, but there still seems to be variation in success depending on the individual implementation. Again, my experience points toward an explanation for the discrepancies. My team has had good success with innovative, hands-on, student-directed projects both in the format of a one week summer camp and of a required junior and senior leadership course in a charter high school. However, I note that it takes us 1-2 years in the high school course for students to achieve the same new confidence, perspective, and skills that we often observe after one week in the summer camp. The difference is the learning culture established in the one week program. There the students are immersed all day every day for the week in an environment we carefully shape to develop confidence and foster collaborative learning. In contrast, the regular school environment is highly distracting toward learning with the terror of the bell, regular testing, judgment of grades, and frequent interruptions for pep rallies, school trips, announcements, etc. that are familiar to all educators. This provides evidence that an effective learning culture is the second major element of the new paradigm. Project-based learning contributes to that culture. Educators will appreciate that another important aspect is building relationships with students, but there is much more that is beyond this document.
The experience suggests we can get most of the way toward that elusive new education paradigm by utilizing effective project-based learning within an environment or culture carefully shaped for inquiry and learning. I have shared this perspective with many progressive educators, and they consistently agree it makes sense and everyone should be pursuing something in this direction. For a long time I wondered naively why schools are not doing it, but more interaction with educators and my own high school teaching experience have given me a greater appreciation. Remember that manufacturers struggling with day-to-day production quotas failed to see the transformational power of TQM over the more incremental improvements they were implementing until they were confronted with a competitor who was beating them with a working model. I find that hard-pressed educators who love the vision have a hard time seeing how it can be implemented within the constraints and environment with which they live every day. The vision and understanding are too conceptual to motivate and guide action, and they still leave many practical details to work out. The vision is challenging to implement because it departs radically from the way educators have been trained and schools have taught for generations, and the risk is too great that standardized test scores will suffer if educators shift their time and energies in this new direction.
Remember that systemic change of this magnitude cannot be realized without all people and structures within the education system each committing to make their own contribution toward that inquiry-based, learning-focused education. We need to assist our education leaders by fleshing out the implementation of the new approach in a real school environment and making it much easier for them to grasp and share its full dimensions. Even if the leaders understand the vision, they must inspire and guide the front line educators within their institutions to make the commitment despite rules and policies that make it more difficult. However, several current school district leaders have told me, if they had access to a working model and tools to share it, they could take it from there and drive implementation in their own districts. They indicated that they have prepared their teachers for change, but the leaders need a way for their teachers to see and fully grasp what it means and where they are going to motivate the commitment.
For this reason, my team has decided to develop a realistic pilot of a typical public school where the learning is shaped around that vision including project-based learning and a culture of inquiry and learning. We will leverage our experience but also take advantage of the wealth of research on inquiry-based learning, the experience of other pioneers who are already using different aspects of the approach, and carefully selected faculty participating directly in the instructional development. The plan has us changing almost every aspect of the learning approach, and we will undoubtedly run into many issues that must be worked out. Further, making the transformation in a single demonstration school is not the same as changing a district. However, I believe that a focused demonstration project will have the flexibility to try all the big changes at once and adapt as often as necessary to master the new paradigm, while still dealing with the key challenges of public education. The working school will provide enough of a model to give the progressive educators what they need. Hopefully, once educators can see the new paradigm in practice, with students doing fine on the traditional exams while excelling in the additional new 21st Century skills, momentum will grow. If a few school districts can build on this demonstration toward their own transformation, others will follow. Further, policy makers tell me that the current accountability laws such as No Child Left Behind are backed, despite their recognized imperfections, because it is the only way they know to incentivize change. If they can see schools making the desired improvements, some at least seem very willing to replace the policies with ones more aligned to what the improving schools are doing.
While not a short term fix, this new approach to public education can improve lives by helping students caught within poverty develop skills and attitudes to better their own lives, and it can improve the economy by providing a next generation of thinkers, makers, problem solvers, and innovators to help our businesses and organizations thrive in their respective markets. This is how a new kind of education can be the great enabler for a more prosperous and sustainable future.
Even as we sit on the threshold of a breakthrough in public education, it will still take significant commitment and leadership to make it happen. I hope this document helps to clarify the challenges and inspire more people to get involved.