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Commentary: Schooling in the 21st Century

Nov 19, 2013

Kaye Bonner Cummings

Schooling in the 21st century will look quite different than that of the past.  In this edition of Valley Public Radio’s The Moral Is, Kaye Cummings, Executive Director of the Bonner Family Foundation, explores the changes in curriculum and teachers’ delivery that must occur to meet the needs of the students and the society of the 21st century.


Educator Kenneth Robinson, a favorite speaker on the TED talk series, maintains that the 20th century school model - exemplified by No Child Left Behind – was created to meet the needs of an out-of-date industrial model focused on conformity.  Robinson declares that this goes against the grain of who we are as inherently creative beings.  He asks his audience: “Do you know any family where the children are not completely different from one another?” The answer being a resounding “NO!”, he then suggests that our inherent diversity requires a different, a more creative school model, that taps students’ innate curiosity.

The No Child Left Behind,  20th Century model, with its narrow, conformist focus, has led to the unintended consequence of leaving MANY children behind. In some communities, up to 60% drop out of high school and many of those who remain are disengaged. The 20th century model is teacher-centered, with students working in isolation, memorizing facts, then tested using multiple-choice tests.  It is a textbook driven, passive, learning model with little or no student freedom, dealing with fragmented curricula, low, or frustratingly high, expectations.  Discipline problems are created when students are not motivated to learn through this method. 

Robinson also decries the treatment of teachers in the old model.  Teaching, he claims, is an innately creative profession. But the 20th Century model is anything but that. It incorporated a delivery system in which teachers were expected to operate in a culture of standardization and test-taking, where compliance and lack of creativity were the norm.  Robinson maintains that the role of education should be “to awaken and develop … powers of creativity”, not to squelch them.

The creative culture of the 21st Century requires a different model, one relevant to today’s needs.  It should be project-based and research driven, and the delivery system should be an active one, where students learn in a collaborative atmosphere in which the teacher becomes a coach and facilitator in a student-centered atmosphere where a lot of student freedom exists.  Discipline problems become non-existent in this mutually respectful environment where students are motivated, expectations are high, grades are based on what is learned and on self and/or peer assessments.  The curriculum is connected both to students’ interests and talents as well as to the real world.  Performance and project-based, this type of education model is designed to meet the current needs of a global, high-tech society and is respectful of student diversity.

We have a good idea about what should occur, but the big question remains: Are teachers and others, brought up with the 20th century model, going to be able to make the necessary changes and embrace their creativity to meet the needs of their 21st century students?

That’s a question that has yet to be answered. 

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.