I see the question of how K-16 education needs to change for the 21st Century asked a lot in educational circles these days, and I feel that it is often a question masquerading as an agenda. The agenda is basically to make kindergarten the new high school and college – hence the “K-16” label – by pouring more academics on already stressed children “to get them ready for the challenges of the future.”
The problem with this is that children have different developmental needs at different ages:
- Young children need to play.
- Older children need to find out how the world works.
- Young adolescents need to work on social, emotional and meta-cognitive growth.
- Older adolescents need to prepare to live independently in the real world.
- Young adults need to work on vocational and relationship challenges.
Any attempt to prepare students for the 21st century must include addressing these different needs.
I suggest that we don’t really know what the challenges of the 21st century are going to be, and since we don’t know, then we’d better teach our children to be self-reliant, to be curious, to ask questions, to be tolerant of other points of view, to be playful (in other words, not to take life too seriously), and to find something that they are really good at that they can use to help make the world a better place.
Obviously, even though we don’t know for sure what the future will bring, there are strong indications that an emphasis on ecology and diversity, in particular, will help prepare students for the coming decades. Consequently, we need to create living schools that help students think in terms of whole systems and cooperation rather than water-tight modules and competition with others. Since it appears that Marshall McLuhan was right about the future forty years ago when he said we were increasingly living in a “tribal village” then we need to help our students understand the challenges of globalization, and at the same time, help them prepare to work in their own neighborhoods to effect change. David Brower’s famous adage, “think globally, act locally” certainly applies here.
We need to stimulate our students to develop character and a deep appreciate for ethics that are not based on rigid moral values but on living and breathing spiritual principles. Finally, in order to prepare for the future, we need to help our students understand the past, since history all too often provides us with a map of what may lie ahead, so that we can avoid the mistakes repeatedly made by previous generations.
Article by Thomas Armstrong, Writer
Recently I’ve completed two books on human development and the stages of life, The Best Schools, and The Human Odyssey, and am now working on a book about neurodiversity, The Gift of Neurodiversity: Discovering the Hidden Strengths of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences (DaCapo/Perseus, 2010), which applies metaphors of biodiversity and cultural diversity to conditions that have thus far been couched in metaphors of deficit and disease. After this book, he plans a book on schools that are based on strong ecological principles (and would welcome suggestions of specific schools to investigate).