Sunday, April 17, 2011

Racing to Nowhere in the 21st Century

In the last year two movements have been dominated my thinking about the future of education:
  1. The questions of the culture surrounding education, as explored in the film Race to Nowhere
  2. The preparation of learning for the world of the 21st Century as promoted by initiatives, such as The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 
This weekend I read an article in the Jewish Journal by Milken Community High School's Head of School, Jason Ablin, sharing his reflections and commentary about Race to Nowhere, titled "Waiting to Nowhere." I find myself conflicted about some of my Head of School's conclusions and omissions in his critique, such as the role our schools have played in promoting this race, but I definitely agree with his assessment of the film.
“Race” contends with a serious subject in an unsophisticated and simplistic way, both minimizing the problem and its possible ramifications. One teacher in “Race” calls the current test-crazed American educational system “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Unfortunately, the film addresses the issue in exactly the same manner.
Simultaneously, I happened to be reading for my doctorate course on 21st Century Jewish Education Marc Prensky's Teaching Digital Natives. Prensky argues that great contextual changes in the world we live in demand a change in the methods of education as well.
Today's students will not live in a world where things change relatively slowly (as many of us did) but rather one in which things change extremely rapids-daily and exponentially. So today's teachers need to be sure that, no matter what subject they are teaching, they are teaching it with the future in mind (Prensky, 2010, P.5).
Prensky proposes a pedagogy of "partnering" between teachers and students. His metaphor for the educational experience differs from the traditional metaphors, such as "keeping the train on track" or "watering a tree so it can grow big and strong".'s kids are more like rockets....Why should we think of today's kids as rocket? At First blush, it's their speed; they operate faster than any generation that has come before. Although little may have changed in the rate kids grow up emotionally, there has been enormous change in what today's kids learn and know at early ages, and therefore, many think, in the rate they grow up intellectually (Prensky, 2010, P.11).
Prensky warns:
As with all rockets, kid's fuel mix is volatile. Some go faster and farther than others. Some lose their guidance or their ability to follow direction. Some go off course or stop functioning unexpectedly. Some even blow up. But as we get better at making them, many more hit their mark, and it is our job as rocket scientists to help them do so (Prensky, 2010, P.11).

I started to think about the incredible connection we need to explore between Prensky proposed pedagogic model and the culture of schooling superficially explored in the A Race to Nowhere. As we investigate and project into the future of Jewish education, how do we reconcile our desires to construct a new pedagogy centered around student's passions, interests and innate mode of learning, when the culture of schooling surrounding them promotes entirely oppositional values.

While I have invested much of my work over the last few years into developing a model of 21st Century Jewish learning, in both my classroom formal curricula and experiential learning experiences, I constantly have to face the reality of the culture of schooling within which Jewish education, especially day school education, finds itself. As much as my students embrace constructivst learning and PBL over traditional text oriented and teacher centric models of Jewish learning, they still struggle to muster up the will and motivation to engage in learning when facing the very pressures that the Race to Nowhere film describes. As more and more of our Jewish day schools aim to appeal to families seeking the factories that yield college ready students, as depicted in the film, we must consider the cost in effectively developing engaged Jews, lifelong learners and a generation prepared for 21st century life.

Many of the values espoused by Prensky and others as being core to the 21st century learning model evolve out of a deep concern for the student, constructing methods and frameworks that center learning around the student's experiences, interests, knowledge and tools. However, all of this depends on the student being interested in engaging in schooling for the same purpose and the same drive as one does for life beyond school. Prensky aims to blend the "in" school and "out" of school learning experiences through the "partnering" pedagogy, but what if our 21st century student do not wish to do so. What if they want their "play" to be open and driven by their passions, but they want their "work" to be structured, goal oriented and determined by an authority that can promise to make achievement possible no matter what the cost.

As I enter spring break, after a long second semester with seniors for my high school, my students claim to be made lazy and numb to learning from the three and a half years of hard work and the college application process. Once their acceptance to a college has been determined, school becomes less critical, and they choose to opt out of the learning process as the race comes to a close.

One student shared with me:
However, the last few months (sic) have been fragmented and dull in my eyes and I do not want to leave this school with that memory...When in high school can the students truly explore their passions? There's a lack of student freewill considering that everyday is spent in a fourwalled classroom.
 At this point, I am only formulating the question:
"For the 21st Century, can we truly build a partnering model, if we continue to promote the race to nowhere?"
Will we as educator accept the responsibility for not just cultivate new modes of learning, but also taking accountability for our culpability in promoting the race to nowhere? Does Jewish education bear an additional responsibility to break down the social constructs that sustain the race to nowhere? While much responsibility lies with the parents who buy into the socio-culturally constructed race, what responsibility do schools have to stand up to their "customers" and tell parents "no, your student can't take six APs as a Junior" or "your student can't be the student government president, star in the school musical and keep straight As". When do take a stand against unmitigated homework, Sunday reviews for APs and private college counselors? Why do students need to visit every college they apply to, apply to 20 colleges and then have to decide between their 8th and 9th choice because they over reached for their first 7 (but were absolutely certain they would get in)? Why do we allow students to fib their transcripts to show they ran clubs and engaged in community service when they never did so? When will be able to intrinsically motivate our students to engage in learning about their heritage, religion and beliefs without holding a grade over their head? When will we truly be able to have an honor code and not just penalize students for cheating?

We can not expect students to opt into an idealic model of 21st Century learning, in whatever form, unless we are willing to create a model of schooling that contains social and cultural purpose and meaning, for our society, for our families and for our youth.

I hope to explore potential responses to these critical questions in coming posts, but I eagerly await your responses as well.

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