Answering this big question, what should 21st Century Education look like, will take a bit of doing; we’d like to start building up some answers with these posts. Most of the 21st Century, of course, hasn’t yet happened, and so the first fact that confronts us is that this education must be oriented towards the future and towards a world that is changing quickly and will continue to do so in unforeseeable ways. How do we educate students for the coming world?

We begin, suggests Sir Ken Robinson, the British writer and Professor of Education who delivered the TED talk, “Changing Education Paradigms” (see Eric’s post on GCE Voices, 1/3/11), by recognizing that the ways our world has changed over the last century have rendered our standard educational model outdated. Our current model, he argues, was fashioned by the interests and techniques of an industrial economy to produce workers habituated to specialized and routinized work. Our schools themselves have been structured like factories: children are passed in batches along an assembly line of courses, regulated by bells throughout the day, in attempt to make a standardized product (the student) whose success can be measured by tests. Moreover, this model of academic success is based in what Robinson describes as the Enlightenment view of intelligence: the rational subject, alone at his desk, executes a certain type of deductive reasoning and amasses inside his head a certain body of knowledge.

This picture of education may be somewhat overdrawn here, but its outline can still be seen in the majority of educational systems and practices today. What comes into view in Robinson’s analogy is how deeply atomized the students, and the students’ school pursuits, are. Curricula parse the complexity of the world into distinct and separate subjects (Algebra I, Physics, European History), insulated from each other by school passing periods. Students are asked to demonstrate their mastery of subject matter primarily in silence, within the isolation of the test. Collaboration–among classmates, between classes–is seldom considered a route to, and a form of, intellectual achievement.

Whether or not such education was ever adequate to the Industrial Era and the Age of Enlightenment, it is at best misleading preparation for today’s world. With innovations in communication and information technologies driving our economy more and more, our interconnectedness grows, information becomes accessible to more people, and our cultural horizons expand. We don’t know what the world will look like in 50, or 15, years–but it will certainly require adults with the capacity continually to re-orient themselves to their changing circumstances and communities, to reflect together on their own roles in maintaining and improving them, and even re-inventing them.

These changes, as Robinson suggests, demand from us that we change our thinking about the nature of intelligence. We need new ways to think about human resourcefulness, creativity, potential, and achievement; and we need to imagine new techniques for cultivating them. This means setting up the classroom and the curriculum in ways that encourage students to make connections–between concepts and also subjects, between their own and other students’ ideas, between what they learn in class and what they see on the street. This also means encouraging students to reflect on their own modes of connectedness–within their school; within their families and local community; within public communities of questioners, thinkers, doers, innovators, visionaries;  and within the global community. Schooling should be co-extensive with belonging to–and contributing to–a global world.

GCE works to bridge the artificial gap between school and life by asking students to reach out into it.  GCE’s integrated curriculum is structured thematically and organized by questions and problems, to which students apply various skills (e.g. mathematical tools, literary analysis) that in other schools often form the sole content of coursework. Students learn to pose their own guiding questions and undertake original investigations; they learn to present their findings to classmates and to give and receive feedback; they work in teams to apply their ideas to real-world problems. They develop their financial and digital literacy skills in addition to critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. Every Friday, GCE ventures off school grounds for field experience–visiting local neighborhoods and businesses, cultural institutions, architectural sites, and other urban treasures. GCE also devotes a full three weeks each year to an intensive civic engagement learning unit, during which students “own” a problem and examine it from numerous angles. Moreover, throughout the year students and teachers bring experiences and causes for wonder found in daily life into the classroom for common reflection, presenting them during GCE’s weekly Traveling School of Life, or posting them to the school’s blog.

–This post was drafted by GCE Volunteer and University of Chicago Master’s Candidate, Lizzie Krontiris