Science Opinion

What Do We Need to Become 21st-Century Schools?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 28, 2015 4 min read
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Our schools function with the all the potential and limits of the adults within and those creating policy outside of them. The boundaries are created by both mandate and thinking. It is hard to defend some of the decisions being made within and outside of schools, considering the world in which our students are living. Schools that remain in the same structure as a generation ago cannot be responsive to the needs students living in this century are bringing through the school doors. Buildings, walls, and mental limits continue to prevent the changes that must happen in education in order for schools to represent the century in which they exist. Students are being asked to learn, even new information, in old models.

We have arrived at a place where the right issue and the right time have come together. Some have recognized the advantages of having arrived at this place and have begun their journeys toward making the shift to becoming 21st century schools. Our belief remains that the teaching and learning that is required in a STEM based environment benefits all students and demands that teaching and learning be responsive to 21st century needs.

“21st century” is shorthand for describing the world in which:

  • technology fuels communication and the creation, discovery, and sharing of knowledge
  • even the youngest children, can research and discover, innovate, create and perform solutions to real problems
  • change is constant...today’s major surgery is tomorrows minor procedure
  • the economy is supported by jobs in science, engineering, computer programming, medicine, health, and economics among others, and those jobs are already being filled by those holding H-1B visas that allow workers to work fulltime for up to 6 years
  • The world will be marked by things that are micro and nano and drone

In our definition, STEM shifts practice, process, and methodology. Schools have not kept pace with change and have not solved the problems that are holding them back from becoming the schools we now need. The responsibility and opportunity are in the hands of school leaders and the policy makers, both.

One purpose of education is to prepare students for their futures, so it is important to pay attention to the economy that will exist in their futures. The foundation students receive in their 13 years in public education must include skills and experiences with inquiry, imagination, questioning, problem solving, creativity, invention, and collaboration. These skills by any standard are not limited to minutes or subjects and call out for real world application to be seen, experienced, and understood.

Schools have within them artists, historians, researchers, machinists, scientists, musicians, plumbers, electricians, writers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, architects, police officers, members of the armed forces...the list is endless. And schools are charged with educating all of them. Two truths co-exist. The requirements for the knowledge and skills of workers have changed; so, our manner of educating students whose futures rest in those fields has to change. And, we have the information from those fields about the horizon and what knowledge and skills future employees need; so, the way teaching and learning needs to take place should be clear.

Leaders play a central role in this as they hold the keys that will dismantle the subject silos and call out for professional conversations required for a shift to take place. Presently, we have coalitions of leaders speaking out against the manner in which accountability measures are sought and used. We have coalitions of parents and teachers speaking out against the purpose, use and number of standardized tests. People have gathered together to protest. The leadership moment allows for rallying people to advocate as well as protest.

With all the coalitions, skillful leaders can create and guide momentum to raise student achievement, create better, more robust learning environments, prepare students for the world yet unknown, and protect their place in the economy. We need some regulations changed. But, within our schools, we can build new ways for teachers to work together and integrate curriculum ...the arts with science, math with English, engineering with technology, physical education with science, math, and engineering. If we bring this sense making down to the k-12 level:

  • we will help students become engaged learners. As we shepherd them through the process, setting the stage for them to continue learning when they are adults
  • we will have more alternatives to narrow the widening achievement gap
  • classroom problem solving, experimenting, research, presentation, and application will drive our planning and schedules
  • collaboration between educators, communities and employers will create active partnerships about which we have long talked and for which we have yearned

This is what we need in order to become 21st century schools. And as we’ve said many times before...who wouldn’t want that?

Myers, A. & Berkowicz, J. (2015). The STEM Shift. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.