Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why “The Race to the Top” is nothing but a race back to the 20th century.

Marc Prensky shares some smart ideas in his latest piece, “The Reformers Are Leaving Our Schools in the 20th Century - Why most U.S. school reformers are on the wrong track, and how to get our kids’ education right for the future.” In it he shares some big ideas about ed reform that sound much different than what we’ve been hearing lately in national conversations.  Prensky suggests we replace the current three “R’s” (readin’, ritin’ rithmetic) with the “3 C‟s”: Character and Passion, Communication and Problem Solving, and Creation and Skills. I’d explicitly add Publishing and Sharing authentically (couldn’t think of a “C”).  While he does have that embedded in the other components, I think it should stand at the forefront.  

Deleting Curriculum
Prensky suggests, that while some of the big ideas in education are still important, it has become over-stuffed and one of the first orders of business is deletion or figuring out and eliminating those things that are no longer truly needed, yet take up tremendous amounts of class time. He suggests that, “to those who maintain that students should take years of 1,000-year-old geometry because it helps their logical thinking, we must respond: “So does programming, and it will help them get jobs.”

Connecting with Kids!
Prensky explains that our hardest and most pressing educational problem is not raising test scores, but rather connecting our kids’ education to real life and to the fast-evolving world of the future. He says that it is our inability to make the material we are currently required to teach in school real and interesting for today‟s students – call it relevance, or engagement, or something else – that makes so many current efforts unsuccessful. And our teachers know it.

Learning because it’s on the test rather than because it’s important to know
He provides an interesting insight, saying, “The real reason kids have to learn most of what they are taught today is ‘because it’s in the curriculum,” not because it will be useful long-term. He suggests this could be easily verified by having adults take the SATs and making their scores public.” I’d extend this to the regents exam as well.  And, as long as we’re talking about making scores public, for parents who want teacher quality scores public, I’d suggest we use those same scores to make “parent quality” scores public.  I bet there’d be a shift in assessment then.  

Data (not passion) driven learners
Prensky then hits on one of my favorite topics which is that the current U.S. education system ignores almost entirely the thing that has always been America‟s greatest strength: the passion of our people.He laments that amazingly, our current education places no importance on even knowing the individual passions, or interests, of our students, and most teachers don‟t ask – not necessarily because they don‟t care, but because they are so occupied with all the other required tasks (such as teaching for the tests) that they feel they have no time. See some of my thinking on this in these posts, When passion drives instruction no child is left behind ,Preparing Students for Success by Helping Them Discover and Develop Their Passions, and Differentiating Instruction is NOT Hard if We Tap into Student’s Passions!

Real answers for “Why am I learning this?”
He then touches on one of my biggest disappointments with school and explains that everything we teach should also be matched with a clear answer to the student‟s constant question of “Why am I learning this?” Students should be taught to immediately use what they learn to effect outcomes in the world, and change it for the better. He gives a great example.  “They can use their knowledge and skills to create Public Service Announcements for local TV and radio stations.” I can’t tell you how many teachers and principals are excited to show off the great audio or video PSAs their students made that just sit unpublished on the tech teacher’s computer or perhaps the school website...never ever reaching an authentic audience.  

Embracing the Student - Teacher Connection
Prensky then shared a huge complaint that many students have which is that too many of their teachers don‟t know them as individuals. In fact in today’s connected world, many adults are have become afraid of teachers getting to know their students as people.  Somehow, with the advent of the web, teacher is seen as predator.  Prensky suggests that at the very least, all our teachers should know what their students‟ passions are and help those students approach their school subjects through the lens of those passions. This is similar to the passion profiles I explain in #8 of 10 Ways Technology Supports 21st Century Learners in Being Self Directed.

Some Concrete Solutions
Prensky doesn’t just point out the problem.  He goes on to provide some concrete solutions like his Five Skills Framework, that if applied to all subjects, would create thousands of new problem-solving and communication experiences over the course of an education, and become a useful tool in students‟ 21st-century lives.

The five skills are:
  1. Figuring Out the Right Thing to Do
  2. Getting It Done
  3. Working With Others
  4. Doing It Creatively
  5. Continually Doing It Better

He also shares a variety of “easy to do/big impactsteps.  Here are a few of my favorites:
  • Less “telling” by teachers (and allowing kids to research the answers to guiding questions on their own);
  • Always connecting what is taught with real-world outcomes;
  • Treating students as learning partners;
  • Employing students‟ own tools (particularly video and cellphones) for learning;
  • Offering students far more choices, rather than mandating what all must read or do

Why this is important
He reminds readers of the importance of heeding different reform advice suggesting the answer is not to fix a broken system, but rather create a new and updated system.  He makes his case by sharing that the data our current system measures is often inappropriate for the real educational goals, explaining what they hold people accountable for is typically wrongly defined, and they are training leaders to lead in the wrong direction. Nevermind the fact that the ones to gain the most from these tests are the for-profit testing companies who make millions on the backs of our children and are the ones who developed the new Common Core Standards.  I share my concerns about these standards in this post and this one.  

Prensky warns Americans that the statistics of the past are no guarantee for our children‟s future. Stating that , “Past statistics are reliable predictors only if conditions remain roughly the same – and in the case of education and jobs, almost everything is changing radically. The world will continue to change even faster as our students grow up; and in this environment of hyper-change, all bets are off. Remember how many people believed (based largely on past data) that housing prices would always go up – until they fell? The only way to ensure that the positive link between more education and better jobs applies in the 21st century is to make major changes to the education we give our students.”

Prensky mirrors my recent concerns that I shared in my post, Don’t Respect Your Elders, Respect Each Other explaining that our current education is frequently demeaning and disrespectful, too often unnecessarily subordinating the individual needs and desires of students to those of the system. Ultimately Prensky warns that our educational system neither teaches nor tells teachers directly that the most important part of their job is connecting with students, not delivering content and his article and upcoming book provide some ideas for addressing this further. 


  1. All I can say is this article is amazing and the links are equally great, Thanks so much for sharing. I will share with my staff.

  2. Greg, thank you for spreading the good word :-))))

  3. Fantastic post - I admire both Prensky's insights and your ability to extract the keys so effectively. Much obliged, oh learning partner!

  4. Great article. We need more voices advocating for Authentic Ed Reform, not just ed reform.
    How about calling them "The 3 P's: Passion, Problem Solving, Publishing and Sharing"?

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Fantastic :) Thanks for sharing your fourth "non C" characteristic as I think it is huge. Looking forward to talking more the next time we meet in person!