During the week before last, I traveled with a group of colleagues to attend Solution Tree’s 21st Century Education Summit in Chicago. It was a largely laudable conference, focused on transforming modern education in order to be relevant in and responsive to our students’ rapidly changing world. Colleagues Bo Adams (my Principal) and Bob Ryshke (Director of the Center for Teaching) do a nice job of processing the various sessions and messages here, here, and here in their own blogs. (Evidently they were communing with their keyboards in the evenings while I went out on the town with my less productive colleagues—shame on us.) Anyway, I found much to think about and much I already agreed with, having long placed an emphasis on the “4 C’s” (Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and Innovation) in own my classroom, in addition to my designated territory within the traditional “3 R’s.”
Nonetheless, with each successive speaker, a part of me became more and more disquieted, as all this talk of “how to prepare our students for the 21st Century” never substantively broached the subject of sustainability. We heard, instead, a lot of talk about technology and Web 2.0 skills, about wikis and blogs and podcasts and Twitter, about providing and encouraging and leveraging connectivity among our students. Nothing about humanity’s running into non-negotiable ecological limits on a finite planet, about our need as educators to respond to and prepare for the ramifications. Searching for some sign of recognition of the latter, I kept looking at the upcoming session descriptions—surely, I thought, Robin Fogarty and Brian M. Pete will have to talk about the environment in a presentation titled “21st Century Thinking: What Will Our Kids Need to Know 25 Years From Now?” But alas. Kids evidently will need to know they can use their cell phones in class.
At the end of the second full day, I had the chance to raise this concern in the form of a written question for a panel discussion:
We live in a time when the scientific community is sounding alarms that human activity is beginning to alter the physics of our atmosphere and the chemistry of our oceans. Why, then, does environmental sustainability not even make the conference agenda if our focus is on preparing students for the world they will live in?
The initial response among the panel was one of embarrassed admission, something to the effect of “Yeah, well, it probably should have.” My question then seemed to hit a sympathetic nerve with panel member Elliot Seif—”This is one of my pet peeves,” he started—who launched into some thoughts about how schools need to tackle the subject head on, about how if ever there was a subject calling for deep understanding through the application of the 4 C’s, this was it. “Why don’t more schools teach a course like this?” he asked. Good question! More on his idea in a moment.
The panel moderator didn’t read out the second half of my question, which went something like this:
Given that societal disconnect from the natural world is the root cause of our environmental problems, should we be concerned that the 21st Century Education movement’s energetic embrace of technology will only further push our students into the virtual world and disconnect them from the real?
I was tactful and didn’t word my question to say that the 21st Century Education movement was “fetishizing” technology, but that’s how I was feeling at the time. One of the sessions earlier that day had been Bob Pearlman’s fascinating tour of innovative schools whose architecture, schedule, and curriculum had been designed to foster 21st century learning, to promote collaborative, project-based, student-centered work. Cool. And yet he shared several short videos in which the the majority of the screen shots had kids staring into a computer screen, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, and almost always indoors. In fact, the cutting-edge school buildings he showcased seemed not to have many windows at all, and one architectural rendering he put up tellingly showed the interior configuration and the layout of the parking lot outside while the natural areas around the building were nothing but blank space. In a similar vein, in the conference’s single passing glance to environmental education, presenter Chris Dede shared an example of how students could learn environmental science by manipulating ecological variables and monitoring their effects in a virtual pond. Sheesh. Have none of these people read Last Child in the Woods?
Look, I totally get it that we have a responsibility to help our students learn to productively navigate and leverage their web-and-media-saturated world. They face an entirely different playing field than we did growing up, and this is one genie that is not going back in its bottle. So we can either leave them to their own devices as they wander this new terrain or we can give them guidance. I vote the latter. But given our predicament, do we not also have a responsibility, maybe even more of a responsibility, to counterbalance the virtual with the real, to offer a compelling alternative narrative and to help our students connect with the natural world and just what it means to be human?
Ultimately, Elliot Seif was right when he suggested that the skills and practices currently branded as “21st Century Education” could and should be a powerful and productive tool for investigating and understanding what will, no doubt, be the mother of all 21st century subjects. In fact, a perfect example appeared in my RSS aggregator while I was in Chicago, in the form of a blog post from naturalist educator “Rebecca in the Woods,” reporting from the Georgia coast. Rebecca reports a great story of how she taps into the learning potential of the wired and connected world to identify a moth she has photographed—and ends up both learning a lot about moth identification and making a contribution to the science of lepidoptery in the process. Even as digital distractions are leading more and more children to lead increasingly indoor lives, the internet is proving to be an exciting and powerful tool for naturalists and others. We just need to be appropriately discerning, perhaps even skeptical, of our headlong embrace of the digital world.
As for Seif’s call for a dedicated course about sustainability, one designed around “21st Century Education” practices . . . well, I have a vision of what that might look like. What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle, not in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry? Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic. What an education in using the “4 C’s” that could be! And think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon. Web learning and digital networking would obviously be enormously important in a course like this, but the context would also prompt students to think about technology from multiple perspectives, would bring our planet back into the conversation.