The Making of Citizens

There is a lot of talk about 21st century this and 21st century that and our education system is not immune to throwing new buzz words around for our century.  Certainly there are important conversations to have with respect to what we expect students to become and how they will contribute to their local community, country, and our world.  What is it that students should know?  What behaviours should they possess?  What skills should they acquire?  What is the purpose of an education?  How should educators prioritize what is to be known?  The pace of change is exponential so how can we continue to teach kids to memorize iStock_000004213862XSmalldates, names, and places that they will likely never remember or care about?  What value is there to memorizing easily findable facts and figures?  I believe we will be navigating some pretty storming days ahead while we sort these things out…

In the February 2012 issue of FastCompany, I read an article about the Generation Flux.  It seems that we always need a new definition of the current generation.  “Patil got kicked out of math class for being disruptive.  He graduated only by persuading his school administrator to change his F grade in chemistry…  Patil, 37, is now an expert in chaos theory, among other mathematical disciplines”, p62.  Patil says “The pace of change in our economy and our culture is accelerating – fueled by global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies – and our visibility about the future is declining.”, p.62  He asks critical questions like “Which competitive advantages have staying power?  What skills matter most?”.  On p65 the article goes on to discuss various transformations and suggests that “any business that ignores these transformations does so at its own peril”.

“The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos”, p65

Generation Flux is defined by a “mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates – and even enjoys – recalibrating careers, business models, and assumption”.  Do our schools prepare students to be citizens who resemble these descriptors?

“The vast bulk of our institutions – educational, corporate, political – are not built for flux” and “the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills”, p65

“Government, schools, and other institutions… have structures and processes built for an industrial age, where efficiency is paramount but adaptability is terribly difficult… inside these legacy institutions, changing direction is rough”, p66.

“We are under constant pressure to learn new things.  It can be daunting. It can be exhilarating”, p66

“If ambiguity is high and adaptability is required, then you simply can’t afford to be sentimental about the past.  Future-focus is a signature trait of Generation Flux”, p67.

At the Edcamp43 un-conferenceimage I attended yesterday, some serious table talk was had around transformative uses of technology, inquiry based learning, and new forms of assessment and reporting.  It is encouraging to meet more educators who “get it”, that understand things need to change.  However, I think we are all challenged with the what and the how.  A “built to last” system like K12 education is going to be rather difficult to change without significant pain.  Take report cards for example.  A mark (letter or number) assigned to a piece of student work or a test is assumed to mean something, to indicate some level of success.  Parents think this means something as do higher education institutions.  Teachers have systems for determining andcustomer survey or poll with check boxes on blackboard assigning marks.  But what does a mark actually mean?  Does it describe what a person knows (really knows), can do (skills), has done (evidence)?  I almost failed grade 10 but this hasn’t affected my life or ability to be successful.  Those marks in grade 10 were irrelevant to who I became, what I know, what I can do.  I can’t recite for you all of the past prime ministers of Canada, the capital cities of each province, or the top 5 key historical events in Canada.  I would say thought that this makes me no less a proud and productive Canadian than the person with the better memory.  My point is, I think we value and hold on to traditional views of educational success that don’t map well to our world today and certainly not well for the future.

Our education system plays such a critical role in the “making of citizens”.  I do hope that those of us in the system will soon move past the talk of 21st century this, transformative that, and rapidly make real change so as to truly prepare our students for the future, not a memorable past.  To prepare them to serve our society and each other well, and to be meaningful contributors within the world of work, in the future!


  1. "My point is, I think we value and hold on to traditional views of educational success that don’t map well to our world today and certainly not well for the future."

    And herein lies one of the major obstacles to change for our system. I have always found it exciting to sit around a table talking as you did this weekend about the changes possible through enquiry based learning, new ways to look at assessment, and the rationales for what our curriculum wishes us to cover in the K-12 years.

    I've often wondered what it would be like if we shut the system down for a number of months (not summer break) and had everyone meet together to go over what changes for the future might be, and take the best the past has had to offer mixed with the ideas of the future and start everything all over again.

  2. @Bob: Interesting idea - shut the system down, redesign, and start again. I wonder what the stakeholders in education would think of that hey? What's stopping us from developing a new design as if we were starting from scratch and advocating for some kind of rapid transition? You might be onto something!

  3. Great post Brian. I for one am not super jazzed about academia as a way of determining how "smart" a kid is. There are so many ways to be intelligent, and the education system cannot possibly address all of them or even facilitate all of them. Yet again and again I see kids who are focused on the mark, or the parents who care more about a letter grade than the comments on a report card. I feel like this should change, but I don't really know where to start. I try to encourage my students to be happy, healthy, good individuals who have a strong work ethic and are interested in exploring both their abilities and their passions. That, unfortunately, sometimes (often?) flies in the face of the system as we have right now. And I don't have any answers except to say that conversations with people are going to move us forward. Thanks for being an agent of change for our district!

  4. @Elaan: maybe we need to make a concerted effort as a system to re-educate parents? If parent expectations shifted to more meaningful feedback on their children's learning away from "a mark", that would be a good start. I like the holistic encouragement you provide to students, those are all good attributes for them to strive for!

    Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts.


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