What Century Is This?

I’ve been in baby-land for so long, I can hardly remember what this blog is for. But it’s coming back to me now that I am in Washington, DC for the annual Kennedy Center Retreat for Workshop Leaders. (By the way, the twin granddaughters are doing famously.)

Today we had the opportunity to delve deeper into the ways in which the arts help develop “21st Century Skills” (http://p21.org), which are primarily the brainchild of various high-tech companies who have enlisted arts education organizations and other partners to promote the idea that the new millennium requires citizens who are creative, innovative, communicative problem-solvers. This is as opposed to the industrial workforce needs of the previous century and a half, which our factory education system was designed to satisfy.

A visual representation of the 21st-Century Skills framework.

Two problems floated to the surface as we listened to the presentation. Well, maybe more than two. First, this initiative is to a large degree driven by business. While we should acknowledge the importance to the business sector of having our schools produce a “work force” that is educated to match the employment needs of the economy, why are we letting business define and drive the conversation? One of the main obstacles to true educational transformation (not “reform,’ which has become a term that means “the latest thing we will try and then throw away” in education) is the profit motive. There are billions of dollars spent on public education every year, and large testing and textbook publishing companies vacuum up most of that cash. If we fundamentally change the way we teach and learn, these guys stand to lose a bundle. You think the Mafia was protective of their income sources, but they are pikers compared to what legalized corporate criminals get away with. So expect to see anyone proposing solutions that work outside the current system demonized and marginalized by Big Business.

Secondly, and even more problematically, the 21st-century skills initiative is attempting to effect large-scale educational change without truly challenging the way we think about schools. What good does it do to recognize and promote 21st-century skills when we are trying to teach those skills using 19th-century facilities and methods?

When our schools are built like prisons and when our children can’t get off their behinds to investigate the actual universe beyond their electronic virtual hidey-holes, when teacher preparation programs are beholden to the textbook-writing professors who perpetuate bad instruction — how are we going to move the arts from the periphery to the center of the conversation?

The purpose of schools is NOT to produce a “work force.” The purpose of teaching and learning is NOT to make it easier for big corporations to make even bigger profits. There might be some conditions under which these would be good things, but they are not the only things, and they are certainly not the most important things that schools can and should provide. We need to closely examine the long-held “truths” about education that decision-makers assume are true, and we need to have a public, national debate about what we really want from our public schools.

As long as we allow legislators to define success on their own, narrow, budget-driven terms, and as long as we let private companies slurp up billions of precious public dollars for worthless texts and tests, we will get the (crummy) educational system we deserve.

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About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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