Premature Arrival of the Future

Article excerpt

The "basics" of tomorrow are skills considered to be of a higher level today. These skills include: evaluation and analysis skills; critical thinking; problem-solving strategies (including mathematical problem-solving); organization and reference skills; synthesis; application; creativity; decision making given incomplete information; and communications skills through a variety of modes.

--The Information Society: Are High School Graduates Ready? Education Commission of the States, 1982

IT SEEMS like a long time ago, and in many ways it was. The year was 1982-25 years ago, two and a half decades, a lifetime for many of today's young teachers who were toddlers or infants when that list was made. My mentor, Chris Pipho, used to say that he suffered from "premature arrival of the future." Well, the "tomorrow" in that 1982 publication is here. And yet the list might have been made just this morning.

So does that mean, as the song puts it, that "everything old is new again," or does it mean that it is even more important to get it right this time? The focus on the Information Society in 1982 parallels the focus on being globally competitive today. Being globally competitive is all about people. We need a far larger number of graduates who know how to think, to solve problems, to discern fact from ideology, and to demonstrate all the other skills deemed important in 1982.

So if that's the case, what are experts saying about what needs to be different in schools? And what are state leaders doing about it?

Practitioners like Elizabeth Lodal, former principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, note that the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects are successful when the subjects are required for all students, the curriculum is interdisciplinary, teachers and students work in collaborative teams, academic work is project-based, students experience hands-on problem solving involving real-world questions, and the school schedule devotes large blocks of time to learning and team planning.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CLASSROOMS?

Richard Duschl of Rutgers University, who chaired the National Research Council committee that wrote the report Taking Science to School, makes several assertions. One is that children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world. Young children, he contends, are not concrete and simplistic in their thinking. They can use a wide range of reasoning processes that form the underpinnings of scientific thinking. Teaching, says Duschl, should not separate content from processes, skills, and practices.

However, he does note some tensions. Argument is rare in science classrooms but central to science; teaching focuses on recall rather than model-based reasoning. Classroom norms (the teacher and textbook provide answers) are in tension with the practice of building scientific models from evidence. Curricula and standards tend to be "a mile wide and an inch deep." Students, notes Duschl, should participate productively in scientific practices and discourse by constructing arguments; by talking, writing, and representing scientific ideas, data, evidence, information, models, and theories; by responding to criticism and considering alternatives; and by evaluating their own and others' claims of knowledge.

In 2002, a report from the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, by Anthony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers, The Missing Middle: Aligning Education and the Knowledge Economy, predicted that economic and demographic changes would increase the need to align curricula with work requirements and create stronger relationships between high schools and colleges and communities and employers. The authors argued that there must be a stronger focus on the "missing middle" in education policy: the years between the completion of basic academic preparation and the completion of occupational or professional training. …