System Update Required: How Would Education Expert Father Joseph O'Keefe, S.J. Reboot Catholic Schools If He Could Start from Scratch? in a Time and Place Not So Far Away, O'Keefe Has Imagined a Catholic School Utopia Where Everyone Is Plugged into the Same Mission

By O'Keefe, Joseph | U.S. Catholic, September 2009 | Go to article overview
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System Update Required: How Would Education Expert Father Joseph O'Keefe, S.J. Reboot Catholic Schools If He Could Start from Scratch? in a Time and Place Not So Far Away, O'Keefe Has Imagined a Catholic School Utopia Where Everyone Is Plugged into the Same Mission


O'Keefe, Joseph, U.S. Catholic


For many years, Nearfutureville was a just small desert town with very few Catholics. Today, it is emblematic of the Catholic Church in the United States, with migrants from the Northeast and Midwest and immigrants from every part of the globe. Its Catholic population includes a few extremely wealthy entrepreneurs, a significant number of middle-class professionals, and many lower-income people who mostly work in the service industry.

Three years ago, the bishop of the newly established Diocese of Nearfutureville, convinced that Catholic education is the best way to foster faith, established an innovative network of schools. When diocesan leaders reflected on how well their Catholic education had prepared them for leadership today, they realized that they had to prepare young people for leadership in 2050. "What will the world be like then?" they wondered. "How can we prepare young people today for what they will face tomorrow?"

Diocesan leaders knew that they had a golden opportunity to be visionary pioneers; they wanted to complement the best of the past with cutting-edge innovations to prepare for the future. They identified three distinctive elements of their educational enterprise: fostering 21st-century thinking skills, sustaining vibrant faith communities, and being anchored in and anchoring the greater community.

Yesterday's schools cannot provide the knowledge and skills that will be needed by those who will be society's leaders in the mid-21st century. In the past, schools transmitted knowledge in routine and often fragmented pieces through courses and written materials five days per week for 180 days in an academic calendar created to accommodate an agricultural society.

Over the past decade, discoveries in neuroscience and cognitive psychology reveal that traditional ways of organizing curriculum and instruction fail to provide optimal learning experiences. Schools today need to foster creativity over rote memorization, differentiated learning rather than one-size-fits-all, problem solving over quick right-and-wrong answers.

Along with advances in our understanding of the way the brain processes knowledge are dramatic changes in the way knowledge is passed on. Information about anything is just a Google search away, and heavy encyclopedias and newspapers are being replaced by Wikipedia, news websites, and blogs. School libraries are not so much physical places that own books and journals; they are virtual sites that provide access to e-books and e-journals.

More than transmitting knowledge, schools must give students the ability to sort, to evaluate, and to synthesize the knowledge that is constantly at their fingertips.

Schools must be nimble and creative if they are to meet the needs of the 21st-century workplace. Sadly, public school systems--with teachers' unions, highly politicized school boards, and centralized bureaucracies--too often stifle creativity. The stagnancy of public education has given rise to charter schools, which are more responsive to contemporary needs. But they too are often straitjacketed by high-stakes tests based on state-mandated curriculum frameworks.

Catholic schools certainly have challenges but they are relatively free from bureaucracy, and unlike charter schools they have a long track record of academic integrity. In other words, Catholic schools are uniquely poised to meet the needs of 21 sty-century learners.

Catholic schools today must be more than a building. Through government grants, corporate contributions, and private donors, Nearfutureville Catholic Schools expand the "walls" of the school by providing every student a laptop, and they ensure that every home has wireless capabilities. Courses for all students, from kindergarten through grade 12, are a blend of in-class and online activities, and the divide between schoolwork and homework gradually has disappeared. Home is as much of a learning space as the school building but, paradoxically, the need for the school building has never been as great.

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System Update Required: How Would Education Expert Father Joseph O'Keefe, S.J. Reboot Catholic Schools If He Could Start from Scratch? in a Time and Place Not So Far Away, O'Keefe Has Imagined a Catholic School Utopia Where Everyone Is Plugged into the Same Mission
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