By Deanna Kuhn
New data have just appeared that give Americans another reason to be fearful about their country’s future. These are data that carry especially great weight because they are about the essence of America’s future – its children. That’s not to say the news is terribly surprising. The latest results from the PISA and TIMSS international assessments show US students’ ranking again no better than the middle of the pack. Are these numbers that forecast America’s doom, and if so what should we be doing about it?
A likely direction we appear headed in the new political climate is toward the marketplace, not to turn schools into for-profit businesses – that ‘s proved not very successful – but rather toward an environment of competition, with a big increase in vouchers that leave families free to choose the school they believe will provide the education best for their child. In order for that plan to bear fruit, parents first of all need to have good choices – and in a great many US cities these are nonexistent or scarce enough to be accessible to only a wealthy elite. Also, however, they need a sound basis for choosing, one that goes beyond the most visible criterion of a safe, well-maintained physical environment that every school should be held to. If their decisions aren’t informed, well-reasoned ones, parents’ freedom to choose will count for little.
It’s worthwhile, then, to look closely at what educators in top-performing places like Singapore, Shanghai or Finland seem to be doing right and make sure we’ve identified it. I’ve spent time the last few years in Singapore and China, advising on implementing a thinking-skills curriculum my collaborators and I have developed, and initially I was surprised to learn what was on educators’ minds there. Far from resting on their laurels, I found them concerned to identify objectives they believed were not being met adequately and eager to invest in new approaches. They are hard at work looking at what could be, not what is, with respect to educating their youth. A major concern is developing curricula that will foster advanced, innovative thinking, an attribute their national leaders see as critical to 21st-century success. They are pleased their students perform well, but they are not at all confident that the international assessments they participate in are measuring what’s most important for students to acquire.
What these leaders seem to recognize is that these tests represent the past and present, not the future. Educators in Singapore have moved beyond mere talk of 21st-century skills to better identify just what these skills are and, most important, how to foster them. Is it possible, then, that a decade or two from now the US will find itself left behind, having devoted its resources to boosting student performance on the kinds of tests that the most educationally forward-thinking countries will have replaced? The United States has long been a center of innovation. Why not in education, where we might expect innovation to be both central to practice and fostered in the next generation?
Instead, US teachers increasingly have become consumed with test prep. “If I don’t get these scores up I won’t have a school,” the principal of a charter school told me, apologizing that he could no longer afford enough time for the program we had helped implement there that engages students in electronic discourse with peers on significant issues. The social studies curriculum would seem the natural place for students to debate issues of current concern to the society they live in, but doing so is largely crowded out by a traditional curriculum, not much of which sticks. A recent Facebook video showed American college students clueless when asked who won the civil war (yet all could name Brad Pitt’s present and former spouse).
Only belatedly, at the end of the year with time likely running out, do New York State curriculum standards for social studies ask students to contemplate the future – how what existed in the past or exists at present might change. The American history standards conclude with a brief section titled, “The US begins a new century.” The new century, it says, offers an opportunity for “federal and state governments to reevaluate their roles,” and it is asks students to contemplate these. The particulars listed under this heading are wide-ranging – “fiscal and monetary policies: taxation, regulation, deregulation” and “social programs: health, welfare, education.” Evaluating government policies and programs stands in sharp contrast to the descriptive historical topics that precede them in this and similar curriculum guides. “Teaching the future,” rather than only the past, calls for a different kind of intellectual engagement. It demands envisioning and weighing possibilities – what could be, rather than only what is or was.
Why not teach the future? It surely warrants as much attention as the past. Little in students’ school experience prepares them to shift gears to engage in this kind of thought, individually or in discourse with others. If we believe it important that 21st century citizens be able and disposed to think in such ways, we must provide young people the practice that will prepare them to eventually make reasoned choices, about personal matters (like their future children’s schooling), as well as the broader issues at stake among the identity groups and larger society they belong to. In so doing they develop and secure their identities as citizens with the capability and responsibility to do so. The next generation needs to feel more confident than we do about what lies beneath voters’ choices.
Americans need not defer to other nations to take the lead in educational innovation, nor should we fail to nurture a new generation of innovators and thoughtful citizens. A culture that supports discourse is certainly necessary, but so is each individual’s development of the skills and values that reasoned discourse requires. Even in today’s climate, or even in spite of it, America’s investment in education could start to take a different direction, if we summon the vision and the will to look to the future and to invest generously and wisely in it. We can get our young people thinking deeply if we resolve to do so, and their and our future rests on it.
About the Author:
Deanna Kuhn is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University and an author of Education for Thinking and Argue with Me.