"It's hard to predict, especially about the future."
"I contend that, instead of insisting on more and
more standardization, we should be increasing variety, flexibility, and choice
in what we offer in our schools (Noddings, 2009, p.243).
" ... useful knowledge changes as societies
change" (Zhao, 2009, p. 135).
It is often stated that new standards are necessary so that
children will develop "21st Century Skills." Education Secretary
Duncan behaves, at times, as if he knows what these skills are (but see below).
Most of us have no idea.
The history of science and technology has taught us
that new developments are nearly always a surprise. Secretary Duncan expressed
this idea himself, in an interview with USA Today:
"As we get more and more of these technological
breakthroughs, there are going to be jobs in fields available that don't even
exist today. If these guys [sic] can come out and be those innovators and be
those creators and inventors, they're going to create new opportunities that we
can't even envision or begin to comprehend today" (USA Today, August 9,
In other words, Secretary Duncan seems to agree with
Yogi Berra: "It's hard to predict, especially about the future."
change: pursue your strengths
The only way to prepare students for the future is to
make sure they are prepared for a wide variety of options and opportunities. We
need to continue to "produce students who graduate with generic skills
that allow them to adapt rapidly to economic changes" (Martin, 2009).
Zhao (2009) arrives at the same conclusion and adds an
important point: School should help students "pursue their
" ... it is ... difficult to predict what new
businesses will emerge and what will become obsolete. Thus, what becomes highly
valuable are unique talents, knowledge, and skills, the ability to adapt to
changes, and creativity, all of which calls for a school culture that respects
and cultivates expertise in a diversity of talents and skills and a curriculum
that enables individuals to pursue their strengths" (Zhao, 2009, p. 156).
Don't worry about going to your left
We do not allow students to pursue their strengths
very much, forcing all students to reach fairly demanding levels in what some
people consider to be "basics" before they can specialize. The usual
advice to work on one's weaker areas is dangerous. Rosenblatt
(2001) advises young basketball players not to worry so much about learning to
go to their left, their weak direction: If you are always working on weak
areas, you can never really get good at anything.
It is undeniable that all citizens need a certain
minimum in some crucial areas, such as reading and math, but not nearly as much
as is often required. Nor is it necessary to hurry development of weaker areas
while delaying involvement in areas of real interest. There is much too much
delayed gratification in education today, resulting often in students leaving
the system before they have a chance to "pursue their strengths," and
the current standards movement promises to make this problem worse.
Broadening options, not making them narrower
Our responsibility is to provide the means for
students to develop their talents and explore their interests so they can reach
their full potential. This means broadening curriculum options, rather than
making them narrower (Ohanian, 1999, p. 4; Zhao, 1999, p. 181-183). Kurt
Vonnegut may be right: " …we
shouldn't be seeking harrowing challenges, but rather tasks we find natural and
interesting, tasks we were apparently born to perform." (Vonnegut, 1997, p. 148). Our job is to help students find
those tasks they love to do, that they can learn to do very very well, and that
contribute to society.
The United States, so far, is doing quite well in
terms of flexibility and ability to adapt to new circumstances: The U.S. economy is ranked as the fifth most
innovative in the world out of 142, according to the 2013 Global Innovation
Index, which is based in part on the availability of education, new patents and
the publication of scientific and technical journal articles (Cornell
University, INSEAD, and WIPO, 2013). The Common Core, however, promises only to
diminish our capacity to innovate, and change and grow with the times.
"American education needs to be more American,
instead of more like education in other countries. The traditional strengths of
American education – respect for individual talents and differences, a broad
curriculum oriented to educating the whole child, and a decentralized system
that embraces diversity – should be further expanded, not abandoned"
(Zhao, 2009, p. 182)
Cornell University, INSEAD, and WIPO. 2013. The Global Innovation Index 2013: The Local Dynamics
(accessed October 12, 2013).
Martin, M. 2009. Eggs or eggheads: Which does the U.S.
economy really need? Arizona School Boards Journal, Winter. Available at: http://www.susanohanian.org/show_commentary.php?id=68
Noddings, N. 2009. School for democracy. In Bracey, G.
Education Hell: Rhetoric Vs. Reality, Alexandra, VA: Educational Research
Service. Originally appeared in the Phi Delta Kappan, September, 2008.
Ohanian, S. 1999. One Size Fits Few. Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann Publishing Co.
Vonnegut, K. 1997. Timequake. New York: Putnam Publishing Group
Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way?
American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.