Coming of Age in the Twenty-First Century: Schools that Meet the Needs of the Future
When I hear, I forget
When I see, I remember
When I do, I understand
—Ancient Chinese saying
Welcome Chinese readers! We are so grateful to be able to share this book with the Chinese public.
In a rapidly changing world, we, in America, see China as a kind of “ground zero” of transition and change. Lightning fast transformation is gripping the world right now and no more so than in China. In times like these, parents, children and educators need to rethink their approaches to education, revaluate their goals and adapt quickly to the demands of the times.
How do we prepare our children for the challenges of the Information Age when so much is being thrown their way? And, what do we want our students to be able to do to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century?
Lives of Passion, School of Hope comes along at just the right time because it offers us an alternative way of educating our children that actually works. This is the story of the alumni of a public kindergarten through high school program that has always been concerned with the future.
When futurists like Alvin Toffler were warning us about the intensity of change and its consequences back in the 1970s, the founding parents and community members of the Open School were already laying the groundwork for meeting the demands of the modern world.
The Five Goals of the Open School set the stage for telling the story of the Open School and provide the framework for this book:
- Rediscover the joy of learning
- Seek meaning in your life
- Adapt to the world that is
- Prepare for the world that might be
- Help create the world that ought to be
These goals still resonate as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century. As countries around the world face the same issues that the founders of the Open School confronted more than forty years ago, how do they provide some alternatives to the one-size-fits-all educational systems that seem to be in denial of the realities of the modern world?
The 2007 UNICEF report on Readiness for the Work Force gives us a clear indication of what the world today demands from our young people entering the work force. Here is what employers said they were looking for from students coming out of school into the work force. Please note the absence of any rigidly formal academic skills.
- Self-directed learners who are able to learn how to learn
- Critical thinkers who are able to filter and process information
- Decision makers and problem solvers
- Self-starters who are able to take the initiative
- Intrinsically motivated workers who are motivated from within
- Experiential learners who are able to learn on the job in real life situations
- Creative thinkers who are confident in their ability to use their imaginations and create change
- Self-assessors—people who are able to evaluate their own progress
- Adaptable learners—workers who can be flexible and agile in dealing with change
- Emotionally intelligent learners—those who demonstrate the ability to deal with one’s emotions and those of others
- Learners with inter-personal skills and positive attitudes about working with different kinds of people
- Learners who have organizational skills and are able to use resources wisely
- Leaders who have a vision of a better world and are able to share it with others
It is interesting to see the similarities between the Open School goals of forty-two years ago and the recent UNICEF report. Once again it demonstrates how prescient the founding parents of the school were and how, in developing new educational strategies to meet the future, we need not ignore the past.
In fact, we may draw from our roots in both American and Chinese culture to find our way in helping our students become well-adjusted, productive adults in the Information Age of this incipient century.
First of all, let us pay our respects to the venerable foundations of Chinese philosophy that may help us set the stage for meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.
As Confucius once said, “Developing in accordance with one’s own nature is the way of self-realization.” As a master teacher, Confucius was, in fact, rather informal and unstructured. He did not use rigidly structured classes or examinations. He tailored his lessons to the needs of his students in the context of the times they lived in and he placed a great emphasis on experiential learning,
The education writer Xinzhong Yao argues that modern education has much to learn from Confucian thought. Personal growth, character development and putting learning into practice are key features. Confucian learning, he states, employs a “wide practical extension” and an understanding of self, family, community and the world at large. As Lao Tzu said, “He who knows himself is enlightened.” Thus, searching for meaning and making sense of one’s world have always been important aspects of a meaningful learning process.
Traditional Chinese approaches to education included more than just academic instruction. Developing personal and social skills was also of paramount importance. Becoming fully human was the desired outcome. Confucius even talked about students embodying the concepts of neisheng (inner knowingness) and waiwang (outer kindliness and compassion). So it seems that this well-rounded approach to education is nothing new; in fact, it is an important part of traditional Chinese thought.
Let us also not forget the development of creative and critical thinking. Much of ancient Chinese wisdom is concerned with the “sublimity” of the creative process to which “all beings owe their beginning.” (Lao Tzu)
Chinese Taoism also emphasizes learning that is “unlike the pursuit of information” (Nagel, 1994) but is more flexible and experiential in nature. Apparently, the mechanical process of receiving and giving back information is as far from the traditional model as it is from today’s demands. Filtering, processing and questioning information belongs to an ancient Chinese tradition.
For Confucius, learning was not just experiential, but a highly personal process as well. Any kind of real learning had a sense of joy and an awakened wonder to it. Study without thought or just rote learning was considered “labor lost.”
The teacher as guide, coach and counselor, not just a purveyor of information, is another part of traditional Chinese philosophy: when the teacher’s best work is done, the students say: “We did it ourselves!” according to Lao Tzu. The ancient masters didn’t try to educate as much as gently guide their students to develop their own wisdom.
These traditional Chinese connections with the Open School model that we talk about in this book remind me of the rather common perception that the Open School model is nontraditional in nature. My response: no, the school is actually rather traditional; it is just not conventional.
If one thinks of the early one-room schoolhouse model that was so prominent in the early pioneer history of America, one is reminded that mixing different age groups and having students work closely with a teacher are not new concepts. In fact, schools were once considered important parts of the fabric of communities, and local needs and issues likewise influenced the learning process.
In this same vein, it is interesting to note the progressive American schools of the 1930s, which were considered social laboratories of the future. These schools emphasized experiential approaches to teaching and learning that went beyond the factory model of Industrial Age utilitarianism.
Students in these schools had more control of—and therefore, more responsibility for—their own learning. They became equal partners in the learning process itself and were encouraged to use their imaginations and their creative powers to face a world that was in major transition.
The Second World War and, subsequently, the intense global competition of the post-war period rudely derailed these more humanistic and creative educational trends. Consequently, a return to more rote learning and standardization of curricula has persisted for more than sixty years now.
So it seems that both our countries face a dilemma of similar proportions. We can sense that things today are not quite right. More and more, stakeholders in our educational systems are bemoaning the fact that our students are not ready for today’s challenging world. Even those with high marks and test scores seem more like trained seals than the well-rounded, creative and confident people who can make their way through the many obstacles of a world that just won’t stand still.
I believe we need to draw from our respective cultural roots and return to a more personalized and humanistic approach to education. We need to develop confidence, curiosity and compassion in our children. We need innovators with imagination, people who feel a spirit of joy and wonder in everything they do, students who become lifelong learners. I believe our schools can play a big part in this process.
Lives of Passion, School of Hope, then, is about an alternative and a choice. The Open School model may not be for everyone, but it is a program that has worked quite well for its alumni of forty-two years. Many of them even say that they live according to the Five Goals of the school as they navigate the challenging course of their adult lives. Now, you will read their stories and their heartfelt accounts of the influence of a very different educational experience. Perhaps it will inspire you to work for similar alternatives in your own communities or just give you some ideas of how you would like things to change.
After all, it’s all about our children and how they grow, adapt and change as they enter the adult society of a demanding, sometimes frightening world. Enjoy the book, and please feel free to interact with me with your questions and thoughts.
Thank you again for your interest in this exciting educational model.
Rick Posner, Ph.D.