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A New Book about Learning in the 21st Century

School is a terrific idea. In fact, school is one of the best ideas we’ve ever had, more impressive because we’ve spread the idea all over the world. No matter where I travel, kids attend school. They learn. Despite a constant hum of criticism and attempts at reform, school works because it makes sense for students, parents, communities, nations and the world.

The key to school success seems to be the direct, in-person relationship between a teacher and a student. This relationship enables the transfer of specific knowledge and skills from one generation to the next, but there’s more to it. Learning is an intensely personal experience, a practical and effective way to gather information about one’s life and make sense of the world. Meaningful learning takes place when students want to learn, not because they are taught.

Education is a global enterprise that promises efficient, effective learning on a massive scale to a billion-plus students in a million-plus local school buildings. It’s a mass production model reliant upon standards, metrics and consistency. It’s easy to miss the big picture because education is delivered locally. For a century, we’ve tried to improve efficiency. In the 1930s, broadcast radio introduced distance learning with School of the Air and similar programs. Each wave of technology—television (1950s), home computers (1980s), the internet (1990s), web 2.0 (2000s), iPads (2010s), 5G (2020s)—reinforces the value of direct student-teacher interaction. Today, “Sesame Workshop brings learning, laughter, and life lessons to kids all over the world. From Afghanistan to South Africa—and 150 countries in between—we’re a nonprofit on a mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder…” In the 2030s, a combination of AI, VR, machine learning and robotics might revolutionize school, but that’s unlikely. Technology produces useful tools, but the most useful and versatile tool is also the most resilient: a student and a teacher working together.

Imagine 200 million adults—roughly the population of today’s Brazil or Nigeria—that’s the number of people who will be working in education by 2050. Today’s employee count roughly equals the current population of Russia: 75 million teachers plus 75 million support and administrative staff. Global employment is rising because more young people are attending school—90% of children, 85% of young teens, 65% of older teens—each drawing closer to 100%.

Students are kept very busy so they appear to be very productive. If we bound their homework into 200-page books, they’d fill 340 million volumes, enough to reach the moon and back—every year. In OECD countries, we invest about $10,000 per student per year, or about 3-4% of GDP, mostly to pay teachers and other staff. Generally, we’re buying four instructional hours per day, five days per week, forty weeks per year. Each student’s K-12 education costs about $125,000 and requires about 10,000 hours of schoolwork; half the investment pays for the teaching of language arts, science and mathematics.

Often, resources are inadequate. In many communities, there aren’t enough well-trained teachers. Classrooms may be overcrowded. Safety may be a concern. Curriculum may be old-fashioned or irrelevant. For many reasons, students may be unable or unwilling to learn, or simply uninterested. And yet, the numbers suggest progress.

Worldwide, primary school graduations are up from 74% in 1975 and 81% in 2000; they’re now around 90%. High school graduation rates are up from 60% to 80% in Australia and Ireland, a healthy improvement since 2000. We’ve more than doubled the number of people 25-34 in Canada with college degrees, and quadrupled the number of people 55-64 in Korea who are college graduates. There are more girls in school, notably in India, where the girl:boy ratio was 70:100 in 2000; now it’s 93:100, in part because the nation has invested in modern toilets, making life safer and less embarrassing for young women., In Nigeria, in 1970, one in ten people attended school; by 2000, they were up to six in ten; by 2050, it will be nine in ten. Since 2000, in Africa and Asia, secondary school enrollment has doubled. National governments connect education with economic progress, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals prioritize education, so priorities have shifted in favor of mass schooling.

To demonstrate success, enterprises rely upon metrics. Unfortunately, education metrics do not address bigger questions about what individual children and teenagers are learning, whether it’s useful, why so many of them are struggling, and how to update school for the 21st century. We need a different way to think about this. Here’s a starting place:

In the 20th century, schools offered students standardized instruction in a limited range of subjects. Mostly, people learned the same things in the same ways.

In the 21st century, young people learn different things in their own ways. Every student is unique, with a distinct identity, array of interests, learning style, family setup, relationships, life experience, set of beliefs, home life, culture, heritage, dream, plan for the future. Today’s students see themselves as independent beings who make their own decisions. Young people have changed. Society has changed. School has not changed.

For 21st century children and teenagers in school today, there is no 20th century. It exists only in grown-ups’ memory. Every K-12 student was born after the year 2000. Their access to information is largely unrestricted, so the world’s issues are familiar and very real. Clearly, adults have been unable to navigate transformational change, so today’s problems are becoming young people’s responsibility, their problems to solve—before it’s too late. Students are growing up and learning in the midst of a global public health nightmare, life-threatening climate change, widespread economic catastrophe, convulsive political turmoil, serious mental health issues, aggressively transformative technology, and fights for social justice in human rights, education, race, law enforcement, public health, and income equality.

Navigating life in the 21st century requires more than an updated curriculum and new programs in well-being. It demands clear thinking, individual responsibility, adaptability and access to tools that are not part of the school experience. Incremental changes are easily made, but they’re easily un-made, too. Historically, promising solutions have taken shape at small numbers of schools, almost never at meaningful scale. School reform focuses on the institution, education, and classrooms, not on what students learn, and why. This is a massive miss: it’s the reason why so many students are uninterested in so much of school, and why so much of our (and their) annual investment is wasted as memory of taught information fades into disuse and irrelevance.

We need a large-scale 21st century refresh for school and learning, certainly in the U.S., quite likely throughout the world. Incredibly, there isn’t much doubt about the need for this change, but we get caught in the details, and end up doing almost nothing to bring learning into the modern age.

We know more about the brain, the mind, learning, technology, well-being, fitness, nutrition, community engagement, obstacles, mental health, global citizenship, behavior, teenagers, child development, parenting, identity, culture, heritage, safety, race, the earth, and public health than we knew two decades years ago when this century began.

Without getting lost in debate and the 20th century thinking, we need to reinvent the experience of school itself. Work has begun, but it’s difficult to envision a coherent plan. Given the stakes—the future of life on earth—I decided to write a first draft.

—HB, January 2021

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