Beyond the Moon in Education: ‘…not because it is easy, but because it is hard’

Man looks into the telescopeIt has been nearly 45 years since we first landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.  Say what you want about the 1960’s, but the one thing the decade most certainly got right was its ability to encourage children to dream big. Somewhere between JFK’s 1961 inspirational speech about choosing to “go to the moon” and this moment, we have reversed the messaging we send to our children. Instead of telling our students,  “if you can dream it you can do it”, we caution them to be realistic and do their best to “keep up”  with the children in India and China.

As Sir Ken Robinson wisely notes in his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, “Current systems of education were not designed to meet the challenges we now face.  They were developed to meet the needs of a former age.  Reform is not enough: they need to be transformed.”

Educational transformation, like setting a course to the moon for the first time, is not easy.  Yet we know we need to face this challenge, to recall JFK’s words, “not because it is easy but because it is hard.” We need to return to asking our children to create the future only they can imagine.

Our current educational system is generally doing what it was designed to do- providing content in the form of courses in an effort to prepare students for the future.  In decades past, that future was somewhat predictable.  We knew how to set the course for that moon.   The issue now is the fact that the rapid pace of change has interfered with our ability to predict what comes next.  We cannot design a flight plan, with proper coordinates and trajectories for a particular destination.

Instead, we need to shift our focus.  The system can no longer rest on providing content for a linear and predictable outcome.  Educational transformation requires that we take our focus away from the landing point, and move it to equipping the astronaut for many possible destinations. Now, more than ever, our students need skills, not content.  Content reigned in the industrial and informational eras when access to content was tethered to experts and hard cover publications. We have known this for a while, but like any fixed system with a fixed output, it is difficult to know where to begin the transformation.

Today we have the world and its experts at our fingertips.  So what should a school do, right now, to properly equip a student for his or her flight into the unpredictable future?  Our educational transformation must center on adaptability.  Just like the software industry learned early on, fixed systems have a short useful shelf life.  Our design thinking must be anchored to change.  In this sense, there are four basic principles important to preparing our future pilots:

  1. Essential skills: Redesign the emphasis in our curricula.  Content should merely serve as the foundation for learning how to reason , communicate, calculate, research, problem solve, imagine, create and innovate with diligence, curiosity, and emotional intelligence. 
  2. Diverse connectivity: Rethink the spaces, faces and schedules.  Humans are important, connecting with them should happen in physical and digital spaces.  It should also happen across cultures and age levels.
  3. Balance: Keep calm and find the center.  The duality of this world requires a healthy respect for old and new, nature and technology, activity and stillness.  Skip the ‘all or nothing’ approach.  
  4. Relevance: Keep it real.  Schoolwork must be relevant to real life.  A solid design for our modern approach needs outcomes that matter more than grades. According to Sir Ken Robinson, “Education is not only a preparation for what may come later; it is also about helping people engage with the present.  What we become as our lives evolve depends on the quality of our experiences here and now.”

In this current period of exponential change, we must choose to inspire and equip our young people for take off.  We cannot program the coordinates for their destination, since that is still somewhat unknown, but we can shift our educational priorities from content delivery to skills acquisition.  We can make room in the outdated schedules for the arts, for maker spaces, for problem and project based learning.

Small budget? So what.  Your school and your students need you to do something now.  Today. Stop planning and start doing.  Even amid the most overbearing circumstances, a small space is waiting for you to make something happen.  We’ve been to the moon with technology less advanced than the phones in our pockets.  Just imagine where our kids will take us next.


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