By Gary Marx
Progress is a peculiar thing. Some of it can be easily measured, and some can’t.
In education, we seem to have landed in a spot where any progress must be accompanied by a test score. That’s OK, but if we hope for a more sustainable future, then we have to admit that other things are important, too.
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, here are five of the hundreds of challenges we face. Since we are of this world, not separate from it, all of these challenges have implications for education. If we ignore them or give them short shrift, we could put our economic security and our quality of life at risk.
1. The purposes of education will be redefined and always on the agenda.
The purposes of education seem to have become synonymous with what’s tested. We have become so entranced by the means that the ends have become blurry. Try these four purposes on for size, and consider using them to start a conversation with fellow educators and the community. First – educating students to become good members of a civil society. Second –educating students to develop their employability skills. Third – educating students to live more interesting lives. Fourth – discovering and developing the genius that is already there. Many subjects contribute directly to these purposes, but they are means to even greater ends. Until we put what we do into a broader context, we’ll be trapped in a scoreboard mentality, and that kind of thinking can lead to a narrow world of its own.
2. The search for a new normal will take on increased urgency.
"I can’t wait 'till things get back to normal." Faced with economic challenges, layoffs, shutdowns of plants and industries, threats to pension plans, foreclosures, and concerns about health care, the environment, and affordable sources of energy, people long for a sense of security and normalcy. Nothing abnormal about that. However, the question we’re asking should not be, “When will things get back to normal?” The question should be, “What will the new normal look like?” Whether we like it or not, we will need to prepare ourselves and our students to thrive in an always on, fast-changing world.
3. “Sustainability” will be redefined and become an essential part of any legitimate strategic vision.
“We’ll never get the money and we’ll never have community support. Therefore, it’s not sustainable.” Unfortunately, that approach to sustainability is no longer sustainable. Our challenge is to take a longer view. Think of it this way. “Can we sustain our economy and our civil society without the best possible education?” That’s the flip side of the sustainability test. Then, the question becomes, “How will we earn the financial and public support we need?” Sustainability depends on building flexibility into our strategic plans, making them living strategies or strategic visions. Remember that adaptability is a key to survival.
4. International understanding will be basic to our future.
Interdependence is a reality. Among the new disadvantaged will likely be those who aren’t able to work and communicate across cultures and political boundaries. Diplomatic skills, such as open minds, natural curiosity, patience, courtesy and good manners, a sense of tolerance, and the ability to empathize with others, need to be among the new basics. If we need further international perspective, consider that only about five percent of the world’s population live in North America and 61 percent live in Asia and Australasia. What are the possible implications for education?
5. Encouraging knowledge creation and breakthrough thinking will be essential to our progress.
We will not be able to ride our way into the future. We will need to invent our way into the future. That’s one of many reasons why we need to identify and strengthen the creativity and imagination of all students, educators, and communities. We need to help students see relationships among a diversity of ideas as they engage in knowledge creation and breakthrough thinking. Without imagination, we generally end up using our energies defending what we did yesterday. Instead, we should be thinking about what we need to do tomorrow to stay ahead of the curve in a fast-changing world.
These are among the legion of challenges we face, but they are just a starter set as we move into a new decade. Think about them. Think of others. Of course, there are many. As we celebrate our history and heritage, let’s think forward, knowing full well that the status quo is not a viable option.
Gary Marx, firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-938-8725, is President of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, Va. His latest books include "Sixteen Trends…Their Profound Impact on Our Future" (ERS) and "Future-Focused Leadership" (ASCD). Marx has delivered presentations in all 50 states and on six continents and is an NSPRA President's Award recipient.