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Following Through: How Education in the 21st Century Will Shape Our Nation Jeffrey Hilliard Northeastern University


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Following Through: How Education in the 21st Century Will Shape Our Nation

Teachers are the most powerful political agents this country has. Though the focus within the school walls is on physics and math, English and government, we can’t forget that there is one fact that is of critical importance when examining the role of educators—we have the students, their attention, their future, their school records in our care. What we choose to do with that time is something we constantly strive to improve, even if we tend to stray in the wrong direction at times. In the 21st century, we’ve got to spend more time focusing our energy on those forces which will soon be dominant, soon be of critical importance, soon be a matter of our national identity—embracing cultural diversity and educating all who land on our shores and become the new face of America.

John-Steiner and Mahn, in their article, Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygotskian Framework, wrote, “Human development starts with dependence on caregivers. The developing individual relies on the vast pool of transmitted experience of others” (p. 192). How much experience and in what way we experience life will one day be transmitted to those who follow our path on the trails of the American way of life. With the immigrant population in the United States soaring and more students from numerous backgrounds occupying the seats in our schools, our employment agencies and government offices, the time for recognizing America’s changing face is now. Our direct experiences and policies will trickle down to a population that doesn’t view life as we do now—and our approach needs to be with vision and not defensiveness to a past we see as fading away.

It’s not the goal of this paper to stress that collectivism is better than individualism, which can arguably be defined as the doctrine of developing nations vs. that of developed nations. For


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better or worse, individualistic cultures have fared quite well to date. But, given the shift we’re seeing in the world today where globalization (not to mention waning American power) has allowed attendance and participation by individuals in nations which are collectivistic, it is essential that we learn to value, respect and acknowledge that this philosophy of life will be a part of developed countries’ makeup more in the future than we can currently recognize. More important may be in how we manage the learning experience so that our focus isn’t just on individual achievement.

In many ways, however, this country was founded based on collectivistic values—we called it civic duty in those times. We were accustomed to learning and celebrating those whose achievements were good for the country as a whole. With the growth of power and wealth in this country, this idea quickly fell to the depths of near non-existence. Have we come full circle, then, in part thanks to the immigrants who never gave up these ideas, who maintained these ideas within the family unit? How then do we go about reclaiming this civic/collectivistic responsibility? Has Wall Street mentality vs. Main Street mentality become a battle of the individual’s greedy desires against the society’s desire just to survive? “Human experience, writes Trumbul, Rothstein-Fisch & Greenfield, is far too complex to fit neatly into any conceptual scheme” (p. 4) We cannot characterize this nation by any traditional moniker, nor can we say which philosophy is right—what we can do as teachers and citizens of this country, however, is open our airwaves and our minds to the possibility that anyone and any philosophy is as relevant as the last, and if we want to survive, we need to see the value in the diverse cultural which define this “salad bowl” of a nation.


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Nothing stinks more than stagnant lies. It’s important to note the challenges we face and have faced concerning certain culturally important elements of our society—namely, immigrants and their contribution. In the United States, we’re told that the immigration “problem” is troubling, that it brings consequences to our shores which cannot go on. The fact is, it’s our wholesale condemnation of immigrants and the lack of rights granted to them which presents unwanted consequences. Faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Russia, in those frightful years of the Cold War, who did America turn to for help? Immigrants. The entire Manhattan Project was coordinated, managed and successfully completed by hundreds of immigrants. The top man on the job, Robert Oppenheimer, hails from a German-born Jewish father. And yet, I can scarcely think of a more important moment in the history of the United States more important than becoming the first nuclear power.

Immigrants bring new ideas, fresh perspectives and desire to a country that has flourished from the constant wave of new faces, new names and new traditions. This is our strength, and our education system cannot fail those who often hold the key to our success as a nation. The merger of new ideas combined with the technological advantage we’ve inherited from yesteryear’s immigrants, who, themselves were once cursed, is a valuable omission from the political dialogue we are bombarded with daily. What I think of when I think of socio-cultural learning is the education gained from these perspectives, these experiences and these oftenneglected philosophies that we’ve never been without; why is it that history has to repeat itself (in terms of discrimination) when we know good and well how brilliant the eventual outcome is (the world’s greatest-ever technological and economic superpower)? Technology, then, may very well be the missing link that allows learning for all who embrace it. But, we need to be


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careful in how we embrace and utilize this technology to ensure the survival of our democratic way of life.

“Our kids do know what engagement is,” writes Marc Prensky, “Outside school, they are fully engaged by their 21st century digital lives” (p.2). Our challenge in this time, a time that has not only arrived, but is quickly leaving educators behind, is to merge our ability as educators to engage, motivate and educate by allowing ourselves to shed the authoritarian method of teaching, as Paulo Freire would say, and lead with the knowledge that for perhaps the first time in history, students may be as capable or more capable than the teachers.

The employment of advanced technology is not new; in the past, though, it was career physicists and biologists and engineers who held the knowledge of how to work sophisticated machines which led to better insight and more advanced learning. Employing digital technology, however, especially in the learning environment, is a new phenomenon. The tools that can be used for learning are cheaper, faster and more readily available and should be accommodated. For us to deny these uses in the classroom, or to try and corral creativity by setting stringent definitions of right and wrong to questions posed hinders the kind of learning that is needed in a world that seeks solutions to ever more difficult problems. The challenges society traditionally has faced, such as building bridges and skyscrapers, curing diseases, producing bigger, more disease-resistant crops, supplying potable water to the masses, etc. are not going to disappear altogether; instead, for the most part, these challenges will require tweaking so that we can do them more efficiently, cheaply and environmentally conscious. Or, as Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt says, we have to utilize technology “to solve problems that have never been solved


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before.” That will require imagination and technology—and the digital natives will make this happen.

The digital natives are taught and led by digital gurus, many of whom, like those we marginalize today, are immigrants who are ushering the U.S. into a more efficient and effective 21st century. These are people like Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, Morris Chang of TSMC, even Qian Xuesen, a man who helped build the U.S. missile program before being deported—he was suspected of spying for the Chinese (after deportation, he went on to help the Chinese build a missile program). When we close our doors to those who search for a better life, when we refuse to educate them, treat them as equals or embrace their dreams, we close the doors to a better future. Qian Xuesen is only one of many such examples; imagine if we had refused equal education to Mr. Oppenheimer. Where would we be today?


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References Carr, N. (2008, July/August). Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-makingus-stupid/6868/ Freire, Paulo (2005). Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. John-Steiner, Vera & Mahn, Holbrook (1996). Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development. Educational Psychologist, 31, (3/4) 191-206. Prensky, Marc (2005). Listen to the Natives. Educational Leadership, 63, (4) 8-13. Trumbul, E., Rothstein-Fisch, C., & Greenfield, P. (2000). Bridging Cultures in Our Schools: New Approaches That Work, West Ed, 1-16.


Following Through: How Education in the 21st Century Will Shape Our Nation