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PSA: Please Stop Saying '21st Century Education'

Grant Lichtman went on a cross-country trip to 64 schools in 21 states to find out how we prepare our students for their future, not our past.


If you ever find yourself sitting in a meeting—or listening to a politician's speech—about education reform, it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll hear mention of how schools need to ensure kids are "21st century learners," who are acquiring "21st century skills," in a "21st century classroom." But in the thirteenth year of the 21st century, what does any of this "21st century education" talk mean—and is it even happening?

Last September, educator and author Grant Lichtman set out on a quest to discover the answer. He packed up his Prius and spent the next 89 days on a 10,000 mile research tour visiting 64 American schools—both public and private—in 21 states. During his time on the road Lichtman talked to 600-700 educators about how they're disrupting (or not) "the industrial-age mindset" that's driven America's education system for the past century.

In the TEDx Denver Teachers talk above, Lichtman says he discovered that instead of focusing on a rigid set of so-called 21st century skills, what educators actually need to do is "teach into the unknown" because none of us know what the future looks like. Doing that is complicated and messy since our schools struggle with change and innovation. They're driven more by "political winds" than sound education pedagogy, are risk averse, and heavily bureaucratic. But for every problem Lichtman encountered at an individual school, he says he found a school "right down the road" that was solving it.

Ultimately, says Lichtman, education innovation has to be about "preparing our students for their future, not our past." And instead of continuing to talk about what a 21st century education looks like, he says, "we need to start doing it."

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