Note: Due to the overwhelming interest in this original article, it turned into the book, What Really Matters?: Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, with a dedicated chapter on each of the items listed below. You can order the book today on Amazon in paperback, hardback, or as an e-book.
What are the most critical issues in education today? Answers to such a question are shaped by our own experiences, perspectives and positions in the modern world of education. Nonetheless, this is a useful question. It challenges us to rank the many issues and challenges, allowing us to consider where we will devote our time, energy and resources.
While this is undoubtedly an incomplete list, following are the ten issues that occupy much of my thought. They also represent the types of issues that are likely to influence my future work around educational innovation and entrepreneurship.
Wasted Gifts, Talents & Abilities
This is a broad topic and I’ve written about it before, but one of the most troubling challenges in education today is the same challenge that we’ve had for millennia. Education, at its best, is about helping people discover, refine, and develop their gifts, talents, passions and abilities; and then helping them discover how to use those gifts, talents, abilities in ways that benefit others and oneself. There are too many places where this does not happen. Too many learners fall between the cracks. We have existing learning organizations where learners are part of that organization for years without having this journey of discovery.
This is also the motive behind some of the best work that I am seeing today with regard to educational innovation; efforts in personalized and individualized education, ones recognizing that each person is unique, not just another widget.
At the same time, it is with this category that I also place the critical issue today of access and opportunity to education around the world. In the end, not pursuing educational access and opportunity is a terrible waste and loss of the gifts, talents, abilities and passions of those people in different parts of the world.
Testing & Assessment
In itself, testing is not that critical of an issue, but today it is the tail that wags the dog. I included testing in this list because tests have, too often, become the focus. Testing should exist as a servant to the main goals of education. Whenever people start to build learning organizations and experiences around tests instead of designing tests to serve and amplify the organization’s mission, vision, and values; we have a problem.
The other issue is that there are not many jobs in the world that pay people to be good test takers. What we want and need are assessment plans that bring out the best in people and organizations. As such, creativity and innovation around assessment might not sound interesting to people, but in this current age, getting involved in the assessment domain is a valuable way to effect positive change in education.
This is another topic that gains frequent attention on my blog. Credentialism is the concept that credentials sometimes become unnecessary and inequitable barriers to gainful employment and other aspects of society. A commonly given example is a job posting that lists a bachelor’s degree as a requirement for applying, but if you assess the knowledge and skills actually needed for that job, there are likely many people without a bachelor’s degree who could thrive in the job. In those cases, we have created gated communities in the world of work that limit access and opportunity to otherwise qualified and hardworking people. The same thing is true with recent changes to the GED. While raising be bar seems like a good thing, it can also limit access in destructive ways.
Non-cognitive Skills / Character / Signature Strengths / Virtues
Getting personal for a moment, all of my greatest failures, embarrassments, and disappointments come back to failures in character, not competence. I am reminded of this truth daily.
Character, virtues, and non-cognitive skills have always been an important part of a person’s growth and maturation, not only into adulthood but throughout life. If we want to invest in aspects of education that have a huge impact on the lives of individuals, their families, their communities, their places of work, and the entire world around them; we are wise to devote time and attention to how we can nurture these important elements that less frequently show up in a list of learning objectives for a course or goals for a formal program. We are talking about traits like grit, courage, conscientiousness, integrity, personal ownership, the capacity to postpone gratification, collaboration skills, the ability to plan and prioritize, and many others.
Also within this category, I look to two traits that I am drawn to exploring an addressing, namely curiosity and the love of learning. Ultimately, if we are able to nurture or awaken such traits in people, then we will have made great progress in creating a culture of learning that will benefit countless people.
You might argue that I could put this with the last category, but I give it such a high priority that it deserves a category of its own. Human agency is about the capacity for people to understand that they have choices that impact their lives. I use it in contrast to a fatalistic or deterministic mindset. It is recognizing that the choices you make have a large and lasting impact on what happens in your life. Yes, there are many things beyond our control, but nurturing a sense of agency in people makes a difference in their outlook on life, their engagement in civic life, their approach to personal and professional activities. A lack of agency is consistently detrimental to the well-being of individuals, families, communities and nations.
Purpose & Meaning
Similar to agency, when purpose and meaning are absent, despair and depression are soon to follow. One of the most dangerous ideas in society and education is the idea that there is no purpose or meaning to a person’s life or to life in general. We can’t pretend that we are able to somehow create educational contexts that are neutral about matters of purpose and meaning. They are fundamental to the educational endeavor. Without them, education itself loses purpose and meaning. As such, we must resist educational and societal efforts that insist on simply deconstructing anything and everything around us, leaving it as refuse on the ground. When and if we deconstruct, we must join others in reconstructing something that is true, good, and beautiful.
Education is often about teaching people to critique, but that must be accompanied with nurturing the capacity to create, to discover and embrace the purpose and meaning in the world around us…and beyond.
The Digital Divide
Among all these other big ideas, does the digital divide really have a place in it? I think so. We live in an increasingly connected and digital world. Lacking access, confidence or the capacity to leverage the digital or connected world puts people as a massive disadvantage. Our connections with people, content, and communities that were once central to most people’s lives have becoming increasingly digitized. It is hard to even be an informed citizen in an upcoming election today without being connected. The same is true for trying to find a job and then get that job, or learning about resources for yourself or your family. As such, this remains a major issue in education.
This is about more than not having hardware or an Internet connection. It is also about having the character, competencies, confidence and convictions to take advantage of the connection.
I spent almost six years traveling the country speaking about this one, exploring the challenges and opportunities of life in a digital world, so that is why this one will get a few more words than some of the others.
In 1993, Neil Postman published one of the most personally influential books in my adult life, Technopoly. In this book he opened my eyes to the reality that every technology (even those things that are so familiar that we don’t think of them as technologies) has affordances and limitations. There are things gained and lost, winners and losers. The same is true with educational technology, and we are now in an era where educational technology is front and center in education.
As George Siemens wrote about in his September 2015 post, there is a danger of educational technology shaping us more than us shaping the technology. This is a persistent caution in the media ecology movement and from many scholars. It is partly why I devoted several years studying and learning from Luddite and low-tech movements (like the Amish) in contemporary society. They provide an important balance and perspective in this technological age. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” And as Sherry Turkle lamented (and cautioned) in Alone Together,
“We know that once computers connected us to each other, once we became tethered to the network, we really didn’t need to keep computers busy. They keep us busy. It is as though we have become their killer app. As a friend of mine put it in a moment of pique, ‘We don’t do our e-mail; our e-mail does us.’ We talk about ‘spending’ hours on e-mail, but we, too, are being spent. Niels Bohr suggests that the opposite of a ‘deep truth’ is a truth no less profound. As we contemplate online life, it helps to keep this in mind.” – p.279
We live in a technological age and there is no going back from this. Yet, more than ever, it is imperative that we shed light on the affordances and limitations of the age, nurturing a critical and creative eye to such a world, and finding ways to elevate and amplify what it means to be human instead of simply letting the technology redefine humanity for us.
Vocation & and Good Work
This is not a claim that schools should be entirely focused on job preparation, but work is an important part of life; and education (not just schooling) is an essential part of preparing people to get and do work with excellence and character. Work can be rewarding, fulfilling, honorable, and impactful. It is not just what we do but how we do it, as so wonderfully explained in Gardner and Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Good Work.
As James H. Douglas, Jr. is quoted as saying, “A good job is more than just a paycheck. A good job fosters independence and discipline, and contributes to the health of the community. A good job is a means to provide for the health and welfare of your family, to own a home, and save for retirement.”
I can think of no better way to highlight the role of education as a path to good work than to come back to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
Among its many roles, formal and informal education serves to help people experience and embrace such truths about work.
Truth, Beauty and Goodness
I am not a classicist when it comes to education, although I have learned much and am greatly influenced by classical perspectives on education, even as many would likely label me as some blend of educational existentialist, constructivist, connectivist, and progressivist. However, because of what I have already written about meaning and purpose, I am persistently drawn back to three classical foundations for education, namely the pursuit and study of truth, beauty and goodness. When we lose sight of this in education, our learning organizations lose much of what makes them distinctive and enriching in some of the deepest and most substantive ways. As I follow educational trends in K-12, higher education, within the United States, and around the world; I see the greatest hope where these three classical elements are alive and well, helping to shape the vision of the school, and occupying the thoughts of teacher and learner alike. For a contemporary perspective on their role, consider Howard Gardner’s excellent book on the subject. Or, you might want to go back to Plato.
There are certainly more than just these ten issues, but these represent what I consider to be some of the most critical and pressing issues. They represent ideas that can lead to good and important reform, and promising work in educational innovation. Personally, they also represent ideas that I consider worthy my life’s work.
If you like what you read, consider checking out the MoonshotEdu Show podcast as well.