The Three Most Important Questions in Education

Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

It’s graduation season again – yet nobody seems to be celebrating.
On college campuses, graduates are entering an economy in which the stable career paths of yesteryear are disappearing – and the specialized job opportunities of tomorrow have yet to appear. And in communities across the country, parents and young people are left wondering what exactly those past four years of high school were in service of – and how much, if any, truly transformational learning occurred.
Something’s gotta give. The Industrial-Age model of schooling, which benefited 20th-century generations by serving as a legitimate ticket to the middle class, has clearly run its course. In its place, we need a model for a new age – the Democratic Age. And we need strategies for ensuring that young people learn how to be successful in the 21st-century world of work, life, and our democratic society.
We can get there, but to do so we need to start asking – and answering – the three most essential questions in education reform:

1. How do people learn best?

Over the past several years, a slew of research from a range of fields has helped illuminate a much deeper understanding of what powerful learning actually looks like – and requires. We know the ideal learning environment is challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, and experiential. And we know that learners of all ages are more motivated when they can apply what they are learning to do something that has an impact on others – especially their local community.
The bad news is that too many schools are still crafting environments in which learning – if you can even call it that – depends less on these attributes than on obedience, memorization, conformity, and a set of requirements first deemed important a century ago.
The good news is that we already have schools across the country lighting a different path. At High Tech High in San Diego, for example, all learning opportunities are hands-on, supportive, and personalized. As school founder Larry Rosenstock explains, “Students pursue personal interests through projects. Students with special needs receive all the individual attention they need. And facilities are tailored to individual and small-group learning, including project rooms for hands-on activities and exhibition spaces for individual work.”
Best of all, the High Tech High model isn’t so precious or rare that our only hope is to remake every other school in its image. Instead, the rest of us can create our own success stories by doing what Larry Rosenstock did – heeding what we now know about how people learn, and operationalizing those insights into an actual school.
It’s environmental standards for learning we need – not a standardization of content or teaching practices.
2. What are the essential skills of a free people?
Whether we intend them to or not, every school is structured to value a different type of citizen. In China, for example – the site of my first teaching experience – the needs of the community are valued more than the needs of any individual. As a result, in the school in which I taught, free expression was discouraged, conformity was encouraged – and China got the citizens it sought.
In the America of the Industrial Age, one could argue we experienced similar alignment. After all, the early 20th century was characterized by exponential growth in its general and school populations, and a stable set of jobs for young people to fill. Today, however, the forces of globalization and democratization have elevated a different set of challenges and opportunities – and, by design, a different set of skills. Yet schools have not caught up to the shift, which is why so many of our graduates are emerging unprepared for the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.
What would happen if every school in America scrapped its current set of graduation requirements, and started over by identifying what it believes to be the essential skills of a free people – in work and in life?
One school in New Hampshire, the Monadnock Community Connections School (or MC2 for short), is already doing this. At MC2, students must demonstrate mastery in seventeen habits of mind and work in order to fulfill the school’s mission statement – “empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” These habits – which apply to every imaginable learning experience, from internships to classes to personal learning that occurs outside school – all have concrete indicators that are delineated in levels ranging from Novice to Expert. And not surprisingly, the habits reflect the skills most essential for the challenges of the Democratic Age – from self-direction and creativity to critical thinking and collaboration. As school founder Kim Carter explains it, “In preparing a student for their chosen post-secondary path, be it college or work, it’s critical to know what skills and knowledge will help to shape the decisions that impact their life.”
Makes sense, right? So what are the rest of us waiting for?
3.     What does it mean to be free?
In the end, our ability to answer the first two questions is in the ultimate service of the third. And yet the reality is that too many of us still understand what it means to be free in terms of the style of jeans we choose to wear, not the quality of ideas we choose to express.
The Founders certainly understood it differently, and so must we if wish to recalibrate our schools for the modern era.  In such a world, what it means to be free would mean having the space to discover one’s full worth – and developing the capacity to unleash one’s full potential.  Our schools and colleges would be places where we proactively created healthy, high-functioning learning environments. And our graduates would know, embody, and be able to apply the essential skills of a free people.
The answers we seek for creating such a system of schools are all around us. We just need to start asking the right questions.