Preparing students for the 21st century?

iStock_000033215132SmallWelcome to this weeks instalment of Questions to Ponder for Learning Design #EDCI 335

This weeks question is:  Are our current schools / teachers / curriculum preparing students for the 21st century?

I am going to start off by saying that the problem with this question is that it is a tad misleading. It would suggest that the role of grade school is to prepare our children for the world but it isn’t. Grade school is designed to prepare kids for further education once they graduate from high school. Preparing kids for the real world is no longer part of our mandate.

Personally I think kids should be able to walk out of high school and become gainfully employed right out of the gate. When I say gainfully employed, I am not talking having a 100K a year job, driving a Porsche and living like a Gangsta. I am talking a good job that provides a living wage and an opportunity to improve their lot in life with hard work and further education. If this was the case then asking: Are our current schools/teachers/curriculum preparing students for the 21st century? My answer would be an emphatic NO!

Unfortunately, over the past 30+ years, under the guise of the tired old mantra, “You need a good education to get a good job”. Society has chosen to warehouse young adults in post secondary institutions, rather than employ them. So ingrained is this “Must go to school” mentality, post secondary education has become a multi billion dollar industry unto itself. At times it would seem that the primary purpose of education is to extract money from parents back accounts, rather than create employees of the future.

In reality kids graduating from high school today don’t need to be ready for the 21st Century, they need to be prepared to spend another 4+ years in a post secondary institution doing exactly what they were doing in high school. So if this is the inevitable plight of our children, my answer to this weeks question is YES! The existing school system does exactly what is required to prepare our children for their continued academic incarceration in the 21st Century.

Unrealistically, I would like to not lecture at all; not as the result of being shown the door by my employer, as will happen soon enough, but because lectures are a terrible way to teach. Since I am scheduled to give them, and can’t see how to provide one-on-one instruction to the nearly 200 students enrolled on the course, I know that I shall in fact stand up and talk for 50 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks – Alan Ryan, 2014.

The problem is that grade school is designed to keep kids from engaging with the real world, not to go out and be embraced by it. Even if we did make kids work ready by the time graduation rolls around, the only thing waiting for them is starvation wages and poverty. The reality is that what we have here is an 21st Century employment problem, not a 21st Century school problem.

I work with kids on a daily basis that are bright, capable and phenomenally talented and need nothing more than to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They could be and should be in the work world making themselves useful to society. Instead they are trapped in a system that insists on “educating them” indefinitely before deeming them worthy of a living wage.

The thought I frequently bandy about in my mind is this.  What if the solution is not to look for a 21st century solution but backwards to the 19th century. Instead of marginalizing our youth in a world of never-ending academia, why don’t we turn them loose to participate in the adult world sooner? The role of school / teachers / curriculum would be to provide “in progress” academic support for kids who are engaged with the real world. We already do this to a small degree with Apprenticeships and Co-ops but why are these programs not the norm rather than the exception?

The question posed is far bigger than any single school, teacher or curriculum. It is a question that needs to be answered by students, parents, teachers, business people and politicians. 

  • If you want work ready kids by grade the end of grade 12, the business world needs to provide living wages for them when they get out.
  • If you want to change what schools / teachers / curriculum teach, then you have to change what qualifies for graduation.
  • If you want to change what constitutes high school graduation, you need post secondary to institutions to change entry requirements.
  • If you want grade school teachers to support each child’s specific interests or “passion”, then provide the resources and the time to make it happen.
  • If you want us to change our teaching practice, then provide us with the time, resources and professional development to do it.
  • If critical thinking, innovation, resilience, adaptability and effort are what is most important in school, then stop placing so much emphasis on grades and value what really counts.

Our schools and teachers are more than capable of delivering a 21st Century education, it is the outside world that needs to do a better job in helping the new age of learning to come to fruition.

Some facts and figures

Registered apprenticeship completions, Canada, 1995 to 2007

Post Secondary Enrolment Trends to 2031

Unemployment Dynamics of Canada’s  Youth

University Tuition Rising to Record Levels in Canada


  1. Jane Rees

    I could not agree more. We, as teachers, have the capability to deliver any model or design that is asked of us. What we need is to believe that we have the support to make it work. Teachers need to see models that are happening, experience the success of learning in these environments and then make decisions about how they can make changes to their own practice. Our schools and districts suggest that innovation and an inquiry appraoch to teaching and learning is the way to go, but the lack of flexibility in our day to day timetables not to mention the entire graduation program does not support this learning.

    A collaborative approach and a shift in thinking by all the stakeholders you mentioned needs to occur in order for the current schools, teachers and curriculum to meet the needs of not only our students but also the world.

    Is this graceful interplay between families, schools, post secondary institutions, business and politcians happening anywhere in the world more successfully than here. What can we learn from others? Maybe we need to not look at other education systems but think outside the box at other successful designs to adapt and make work within education.

    Whoa, what a thought, I feel like I have been tapped on the shoulder by Keith Rispin and now have a many more questions than answers. Thanks.

    1. Post

      Thanks for your reply Jane

      I think in many ways the “school system” has brought much of the attention and criticism we are now enduring upon ourselves.

      It seems to me that in the late 70’s we began taking on responsibility for all the needs of our students. We fed them, we parent them, we counsel them, we teach them…

      The list of things schools do now, is so far beyond what schools use to take on and society has come to expect it. What has compounded the problem is that the “other stakeholders” have washed their hands of these extraneous things and now they have become entrenched responsibilities of the school system.

      Schools will continue to fail to meet societies expectations if we continue to insist on taking societies responsibilities.

  2. Michelle Hiebert

    Keith, can you see me standing and applauding? *clap, clap, clap, clap, clap*

    As a mom of two teenage boys who will soon be out in “the real world”, I have huge concerns for how they will be able to make a good life for themselves. The world has changed so much since I went to university and got my teaching job the minute I graduated. It is so much harder for young people to start “real life” without being able to get a job that affords them the opportunity to be self-sufficient right out of high school as I was. The number of “kids” living with their parents well into their 20’s is evidence of this.

    But how can we change this societal “delayed adulthood” when businesses can’t or won’t support it?

    1. Post

      As I mentioned in my response to Jane, others need to step up and take on some responsibility for our youth if we are ever going to get out of this vortex of extended adolescence.

      Unfortunately, I think the education system will continue to be societies whipping boy for some time yet.

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