Edgeucation Blog

Why Teachers Need to Become Radicals

April 8, 2019

Thom Markham

Image of flags for project based learning.

I’ll start with two stories that tell us what we need to know about the future of education.

First, Greta Thunberg, climate activist, potential Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and 16-year-old Swedish student, went viral with these words: “What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter anymore, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”

As expected, some of her teachers took issue with this. Like most educators, they hope a solid education leads to informed citizenship, but they’re focused on Algebra and History now, not activism.

But Ms. Thunberg wasn’t having it. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, she looked the audience in the eye and knifed them with this rebuttal: “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic. I want you to feel fear every day and then I want you to act.”

The second story was different in tone, but quite ordinary in content: Another grumbling complaint from a high school teacher, just published in 2019 in a high profile internet journal designed for a millennial audience. We need to change education. I’m tired of teaching verb conjugation and boring my students!

Well, I’m going with Greta—all the way. As educators, we should panic, not whine.

Why? Because climate change is only a third of the trifecta hurtling toward us. Add in artificial intelligence, with estimates of 30% unemployment with a decade and a half. Brew in growing inequality worldwide. Then imagine exponential social disruption and mull the prospect of a miseducated population lacking the core personal knowledge, resiliency, and empathetic and collaborative skills required to regroup as a global society and solve problems that—for the first time in human history—could lead to extinction.

The last point—miseducation—is why educators should stop complaining and start acting. Talking about the future, even fluently, is fine. But it’s not fine to continue teaching to an outdated paradigm, using tools honed decades ago, relying on credentials that won’t truly matter, and reinforcing the oblivious belief that if schools deliver high test scores, students meet standards, and every student attends university, all will be fine. Particularly, it won’t be fine because most teachers secretly know the truth. Yes, it should change. Yes, testing really doesn’t work. Yes, our subjects are outdated. Yes, students are bored. Yes, we know…

Okay, if we know, let’s band together and exercise the incredible power held by the 15 million teachers worldwide, who teach 1.5 billion students and who are uniquely positioned to help youth create a positive future. Action driven by fear is required. It’s time for teachers to become radicals, to panic, to step up and disrupt, to be part of the solution.

Too radical? No, it can be done without endangering the monthly paycheck. It’s about mindset, vision, and attitude, not about barricades.

Mostly, it’s about individual teachers freeing themselves from the tentacles of a system designed for a fading world and becoming innovative risktakers unafraid to speak truth to power:

Take back your power. It starts here. In a highly regulated system with bells and periods and units, your brain adapts to the cultural surround. The rules manifest as neuronal pathways, and those tracks harden over time into an attitude of compliance, acceptance, or resignation. But the structures of thought around us are breaking down, and schools are no exception. Freedom and experimentation are in the air, and you are not a cog in the system; you are the system. Schooling doesn’t happen without you and you can’t be easily replaced (robots will be helpless when dealing with adolescents.) So, know your value.

Treat your Superintendent or Principal as a colleague. Taking back your power requires asserting your place in the hierarchy, meaning all those ‘above’ you, including principals, headmasters, and bigwigs at the state or national level, are just colleagues. Respect everyone, but remember in these days of massive, exponential change, you know as much or more about teaching and learning as anyone. Teachers in too many schools get talked down to. No more. Present at workshops. Speak at conferences. Be vocal on policies. Insist.

Recognize the dynamic nature of knowledge. In a non-standardized, personalized world, standards as the basis for education are failing. Virtually every teacher I have ever met does not truly believe in standards as their north star for learning. They see the child, not the information. So, act accordingly. Lobby hard. Make noise. Object. Argue in favor of bringing back the creative resources of the individual teacher to determine how to teach and what to teach. Tell the suits—relentlessly—to reduce standards to minimums and turn them into guidelines rather than rules.

Teach to the present world: I spoke not long ago with a Lower School Director at a prestigious independent school. He wants to bring project based learning to his school, but the teachers “will fight me tooth and nail.” Why? “They are very academic oriented,” he told me. No, they are not academic -oriented; they are oriented to a paradigm that is over and gone. Traditional instruction designed to increase college acceptance rates, and then release graduates into the VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—is a dead end. Embrace PBL, Maker Spaces, inquiry, design challenges, and any similar innovation that give us hope that we can prepare young people for an unrecognizable, unpredictable future. Step out of the box. Dive into the new.

Take the challenge to the planet seriously: In Australia, where I often work, upper elementary teachers spend several weeks on the Australian Gold Rush, similar to learning about the California Gold Rush in my part of the U.S. Then students learn about the Euphrates before moving along the supply chain and mastering the intricacies of the Glorious Revolution in England. I’m not just picking on social studies or history; it happens in every subject. Teachers are so focused on a stale curriculum that they cannot find time or space to study imminent threats to life on earth. Why? Doesn’t fit the pacing guide, adhere to the curriculum frameworks, or teach to the standards. How will this turn out? Without a future, the past won’t mean much.

Share the dream: A global phenomenon is underway that has gone completely unreported: Teachers across the planet are speaking out, sharing ideas, and beginning to form a global coalition. If you don’t believe this, join Twitter. There’s a simple reason for the alliance: Every teacher, everywhere, faces the same challenges. Bored students. Outdated curriculum. Resistance to new ideas. Too much focus on subjects and testing. Too little focus on emotional competency. Solution? Join the global conversation, make your views known, and contribute your story.

Oppose hate: Educators form the essential bulwark against injustice, prejudice, intolerance, and the slow diminishing of kindness and empathy in our global society. It is not overstating your role to see yourself as a noble warrior for light and goodness. Yes, teach your students, fulfill your responsibilities, and correct them when necessary. But while doing so, be a model for an enlightened, tolerant human being. Be Gandhi. Be anyone who inspires you. Be the change you wish to see. That’s radical.

Don’t settle for the ‘21st century’ meme: In 2000, introducing ‘21st century skills’ was a good idea. Education needed a refresh and a new direction. And, nothing sinister about the 4 C’s: Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. But the 5th ‘C’ now matters most. Without Character, all else becomes a cognitive task unrelated to purpose, meaning, and commitment to a positive future. However challenging, the great undertaking before us as educators is to graduate better human beings. We don’t have good methods or metrics for this, I know. Nevertheless, a radical teacher takes on this challenge and is constantly coaching, mentoring, and inspiring the inner life of students. One little catch here: Teachers also need to be better human beings. Think of the new mantra for educators: Reflection, reflection, reflection.

Present reality to your students: 1.5 billion students are enrolled in schools around the earth. Exactly this number is going to be deeply and—in many cases, negatively—impacted by artificial intelligence, robotics, and inequality. I’m not suggesting scaring students with this formidable reality; I do believe that combining a sober look at the future with a belief in young people’s extraordinary capacities for innovation and problem solving is necessary. Students face an uphill climb to managing the planet to success—and they will do better if they can assess the risks, realize the seriousness, and prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for the future. A radical teacher can guide this process by being candid, optimistic, and a capable intellectual leader.

Honor many paths to learning. The system of learning is breaking down. You may have noticed. Universities may not be able to support brick and mortar classrooms in 20 years. High schools devolve into charter schools, academies, personalized pathways, alternative schooling, home schooling, and unschooling. Young people around the world learn advanced math on the internet, not in class. Flex replaces classroom routines. All these trends will continue and accelerate; traditional, institutionalized forms of instruction cannot withstand the onslaught of Google, 24-hour media, devices, and—more than anything—the push for personalized pathways to growth, learning, and lifestyle everywhere. People do their own thing these days; youth will also, meaning education will have to seek out and identify new core principles for what it means to be an educated person, not just a certificated one. This will test us as educators. So, the final suggestion? Remember Greta’s advice: Stay fearless.

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