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Necessary Disruption (Part 2: Preparing Engaged Citizens)

In my last blog I argued that because there is an explosive rate of scientific discovery and technological innovation outside of schools but only incremental adaptation inside, the need for more abrupt (aka disruptive) change is growing.  In this installment I want to add another reason for urgent innovation: escalating social and political complexity.

Citizenship demands more of us these days.  Our communities have become more diverse than ever before along any dimension you care to mention – ethnicity, language, religious belief or lack thereof, family structure and so on.  Much of what we took to be common is now clearly pluralistic.  In part this is because we acknowledge differences that have always existed but were once denied, and in part it is because increased global mobility and Canada’s dependence on immigration have brought many new citizens to all parts of the country.  The result is a much richer mosaic with increased potential for both synergy and conflict.

Both the positive and negative potential of diversity in our communities is exacerbated by increased global interdependence along any dimension you care to mention – economics, politics, environment, health, security and so on.  Our fate is inextricably interwoven with many others, arguably all others, and that makes the issues that we face as citizens, both local and global, more complex than ever before – calling not only for greater knowledge, but also for greater wisdom.

Enabling students to thrive in and contribute to this diverse and densely connected socio-political environment requires much more than traditional academic knowledge.  Students also need the communication skill, creativity and critical thinking to apply their ‘book learning’ and evaluate new information they receive in order to solve unique problems in the world.  Moreover, this problem solving increasingly occurs in multidisciplinary teams so collaborative ability and inclinations are essential.  And the problems themselves are set in, or at least linked to, a global context of competing interests and thus require inter-cultural understanding and ethical decision-making.

These “soft skills,” which animate the “hard skills,”  have been termed 21st Century Skills, not because they are new but because in the new millennium they have changed from being desirable to being essential.  Employers require them of course because they are fundamental to the knowledge work that is now the primary generator of wealth, but these same skills are also critical foundations for democracy and global harmony.  Thus,  both the private and public ends of education require that schools complement the academic learning and intellectual development which has been their traditional focus with renewed attention to ‘higher order thinking’ ( in reference to Bloom’s taxonomy).

Of course, this has always been a stated goal.  To quote the School Act in BC, for example, the purpose of public schools is to enable all students “to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.”  However, the reality is that the focus of public attention has been almost exclusively placed on academics – the so-called 3 R’s – and individual benefits as they pertain to employment.  Moreover, assessment and the standards that are applied to them have been largely confined to knowledge acquisition and some algorithmic skill sets.  Now, however – not in an imagined future, but right now in our lived reality – this has to change in order to sustain economic vitality and, more importantly, to sustain a “healthy, democratic and pluralistic society.”

So, like rapid technological innovation, escalating social and political complexity requires schools to change in order to keep pace with, and adequately prepare students for, a future which is already upon us.  This is a reflection not of schools‘ failures but of the highly dynamic nature of modern life.  Standing pat is not an option in schools any more than it is in other spheres, so once again one must ask:  What is it about current structures and processes that needs to be disrupted in order for schools to free themselves from some of their current limitations and keep pace with the  change that is occurring all around them? … to be continued

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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