Schools For The 21st Century

Can we go from lethargy to zest for learning?

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 41
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Robert McClure is the Director of the National Education Association’s Mastery In Learning Project and can be contacted at 1201 16th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036 or 202/822-7350.

– Linda MacRae-Campbell

What should schools do for their students in the twenty-first century? What will they do? The discrepancy between the answers to these two questions will determine the success of the current effort to reform our schools.

That the renewal of schools has become a major national goal is revealed by the media coverage of reform activities (often front page) and by the number of references to schools in speeches by political candidates (often by those seeking the nation’s highest office). There have been hundreds of proposals about what our schools could become. The propositions are from individuals, commissions, and by organizations with special interests in the schools. These reports are generally thought to be of three types.

Some of the reformers view the future as a time in which the skills, attitudes, and knowledge that gave direction to the schools in the past should continue to do so. These call for higher standards, more homework, stricter discipline, a narrowing of curriculum to the essentials, an increase in graduation requirements and decline in electives, longer school days and years, and an upgrading in the quality of the teaching force.

Most of the reform proposals generated at the state level were of this order. Certainly, the major federal report, A Nation at Risk, that is purported to have begun the current reform cycle, looked at the world of schooling from such a perspective.

Others, particularly those influenced by the business community, saw the international and national economies as drastically different than in the past. They suggested that schooling should more carefully and sensibly prepare students for the world of work and intelligent consumership. These reports, not surprisingly, stressed the importance of strong vocational and career emphasis in the curriculum. Of some surprise, however, to those educators too long isolated from the business community, was the call in these reports for greater emphasis on skills of inquiry, independent learning, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

A third kind of report came from individuals and commissions with strong ties to the academic and professional education communities. Not surprisingly, these focused on curricular, instructional, and school specific issues: what knowledge is of the most worth, what is known about the process of teaching and how it can be improved, and how the schools can be restructured. Ernest L. Boyer’s High School, John I. Goodlad’s A Place Called School, Theodore R. Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, and Morimer J. Adler’s The Paideia Proposal, are the major books of this genre of school reform literature.

There is a universal theme underlying almost all of the reports: If schools are to be better, significantly better, then those who work in them must take the responsibility for their improvement. No longer will top-down mandates instituting a new course on top of all of the old ones, a new accountability system, or a new instructional device be enough.

The NEA Mastery In Learning Project is based on that assumption. In a network of twenty-seven demographically representative schools throughout the United States, local communities and their faculties are carefully examining their practices, comparing them with what is known about quality schooling, and beginning to restructure their institutions.

What will these restructuring efforts produce? First, if there are to be decisions of high quality about topics that really matter, the conclusions would vary greatly from school to school. The very definition of "quality" would be the potential benefit of the decision on the students in this school – and not on synchronizing the decision with system requirements.

If the decisions were to be comprehensive, (having an effect on all of the important dimensions of student learning in school), then four critical topics would be considered: learning, curriculum, teaching, and the culture/climate/life of the school.

Learning * A great deal is now known about how learning occurs. Two examples out of thousands demonstrate the potential effect of these new understandings on how schools could be improved.

We know from Piaget and subsequent work done by others that young childrens’ thinking differs from adults’ and that, given appropriate structure, content, teaching, emotional support, and opportunity,children progress through a variety of developmental levels on their way to maturity. By working with the natural growth of learning capacity, school people can help students build a framework to differentiate, see nuances, learn from experience and acquire the skills they will need in a complex world.

Also important is the growing understanding that there are a variety of ways of knowing. The various chapter titles from a recent book1 on this topic gives a flavor of the scope of what is now understood about learning in the content areas: Aesthetic Modes of Knowing, What scientists Know and How They Know It, Interpersonal Modes of Thought, Formal Modes of Knowing, Practical Modes of Knowing, Spirituality and Knowing. These new understandings should spell the end to the uniformity in classes, instructional materials, and teaching methods that characterize the experiences of too many students in schools today.

Teaching * It is important that teachers have a repertoire of instructional strategies as they work with a variety of students engaged in studying a number of subjects. As Bruce Joyce and Marsha Weil2 suggest, "…there are many kinds of ‘good’ teaching, and the concept ‘good’ when applied to teaching is better stated ‘good for what?’ and ‘good for whom?’"

Most research on pedagogy has focused on those teaching acts that have promise to improve student achievement. Thus, there is now considerable information available about the usual components of teaching: planning, pacing, questioning, overviewing, management of the classroom, feedback, balance between praise and criticism, drill, time devoted to direct instruction and the balance of it with independent activities, organizing content, and the like.

There are a variety of less traditional kinds of inquiry now taking place which will also have an impact on the practice of teaching in the future. For example:

  • To help students acquire learning skills, some researchers focus on identifying those techniques that teachers can use to foster the habits of learning. In a junior high school, for example, students learn about information linkages by acquiring skill in creating analogies and use that skill as a strategy for solidifying their learnings. In high schools, students can be asked to predict the population centers of a hypothetical country by reference to their knowledge of history, economics, and demographics. The teacher would label the various modes of inquiry being used – thus helping the student to internalize those learning strategies.
  • Based on what Piaget and others have learned about developmental levels, there are several strategies teachers can use to help learners mature and become more capable. For example, at the elementary level a teacher might elicit the names of several items from the natural world and then help youngsters categorize them. At the high school level, events in history would be analyzed in such ways that learners would identify themes.
  • To acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to the mastery of important knowledge, there is much interest now in "coaching." This technique, not an unfamiliar one in American schools and playing fields, has taken on new meanings as experts on teaching have explored its definition and uses. With young children, for example, a story is dictated to the teacher and then the student works with the teacher in a series of consultations in which it is improved. At a high school level, a group of students might design an experiment on DNA and then the chemistry teacher would coach them through the various steps, identifying weaknesses and together creating an improved research plan.

Cutting edge research about teaching is critical to the schools in the Mastery In Learning Project. It guides these faculties as they rethink effective ways of "delivering" instruction and it opens up a number of ways of thinking about content and learning. Students should confront complexity and ambiguity in the curriculum. The teaching strategies employed should help students to capitalize on that engagement.

Curriculum * Decisions about what people should know and be able to do as a result of attending school are, primarily, matters of perception and value. Research about curriculum, therefore, is of a different order than research on teaching and learning: except for the research on technical matters in curriculum (e.g., alignment between objectives and texts), this literature is chiefly polemic.

Most of the reform proposals call for additions and deletions in the standard curriculum and almost all are focused at the secondary level. Among the exceptions are two that faculties in the Mastery In Learning network of schools will consider – those proposed by John Goodlad and Mortimer Adler.

Goodlad3 suggests a curriculum with seven centers of concentration:

  • Mankind’s progression to the present, for example art, music, religion, literature, work, invention, war, and peace;
  • The natural world, for example science and mathematics;
  • The global village, for example cultural and cross-cultural studies;
  • Communications, for example art, music, drama, literature;
  • The nature of humans, for example biology, psychology, health, and nutrition;
  • Self-fulfillment, for example refinement of artistic, physical, mathematical, scientific, or technological talent;
  • Modes through which understanding/inquiry proceed, for example reading, writing, speaking, hypothesizing, evaluation, calculating.

In the Paideia Proposal, Adler says, "Schooling is the preparatory stage; it forms the habit of learning and provides the means for continuing to learn after all schooling is completed." ( page 10) In Adler’s conception, the curriculum has the same objectives for all without exception:

  • acquisition of organized knowledge, i.e., language, literature, the fine arts, mathematics, natural science, history, geography, and the social studies;
  • development of intellectual skills i.e., reading writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem-solving, observing, measuring, estimating, exercising critical judgment, and
  • enlarged understanding of ideas and values, i.e., discussion of books (not textbooks) and other works of art and involvement in activities of an artistic nature such as music, drama, visual arts (page 23).

Further, Adler would have pedagogy consistent with content:

Acquire knowledge……………..Didactic

Develop skills…………………….Coaching

Understand ideas, values………Socratic questioning

There is a considerable popular support for a core curriculum. The Closing of the American Mind, subtitled, How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students will most likely be the most discussed book in America this year. If the current school reform movement has one discernible impact on the curriculum, it will be a narrowing of the subjects offered, an increase in requirements for graduation, and a decline in the number of electives allowed in a student’s program. What is not clear, however, is the definition that will be adopted at local schools of what is basic and what is an appropriate balance in the curriculum.

Climate * When that legendary visitor from Mars arrives, he or she may not be able to distinguish our schools from our prisons. There are many similarities, the worst of which is that inmates and students see their institutions as similar. It should not be that way: schools are concerned with the most natural and rewarding of the human enterprise, learning.

Faculty members in the Mastery In Learning Project are exploring a number of options related to the culture of their schools and beginning to imagine a number of future directions4, some of which may become reality:

From hierarchical relationships to collegiality;

From low order skills to basic skills for problem-solving, critical thinking;

From tests that rely on recall to a variety of evaluation procedures that measure important educational outcomes;

From sterile, unexciting workplaces to learning environments that are relevant, up-to-date, engaging;

From a cool climate to a "hot" one, where ideas are passionately debated;

It is hoped that this will result in a change:

From lethargic students, disinterested in the curriculum to those with a zest for learning;

From dropouts to full attendance because no shopping mall, job in a fast-food outlet, or hanging out on the street could possibly be as exciting as this school!

Impossible? Probably, if it’s business as usual with the mandated quick-fix from downtown district offices or state capitols. However, we do not lack the intellectual resources or personal energy to create the schools our students deserve. The necessary knowledge and skills are available to parents, teachers, administrators, many of whom are ready to invest the time it will take.

In the Mastery In Learning Project, new understandings about curriculum, teaching and learning are being examined and adapted by twenty-seven very different school communities. Their work should be instructive to those who make decisions about schools. Empowering students, teachers, and the communities they serve through this knowledge will be the best gift possible to the future of this democracy.


1 Elliot Eisner, editor, Learning and Teaching the Ways of Knowing, Eighty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, part II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

2 Bruce Joyce and Marsha Weil, Models of Teaching, second edition, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980.

3 John I. Goodlad, "Core Curriculum: What and for Whom?", unpublished paper prepared for the International Seminar on Core Curriculum in Western Societies, Enschede, The Netherlands, November, 1985.

4 Imagining what a desirable future might be is a process often used in the NEA Mastery In Learning Project. The particular "from…to" format used here was originally conceived by Harold B. Gores in "The Big Change", an address delivered to the N.Y. School Boards Association in 1962. The format became an art form when used by Ole Sand in numerous speeches and publications related to "Schools for the Sixties", a major reform proposal from another era.