21st Century Schools

This is an edited transcript of a talk delivered at the April 2000 International Conference on Learning in the 21st Century, sponsored by Arthur Andersen.

What I'm going to do here is go back to first principles, and ask a few questions that I think ought to be asked and dealt with before we get on to the business of restructuring schools. I'm going to start with a question that may seem a little silly: What is the purpose of school in society? Why do we have schools? I'm talking about the kinds of schools that are universal now that is to say, aimed at the entire population and not just at a few specialists. Such general schools haven't existed throughout most of history, and the world apparently got along very well without mass education until about a hundred and fifty years ago, which is something that ought to give us all pause. The human race has somehow managed to evolve from its earliest origins to a rather advanced state of ethics and philosophy and literature and art and technology without the benefit of universal education. So you have ask yourself, Why do schools exist?

I think the answer is rather simple. The purpose of schools in society is to provide an environment in which children can grow up to be effective adults. That leads directly to the question of what it means to be an effective adult in society; and that, in turn, depends on the nature of the society and on its culture. There's a really wonderful story that illustrates this point. It's one of my favorite tales that I read many years ago in Benjamin Franklin's writings, and it puts this question of the nature of society and the purpose of schools in a wonderful perspective. Franklin tells a story of a meeting between the colonial leaders of Virginia's political establishment and some eminent members of local American Indian tribes. The Virginians were making a generous proposal: We would like to take a dozen of your brightest and best young people and give them the privilege of a free education at Harvard College, so that you'll be able to join in this great, modern technological civilization that we are creating in the American colonies. The Native Americans looked at them with amazement and said, We pass, thank you! Because we've had this experience already. We sent six of our youngsters to Harvard college some years ago, and they came back utterly useless. They had no idea how to skin animals, how to tan skins, how to build tents or huts, how to make a fire. They were completely useless in our society. So we'll reverse the offer to you. Why don't you give us twelve of your best young men and send them to us for training, and we'll turn them into real men, who will learn how to function in the Virginia surroundings? I think that's a wonderful story because it pinpoints so precisely the relationship between the purpose of school and the culture. We can't lose sight of that connection. It's totally critical to our understanding of learning in the 21st century.

In the last three centuries or so we've been an industrial-age society. There are three aspects of that society that I want to discuss, aspects that are central to understanding the link between a culture and its schools. The first is: what is the model of reality of industrial-age culture? It's that of The Universe as a Machine an entity consisting of a great many parts, all of which mesh together perfectly and operate in a comprehensible order. Once you can discover the laws governing that order you can gain a complete understanding of the universe. This applies not only to the workings of the planets and of the heavens, for which the idea was first invented, but to everything. The machine model even applies to every living thing, to societies, and to the human nature. So the ideal of the industrial age was to keep uncovering the rules and laws that provide an understanding of how everything works in perfect harmony.

Within that model of reality, the second feature I want to look at is this: what is the ideal that society wished to attain? The answer will give us some insight into what an effective adult is considered to be. Surprisingly, the ideal of society during the industrial era was stability. Once it is possible to understand everything, you can position everything within an orderly, stable whole. People were looking to identify the particular order of things that yields a good, i.e., stable, society. Put in another way: the reason for instability is a lack of understanding. Knowledge brings with it the capability for a better meshing and a better functioning of all the parts. All the natural and social sciences worked to uncover the immutable, perfectly comprehensible laws of nature and of society, and moral philosophers worked hand in hand with them. The moral philosophers of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries focused in particular on finding those immutable, fundamental ethical laws that should govern human society.

You can look at the 20th century as a period in which this quest for perfect order and perfect understanding on a social and governmental level reached its peak. It led from one experiment to another, in country after country, with forms of organization that were designed to bring about perfect coordination between all parts of society. Socialism, communism, fascism, and even aspects of social democracy, all shared the underlying goal and hope of creating an orderly society in which every part produces and consumes and relates in a way that fits smoothly without friction or internal disruption. In the end, however, the century in which the ideal of the perfect cosmic machine was pushed to its farthest extreme turned out to be utterly catastrophic.

Schools depend on a third aspect of a culture namely, the model of the human mind prevalent in that culture. Within the mechanistic universe, the human mind also is a mechanism. Children are born with few skills and little knowledge, and they ultimately develop into functioning adults. From the mechanistic point of view, the brain starts out relatively empty of whatever it needs and has to be provided with all the tools and all the content that it has to have in order to operate as an effective mini-machine within the cosmic machine. That's where the concept of universal schooling and a standard curriculum comes from, because once you understand the whole universe to be a machine in which every single element must fit in order to work effectively, and once you think you've discovered how they fit, it's your duty to make sure that each person has inserted into his/her central control system the brain all the equipment it needs in order to function suitably. The idea on which 20th century schooling was based makes perfect sense within the framework of the mechanistic concept of the universe, the ideal of society, and what is necessary to do for children in order to get their brains working properly.

Table 1

(last three centuries)

Model of reality:
- the deterministic universe/machine

Ideal of society:
- stability

Model of the human mind:
- fillable, trainable
- requires preparation

It is worth taking a moment to discuss something that most people nowadays are aware of, but seem to manage to disregard as if it doesn't exist. I am referring to the national curriculum standards of the United States, which leading educators from all over the country came to together to design material that every single child should learn and know, in the United Sates of America, as they grow up. You see, as the 20th century progressed, it was inevitable that more and more stuff had to be pushed into children's brains, because more and more stuff was being known; and if your model is a mechanistic model, you've got to do it, you owe it to the children they need it, they can't possibly survive without it, in this world that we are now increasingly understanding. Standardized tests are being devised at every grade level, for every child, based on this curriculum or its equivalent. Teachers salaries, principal's salaries, school system funding, are all to be based on the test results the ultimate expression of the deterministic industrial age.

Here is a list of the categories every child should master: mathematics, science, history, language arts, the arts, civics, economics, foreign language, geography, health, physical education, technology, behavioral studies, and life skills. Who can argue with that? It sounds like a reasonable listing. Let me quote a few random samples of the detailed material listed under these categories, and remember that I am citing subjects that every child in the country has to master: Uses basic operations on vectors, for example vector addition and scale of multiplication. Uses properties of and relationships among figures to solve mathematical and real world problems, for example uses the property that the sum of the angles in a quadrilateral is equal to 360 degrees the square of the frame for a building. Uses understanding of arc, chord, tangents and properties of circles to determine the radius given of a circular edge of a circle with out the center. This is something we all do all the time: it's a daily problem, isn't it, to be confronted with an arc of a circle, of which we must find the radius? Biology: every single child in the country should know the structures of different types of cell parts, for example, cell walls, (cell membranes, cytoplasm, cell organelles such as the nucleus chloroplast, mitochondria, etc.) and the functions they perform, that is transport of materials, storage of genetic information, photosynthesis, and respiration synthesis of new molecules and waste disposal. This is just one little item. Do you all know these things? I don't! But then again, I probably didn't get a good education, since mine took place fifty years ago. History: Understands the social impact of the second great awakening [the second one, if you please], how great awakening leaders affected ordinary people, how the belief in individual responsibility for salvation and millennialism influenced reform movements in the plural. The role of moral suasion, social control and compromise in reform. World history: should understand the significant characteristics of early Chinese society and religion, for example the influence of the natural environment, on Huong Hai civilization, compared to its impact on Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley. Early Chinese urban societies and how they compared to those of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, and the nature of [ancient Chinese] ancestor worship and what it illustrates about concepts of life and death in [ancient Chinese] society. How many of you would like to take a standardized test right now based on this? I will not go on, because the point is that this is not the work of frivolous people or foolish people. This is the work of people who are honest and sincere in trying to make sure that every child becomes an effective adult in society, when their concept of the world is mechanistic, their concept of society is that of a machine in which all the parts have to fit and mesh beautifully, and their concept of the brain is that of a mechanism which has to have material stored in it in order to function. Our schools are the logical consequence of this world view, and we entered the 21st century with this as our guide.

Let's look now at post industrial society, which we started to enter in the last half of the 20th century, and we're well into now. What is the model of reality of post industrial society? The answer is quite shocking for those of us, like me, who were brought up in another age. The model of reality is that of chaos, randomness, uncertainty. It's a model in which nothing has a fixed place, nothing meshes perfectly with anything else, because the concept of perfect meshing doesn't exist.

I'd like to discuss briefly how this transition happened, because most people think it happened rather abruptly. It actually started towards the end of the 19th century, when physicists were struggling with the problem of how to understand the behavior of a gas, like the air around us. It's got zillions of molecules running around. In the mechanistic model, if at any given moment I knew where every single molecule was located, what their properties were, and exactly how they were moving, and I processed this information in some huge calculating machine, the laws of physics would tell me exactly how the air would behave in this room for all time. But I don't have that information, and physicists in the 19th century knew they didn't have it, and furthermore that they never would have it. So, they said, does that mean we can't ever do any real physics? Does that mean that we're stuck with just doing the physics of idealized things?1 After all, we want to know how gases behave, we want to know something about them. So they invented statistical mechanics, an esoteric arm of physics in which the starting point is randomness. They began with the assumption that these molecules are moving around in a chaotic fashion, and they asked what would happen if that was the case. Lo and behold, they were able to derive all kinds of wonderful laws of nature, for gases, liquids, and ultimately for some properties of solids. If you read the literature of physics in the early part of the 20th century you can sense the tension between the spectacular results that follow from assuming things are chaotic, and the belief that everything is determined. This was the first crack in the wall, after which, piece by piece, the walls came tumbling down. By the middle of the 20th century, the whole structure of determinism had broken down, and a completely different picture of a statistical universe had emerged.2

What now becomes the ideal of society? Recall that the old ideal was stability; that clearly doesn't work anymore. Instead, the ideal of society in the post-mechanistic age is adaptability to change. There's no longer the remotest hope of finding out how everything meshes in a universe of perfect mechanical order. There's no such thing in the new model of reality. Everything is change.3 Everyone reading these words (with the possible exception of the youngest) still constitute a transition generation, raised on one model, and now overtaken by a new one. We're not really comfortable with the new one; it's not in our gut. But it is in the gut of young children, and anybody who works with children under the age of twelve sees it. Their world is a world of rapid transformation, and that's something they inherently understand. We older folks are struggling with it, we understand it intellectually, but our insides say, We have to make sure that this or that happens in a planned and orderly way.

Closely related to the capability to adapt to change is the concept of decentralization. Just as the 20th century was the century of centralization and organized political systems, so the 21st will be the century of decentralization. It's a trend that we see going on all over the world. There is no longer the possibility of controlling a society's many activities. The only option is decentralization and democratization, and this is true in business and in education as well. The concept of democracy is embedded in the concept of chaos, where all the elements are fundamentally equal and equally indeterminate.

Lets look at the model of the mind that goes along with the new world view. The model of the mind that we have today is completely different, and utterly appropriate: it's the model of the curious seeker. The mind is viewed as an active agent reaching out to the world, creating models of reality for itself all the time. From the earliest age, a child is a self starting learner. Today, instead of seeing children as beings whose minds have to be filled, we see children as beings who are eagerly pursuing knowledge, eagerly trying to learn what their environment is about, and to make working models of that environment. That's the key: every single one of us creates a model of reality for him/herself all the time; that's what being a life-long learner is about. It's about recognizing that the mind, as long as you're alive, is searching for meaning, searching for making a comprehensible picture of the world. It works on this every single minute of the day, and most of the night too. This is an active process, and is at the heart of our species survival.

In fact, the human race could only have survived by producing offspring who eagerly want to learn about the world. Think about that million years of human evolution before the 19th century when mass education didn't exist. How did children ever become effective adults except by finding out about what's going on around them? This is a crucial shift in our understanding of how the mind works, and it implies the diametric opposite of the idea that stuff has to be pushed into a brain that's a passive receptacle. On the contrary, this is the view that says that the brain has to be allowed to explore the world freely and create its own models of reality.

In short, the post-industrial world of the 21st century has its model of reality based on uncertainty and chaos; its ideal for society is based on adaptability to change; and its model of the mind is that of a curious modeler and a self starting learner.

Table 2

(21st century)

Model of reality:
- uncertainty; chaos; statistics

Ideal of society:
- adaptability to change

Model of the human mind:
- curious modeler
- self-starting learner

So now the question is, having this new reality, what is needed to be an effective adult in the 21st century? The answer to the question is a low-tech one. Let's examine it in light of what we have been talking about.

First, to be an effective adult in society is to be a good problem solver and model builder. If you've got chaos, the only way to handle chaos is to make for yourself some kind of order out of it. That's how we survive: we cannot live in chaos. So we've got to become good model builders.

That brings us to the second point: how do you create model builders and problem solvers? Actually, Nature did this for us, otherwise we wouldn't be here today. Nature gave us the ability to play. Play is the essential learning instrument for model building and problem solving. And it is something that every child and every human being is given as a birth right.

What is play? Play is any activity that doesn't have a known outcome. As soon as it has a known outcome it's not play. If you take a piece of wood, and say, I'm going to make a bookend out of this, and you make a bookend out it, you have not been playing with that piece of wood; you've been making a bookend out of it. If you take a piece of wood and say, I wonder what will happen if I start carving this, that's play; if your name is Michelangelo, all of a sudden you have a beautiful sculpture. Virtually all the important activities of life have an unknown outcome. When we wake up in the morning, we don't know how the day is going to unfold. We might have a schedule and a plan, but in this world of change and chaos, we can't really be sure what is going to happen the next minute. To function in this world, you have to be really good at constantly dealing with unknown outcomes. By contrast, look at how bad so many of us are at this skill. So many of us are so neurotic about this situation! I would love my day to be orderly that's how I was brought up; I would love not to have somebody disrupt my schedule, because that's how I was trained. But in this day and age, that's a handicap.

I have to tell a little anecdote about this. I completely missed the significance of it when it happened, and I only understood many years later. When I was a graduate student, one of my professors was a very famous physicist who was highly instrumental in developing the atomic bomb. He was a brilliant theoretician, and a very humble sweet and humble guy. One summer back in the 1950s I worked for him as an assistant. I said to him, I see you've got a National Science Foundation grant for the summer, to work. He said, Yes, it's a big grant. I said, What do you plan to do? He said, I plan to sail on my yacht. For the whole summer? He said, Yup. That was the whole conversation. I was in shock. At the time, I felt it was crazy to give somebody thousands of dollars to sail on a yacht. In fact the professor, who never saw the 21st century, was a 21st century man, and the people who funded him had enough brains to understand that the only way to get creative work out of this man was to let him play. As he articulated it many years later, When I'm on my yacht I'm completely free of any plans, of any programs, I'm just enjoying sailing, and that's when my mind clears out and new thoughts come in.

Play is something children do naturally. One, two, and three year-olds are always playing, always creating tremendously imaginative games. You don't have to give them so-called learning games, games with known outcomes, games with things that are supposed to be put together this or that particular way. Just let them play. They can play with sticks and stones as well as with the most advanced and expensive blocks. In the natural course of events, they become superb problem solvers, they learn how to build models of reality. As they grow up, if you don't stop them, if you let them continue to play, they retain that ability throughout their lives.

The problem with so much of this is that we all know it. When we read the biographies of great intellects whom we all admire, what do we learn about all of them? They walked in the woods, they played the violin, they did all kinds of crazy things. They didn't spend that much time working, doing productive things with known outcomes. The people we admire most played. But we resist that lesson, because we've been told that most people are not that smart. We're told, That stuff is good for geniuses, for creative people, but most children are just ordinary kids. The truth is, there is no such thing as an ordinary human being. Every human being is born with the ability to build models and be creative. You cannot discover dullness in a group of one and two year-olds playing around on the floor. There is nobody in the world who could point to one or another and say, This one is going to be creative; this one is going to be an ordinary drone, because they are all creative at that age. The challenge is to let that creativity continue to flourish.

So item number one that is needed to be an effective adult is knowing how to play. If you know how to play with clay and with stones, you can play with programs and computers, you can play with metals and chemicals, you can play with anything, because you've learned how to build models and how to create order out of chaos.

Let's look at the second item that you need to be an effective adult in the 21st century within the new model of reality. You need communication skills. Let me explain why, because this is something that is often looked at in a peculiar way. Did you ever ask yourself the simple question, Why do children learn how to talk? It's actually a very interesting question. Because if you read accounts of the function of human speech, people usually say that the human ability to communicate is important because it enables people to do things together that they couldn't do individually. It enables people to form organizations for certain ends. For example, you couldn't build a bridge alone, but because you can communicate with other people, you can all get together and build a bridge or a road, or have an army and win a war, etc.

There is only one problem with this. When a child is one year old, s/he isn't thinking about building bridges or armies. They have no concept that when they grow up they're going to do things together with other people. Nevertheless, they are dying to learn how to talk. Why? Why do they work so hard at this task, which is the single most demanding job that any human being ever does in their entire life? You have done nothing in your lives from the day you were born until now that's harder than the task of learning how to talk, and you never will. Children take a number of years to do it. They struggle at it all the time, they fail at it all the time, and they come back and try again; failure means nothing to children, because they are determined to learn how to speak. So why are they so hell-bent-for-leather to learn how to speak? What is it that they sense about it that makes them feel it's so essential?

The answer to that is actually rather simple. Children, in their own non-verbal and intuitive way, grasp that speech gives them a window into your mind. They understand that by communicating with you, they are obtaining an understanding of the world that goes beyond what they get by operating alone, because it enables them to understand what you understand. They realize that speech is a tool to connect them to other models of reality. Of course, they don't verbalize this, but they realize it intuitively. They want to know what you know, and the reason they want to know what you know and what everybody else knows is that this gives them a tremendous new tool in their model building, and in their grasp of the world. Communicating assures that every child doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. It gives every single child the potential to access the entire range of human knowledge. That's why talk is so precious. It is the key that unlocks the door to everybody else's brain and world model, thereby improving their own understanding of the world.

What a tremendous tool! People talk a lot in order to learn a lot. For example, teenage kids are on the phone for hours. That annoys their parents terribly. What on earth are they talking about? What they're going to wear to the prom? 20th century people consider this a monumental waste of time, because from their perspective, they cannot see a useful function to three hours of talking about what to wear to a prom. The whole activity seems peripheral and unimportant. From a post-industrial perspective, however, such a conversation has meaning solely by virtue of its importance to the participants. They may be learning something significant about dressing, about what clothes mean in a particular environment, about how other people relate to what they are wearing a whole gamut of things, all of which are an important part of their model building at that moment. The skill of learning through conversation is an easily transferable skill. It is the same skill that will enable them to sit down at a later time and talk for four hours with a bunch of software engineers about how they're going to write their next program, or sit with a group of philosophers and try to figure out the meaning of life. Conversation is central to building models of reality that are effective, and it's something every kid does naturally. So item number two essential to being an effective post-industrial adult is being a good information processor through conversation, communication, and interpersonal skills.

The third thing you need, in addition to being able to play and to talk, is a sense of confidence. Suppose you're a child, and you create a model, and along comes somebody who says that model stinks. Or you start playing on an instrument, and some adult music teacher comes along and says, You cannot play worth a damn. What does that do to your interest in continuing to play and explore? It tends to undermine it, unless you believe in yourself sufficiently to go ahead regardless of the criticism. Empowerment is the key, and empowerment implies a democratic environment. Democracy isn't just about the rule of the majority. That's a decision-making process. The essence of democracy, as the modern world understands it, is individual rights. Democracy starts with the belief that all people are created equal, and that they all have equal standing in society. No person is inherently superior in any way to any other person. Every single person is fully entitled to realize their full potential

The third key to being an effective adult in the 21st century is to experience and feel full empowerment, full equality. We've struggled in this country to reach that point. Even though we stated in our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, at first that actually meant men, and that also excluded slaves. It took time, and a war, for people of color to be included in this concept, in this country. It took a tremendous effort for women to be accepted. The biggest argument against accepting women as equal to men was that women are like children. It was said that both women and children are inconstant, can't make up their minds, and don't have good judgment. Finally, women got the vote and the country didn't fall apart! It was a miracle! Now it's time to reverse things and say that children are like women in other words, that they are people and deserve to be an integral part of a democratic environment.

Table 3


Being a good model-builder / problem solver:
- play

Being a good information processor:
- conversation / communication
- interpersonal skills

Being empowered / self-confident within a community:
- democratic environment

So play, conversation, and a democratic environment turn out to be three essential components of being an effective adult in the 21st century. That's a rather interesting list, because it contains almost everything the 20th century schools don't have. That shouldn't surprise us, because the models of reality are diametric opposites: perfect order vs. perfect chaos. We don't make provision for any of these three in our schools, and that's appropriate within the 20th century model of reality. We're even cutting out recesses in the United States because we want to add more courses, more days, summer, nights, weekends, holidays, extra tutoring. Play? No way. We tell children, Stop playing around. Work! You can play after you've done your homework.

Conversation? You're not allowed to open your mouth in school except to answer the teacher's question. You! Stop talking over there! Kids never talk to each other in schools except in the halls when they're rushing form one class to another. Even in progressive schools, their talk is limited to the projects that their teachers want them to talk about. They're not really saying, What do you want to talk about? What do you care about?

And schools are the most undemocratic institutions that exist. How on earth can anybody expect to have an effective adult empowered democracy when for more than a decade children are spending their formative years in a pure autocracy, that is the equal of any absolute monarchy in history? They have few rights under the United States Constitution as the Supreme Court interprets it today. They can be pushed around and told what to do by adults. Nobody else can be treated that way.

That's my low-tech presentation. 21st century schools, if they are going to prepare children to become effective adults, have to provide an environment in which children are allowed free rein to play and free rein to converse, in a democratic setting where each and every one of them is a fully empowered participant in the community. Only schools like that are compatible with the 21st century model of reality. People who come out of schools like that will be adaptable to change, will know how to communicate, and will feel self confident and empowered.


1. History is full of similar situations. The first known one occurred in ancient Greece, when the pre-Socratic school of thought known as the Eleatics (based in the town of Elea), founded by Parmenides, got so tangled up in their idealized physics that they quickly realized that it could never apply to the real world. To solve this problem, they studied real world phenomena, and wrote about them as the physics of the world of illusion!

2. This transition has been discussed in a clear and non-technical way by Dee Hock in his book, Birth of the Chaordic Age.

3. Once again, this new approach was anticipated in ancient times, for example by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose motto was, All is change. The river you step into now is not the same river you stepped into a moment ago. Etc.

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