Teaching in the 21st century

Elavie Ndura is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Nevada, Reno. These abridged remarks were prepared for a recent Dana Davis Forum in Education, “Thinking about Sept. 11,” during which the question was asked: “Are teachers preparing students for the ‘evolving’ world in which they live?”

It seems to me that the pervasive fear, powerlessness and helplessness America felt on Sept. 11 and the days that followed could be appeased somehow if we could understand what had happened, why it happened, where it came from and who could commit such a barbaric atrocity. I decided to discuss the matter with five high school students in an effort to gather some objective responses.

First, I asked the students to tell me what they remember learning from school. They generated a quick and rather simplistic list. They have learned ABCs, the Pythagorean theorem, names of U.S. presidents, cursive handwriting, the multiplication table, spelling, factoring and the periodic table of the elements. One of the students shared that she had learned one life-saving piece of information—mixing ammonia and bleach is deadly.

Then I asked the students to tell me things that schools have not taught them that they believe are important. They became excited. Here is the list of things students would like to learn to do: budget money, be social, communicate with members of the other gender, deal with people who are different and deal with discrimination and hate.

I directed their thoughts to Sept. 11 and asked them what questions the school has not taught them to ask. They had two major questions: Why do they hate us and want to bomb us? And how come the U.S. government intelligence did not know it was coming?

Students shared that schools have not taught them to question academic and social inequities. They have been taught that the only reason why some of their classmates fail is because they do not do their homework. They have never been engaged in a discussion of the economic divide that separates the American society and the rest of the world into irreconcilable camps. They have not been taught to question local and international decisions made by the U.S. government.

Did you hear what I heard? The learning experiences the students shared were all facts. Lifeless, disconnected facts. On the other hand, the experiences they wish the schools had provided were all life skills.

Are schools preparing students for the contingencies of life in the 21st century? What is the world like in the 21st century? It is a world with over 6 billion inhabitants, where one out of five people is Chinese, while Americans account for only 4.6 percent of the total population. It is a world where Islam is the second major religion with 1.3 billion adherents. It is a world where 404 million youth under the age of 18 do not attend school. It is a world in which America is defined by oversized vehicles, 99 television channels per set, pets that are caressed, kissed and cuddled like real babies, entertainment with no boundary regarding immorality, extra-large hamburgers and soda cups the size of a family jug.

Schools have not taught our children that millions of their brothers and sisters outside the United States go to bed cold and hungry, while their governments destroy people and resources using American-made weapons. Most of all, schools have not taught our children that there are always two sides to every story.