21st Century Learning: Catching Up Or Leading the Way?


I thought that this summer I would do some light reading and would share that on my blog. Last year I became too overwhelmed with my new duties as a father and teaching a new group of learners to keep up with my blog.  I also wrote a couple of articles that ended up being lost, since I had some issues with my computer.  So at this point, I am entering the 21st century and using the google suite to make sure I don’t lose all of my work.  I know that overall, the Microsoft suite is still better in terms of sheer power, but I cannot get over how well the cloud works to preserve my materials using the google suite.  I had some occasions where I wanted to work on some of my writing, but I could not access all of my work because it was saved at home in word, so I am seeing if I can make the transition.  But really, this concept is a great way to introduce my summer reading theme that has been focused on the 21st century learner.



As teachers, we all know that the learners we are teaching are different than we are in many different ways.  I could do a quick google search and tell you there are a bunch of articles that have been written about millennials that are usually complaining about something that an entire generation supposedly does.  I am a millennial and I can tell you that I am tired of these articles that lament a simpler time where no one was entitled and there was a clear hierarchy in the workplace.  I can tell you these articles are not gaining any converts or changing the behavior of the millennials.  All it shows is how out of touch the generations are with each other and the way they interact with one another.  I keep asking myself, “How did we get here?”


Overall, I don’t care that much about what some pundit thinks about my generation how they define me, or the ever growing group of people they keep lumping into the category, since they really just don’t get it.  Or maybe they do?  I keep clicking on the articles after all.  Maybe that is their game.  To just get the reader to continue on in our current culture of outraged clicking?


I think it might be better to just call us the computer generation, since that is the technology that I was raised on and the technology that eventually jumped onto my mobile device.  In many ways this has been a fascinating time to be alive, while in other ways it has been terrifying to witness the speed of change that has ripped through my life.  But these conflicts between the American generations have also prompted me to think about our schools and what should look like in a 21st century world.  I am talking about going past the Millennial generation and thinking about what we probably should call Generation Tech or I guess if we keep using the letters: Generation Z.  


We need to understand that we are in a time that has not been seen in human history.  I used to love reading science fiction because it offered  a radically different world than the one I lived in, but in some ways I am now living in a world that twenty-five years ago would seem like something created by William Gibson. So what does that mean for school or for learners?  Change and lots of it.  

This summer I decided to pick up some old fashioned books that my principal had decided to leave on the table in our workroom, since she said they had been sent to the school and she hoped they would help us better ourselves.  I liked that she was willing to share these books and I wanted to read some new information about how to improve my craft!  What I learned in school ten years ago seems to have changed or is now totally out of date.  It seems that since I am at the older end of the millennial spectrum I am always one of the last groups to learn the old methods combined with the new methods from the computer generation, but nothing about the mobile generation of technology.   (My technology class was still teaching how to use an old school overhead projector…)  So, I hoped that maybe these books would help me uncover what I needed to know about how to teach a generation that is dropping out of high school and basically loathing traditional schooling.  I wanted to know why this was happening and what I could do about it in my own, small, sphere of influence.  The next few book review posts are the result of my learning.  


Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization


The first book that seemed like a great place to start my quest for answers was the book Catching Up or Leading the Way:  American Education in the Age of Globalization by Yong Zhao.  I love the title of this book because it poses a question about the state of affairs in the American Educational system in the form of a statement.  Do we have a crisis or not?  Is America doing anything wrong by not producing students who can perform on tests?  Should Americans really care that we don’t score well on international tests?  In just a few simple words Zhao brings his international perspective to a topic that has been beaten to death by asking a new set of questions, which will bring us a new set of answers.  






Zhao began by writing about the the educational reform measures put forth by the United States and China, one of our biggest perceived future competitors.  He tells the story in two chapters that let us hear the story.  I was already familiar with the story of American education reform, since I had read Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools by Steven Brill and Zhao does a good job of summarizing in a nutshell what that fight was about.  He also makes a bold statement that asserts that it is possible that the Reagan administration deliberately invented a “crisis” so they could garner votes.  Zhao has no proof, but he does make the reader begin asking questions about the motivations of our politicians when creating policy regarding the minds of our youth.  He asks the question, if a generation of people were raised in an educational system that was in “crisis” then why has the US economy grown over the last twenty -five years instead of crashed?  Why did we end up with visionaries such as Steve Jobs if our school system was so broken?  Zhao comes to the conclusion that the American system with all of its deficiencies and less time in school allowed Americans to be more creative than our counterparts in other parts of the world simply because Americans were not in school as long, which tends to homogenize a culture's thinking.  We spend more time alone and creating on our own, which allows us to pursue our interests and go down paths that schooling would have beaten out of us if given the chance to make us all say the right answer.  




Zhao contrasts the US with China throughout the book and quickly brings us through the changes that are rocking the Chinese system.  He makes a bold point that the Chinese have been using testing systems for at least a thousand years, which means it has a deep hold on the culture there.  People value the testing system and the whole focus on on completing a test before entering a market that has lots of people and is super competitive.  Over time, different Chinese Dynasties made changes to the Keju and when different powers came and challenged China that were more creative China’s elite failed and eventually fell.  In recent years, the Chinese Government has begun to move away from the system that has been in place for a long time and is opening up the system to produce more creative students modeled on the US education model.  So while the US is doubling down on standards that will be outdated in ten years and acting more like China, the Chinese are doubling down on a creative education that is decentralized and looks like the US education system of the 20th century.  Zhao believed that the US has a unique opportunity to lead the world in creativity instead of try to act like everyone else and that China is still not a threat because their economy is only predicated on being the world's factory instead of creating products themselves.  So yes, China can build everything everyone on Earth needs, but they are still only the products other nations have asked them to build and were not a product of Chinese creativity.  Perhaps, Will Durant was right when he basically stated the West would one day try to be more like the East and that the East would become more like the West until we meet in the middle.  



The second half of Catching Up or Leading the Way explains the global system that has been emerging over the last twenty-five years and piggybacks off Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat in the belief that we are now indeed in a global marketplace that places all of our talents in a market that is available to the entire English speaking world that includes many nations.  Zhao believes this is an opportunity that teachers should exploit instead of fear and help our students understand so they can better navigate this new world.  Zhao believes that over time we will need to cultivate a healthy sense of empathy, help our students learn more foreign languages, and teach skills that will transcend the local to the global.  He wrote this book before the backlash from nationalist groups in Europe and the US and makes no mention that the increase in globalism fuels a surge in nationalism, but I think the point he made is valid since we are interacting with other cultures more than ever before.  I am interested to see how this plays out in the long term and think Zhao gave us a good place to start.






He also is the only author that I have ever seen to write about education to help people understand there is a virtual world and a real world that exists in today’s society.  I think that when we think about education we have been only training our students to exist on the regular or worldly plane.  We have basically been training our students to exist in the 1990s at the latest, instead of 2016.  Zhao talks about the growing industry for Gamers who are now selling tickets for fans to watch them compete in virtual tournaments.  He also goes on to point out how someone can make a living in the virtual world, such as in Second Life, World of Warcraft, and Ebay.   I Have friends who have made a living off of selling weapons, armor, and characters in games  and at one point thought it was weird, but after looking back they were doing what they loved and were making money.  The virtual world is real and the skills of that world can make someone money in the real world.  Over time, I believe that these two worlds will become more intertwined and shouldn't we be teaching our students some of these skills?  If I was a student who is able make money online building stuff in Second Life why would I ever care what I was forced to read about in a textbook in school?  I know I would be running home right away to make more bread for myself instead of doing my homework.


Zhao’s book is more big picture instead of giving you actual strategies in how to make your class more like the 21st century, but he does point out that even if the “crisis” at the beginning might have been a sham, we cannot continue to educate our youth like we have.  We have to make a shift that include global competencies, creativity, and problem solving skills.  Otherwise, we will have schools that are open, but no students.  We already have a significant problem with people who want nothing to do with school and many are dropping out.  The problem will not get better unless we understand the world has changed, we stop producing students who can only take tests that have no meaning, and we begin teach digital competencies instead of closing off the classroom from the virtual world.  It is not going anywhere.  If teachers and schools don’t change though we will disappear.  We have to be bold and continue innovating and be more like America, instead of more like China.

 I Highly recommend Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization because it takes the next step past complaining about the current situation and helps teachers try to understand the world we currently live in.  If we do not understand our world, we cannot hope to educate our children to be flexible enough to move on to the next step of the 21st century.  

Want to know more? Try reading Zhao's book and leave some thoughts in the comments section:
Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization

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