Below, you’ll find the introduction that I penned for the series. We hope you enjoy reading! (Click on the pics above to purchase.)
Back in the 1960s and 70s, Penguin published a series of what it called “Education Specials,” short-ish books from a variety of authors such as Neil Postman, Ivan Illich, Herb Kohl, Paulo Friere, Jonathan Kozol and others. All told, there were over a dozen works, and they were primarily edgy, provocative essays meant to articulate an acute dissatisfaction with the function of schools at the time. The titles reflected that: “The Underachieving School,” “Compulsory Miseducaton,” “Teaching as a Subversive Activity,” “De-Schooling Society,” and “School is Dead,” to name a few. Obviously, it wasn’t about subtlety.
Progressive by nature, the authors generally saw their current schools as unequal, undemocratic and controlling, places of conformity and indoctrination. They argued, mostly on deaf ears, that the traditional narratives of schooling were leaving their children not just disengaged and lacking in creativity and curiosity, but that the systems and structures of schools were deepening instead of ameliorating the inequities in society at the time. A number of the authors argued, in fact, that universal schooling was a pipe dream from both economic and political perspective, and that schools, if they were to remain, needed to be rethought from the ground up.
Reading many of these works now, it’s hard not to be struck by how precisely they describe many of the realities of today’s world. It’s inarguable that an “education” in the U.S. (and elsewhere) remains vastly unequal between socio-economic groups and races. The systems that drove schools 40 years ago prevail and, in many cases, are less and less economically viable by the day. By and large, education is something that is still organized, controlled, and delivered by the institution; very little agency or autonomy is afforded the to the learner over his or her own learning. Decades of “reform” efforts guided principally by non-educator politicians and businessmen have failed to enact the types of widespread changes that those Penguin authors and many others felt were needed for the idea of school to serve every child equally and adequately in preparing him or her for the world that lies ahead.
It’s that “world that lies ahead” that is the focus of the book that you hold in your hands and the Modern Learning Series of which it is a part. Let me say upfront that we in no way assume that these books will match the intellectual heft of those writers in the Penguin series (though we hope to come close). But we do aspire to reignite or perhaps even start some important conversations around change in schools given not just the continuing long-standing challenges from decades past but also given the modern contexts of a highly networked, technology-filled, fast changing world whose future looks less predictable by the minute.
What’s happened with technology and specifically the Web over the last two decades or so has had an enormous impact on how we communicate, how we create, and, importantly, how we learn. Nowhere have those effects been felt more acutely than with our kids, most of whom now have never known a world without the Internet. In almost all areas of life, in almost every institution and society, the effects of the ubiquitously connected technologies we now carry with us in our backpacks and back pockets have been profound, creating amazing opportunities and complex challenges, both of which that have been hard to foresee. In no uncertain terms, the world has changed, and is changing quickly and drastically. Yet, education has remained fairly steadfast, pushing potentially transformative learning devices and programs to the edges, never allowing them to penetrate to the core of learning in schools. Learning in schools looks and sounds and feels pretty much like it did 40 years ago if not a century ago.
Here’s the problem, however: increasingly, for those who have the benefit of devices and access to the web, learning outside of schools is more profound, more relevant, and more long-lasting than the learning our students do inside the classroom. Connected learners of all ages have an agency and autonomy that is stripped from them as they enter school. In a learning context, this is no longer the world that schools were built for, and in that light, a pretty good bet that a fundamental redefinition of schools is imminent.
While some would like to see schools done away with, we in this series believe schools can play a crucially important role in the lives of our youth, in the fabric of our communities, and in the functioning of our nations. But moving forward, we feels schools can only play these roles if we fully understand and embrace the new contexts that the modern world offers for learning and for education. This is not just about equal access to technology and the Web, though that’s a good start. This is about seeing our purpose and our practice through a different lens that understands the new literacies, skills, and dispositions that our kids need to flourish in a networked world. Our hope is that these books makes that lens clearer and more widespread.