for a Flat World
It’s not a question of content versus skills—it’s about creating challenging, profoundly engaging, and authentic educational experiences that produce lifelong learners.
Richard H. Hersh
decade into the 21st century, educators and policymakers are still
debating how to adapt K– 12 education for a transformed global arena.
Not that this question is unfamiliar.
Fifty years ago, the launch of Sputnik ignited a
fierce national debate about the inadequacy of U.S.
education. The response was a national push for
more math and science, a spate of “new” curriculums, and calls for inquiry-based pedagogy that
would teach students how to think rather than to
simply regurgitate. Two decades later, the National
Commission on Excellence in Education’s publication of A Nation at Risk rekindled the debate—this
time, in the context of concerns about the
perceived prowess of Japanese schools and corporations. In response, U.S. schools renewed their
focus on increased core course requirements,
homework, and achievement standards.
The debate about quality continues, spurred
now by dissatisfaction with the effects of No
Child Left Behind, increasing globalization of
education and economics, and an array of international tests on which U.S. students fare poorly
when compared with their international peers.
© PHILLIP DVORAK/SIS
Too often, the rhetoric turns simplistic—as in
recent heated arguments about whether we
should be teaching for content mastery or for
“21st century skills” like creativity, teamwork, and
problem solving. This issue of either content or
skills is a false dichotomy, one that we need to
transcend if we are going to make significant
We live in a flat world, to cite the widely used
metaphor Thomas Friedman (2007) created to
explain the global economic, educational, and
technological forces that are equalizing opportunity worldwide by empowering people to
“compete, connect, and collaborate” (p. x). To
thrive in this new world, students will need all
the intellectual muscle and deep thinking we have
traditionally associated with the best of higher
education. These competencies can no longer be
reserved for college (not that they’re always in
evidence there). At every grade level, K– 12 as well
as higher education, our students need a well-rounded education for a flat world. Actually, the
content and skills needed for a well-rounded
education are not really new, but in these times
they have become far more necessary and urgent.