Education expert offers a sobering back-to-school message

As the old Bob Dylan song goes, the times they are a-changin', and educators need to do the same thing: Today's world of rapid social, economic, and political change demands an overhaul of the goals of education.

That's the message of the new book Learning for the 21st Century (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2002), edited by Gordon Wells, professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Guy Claxton, visiting professor of learning science at the University of Bristol in England.

"In stable times, tradition is an adequate guide, but these turbulent times call for a radical revision of education," said Wells. "We must look to the society of the future to determine what today's young people will need, and we must tap the depths of what we know about the human mind, about learning and development, to reevaluate the means and ends of education to meet those needs."

In today's "knowledge economy," it is no longer sufficient to follow the path of educators who have relied for years on a "top-down" approach to transmitting knowledge by lecturing. Rather, Wells and Claxton assert, the approach to curriculum must be revised to engage teachers and students in joint activities that enrich and educate both parties.

"Whenever two people work together, there is the potential for each to learn from and teach the other," said Wells. "The way human beings develop identity and knowledge is through joint activity, not as self-contained individuals."

In addition to emphasizing collaborative learning, Wells and Claxton assert that:

  • Education should be responsive to the communities in which learners are growing up; curricula should build on the language, culture, socioeconomic background, experience, and knowledge of participants;

  • Language, especially the spoken word, is the medium through which most powerful learning takes place; the traditional classroom emphasis on textbooks and written assignments discounts this valuable medium as a tool of learning;

  • Teachers, steeped in an understanding of educational theory, must seek the support of parents and administrators and take up the challenge of adjusting the way they teach by involving students in their curriculum planning and focusing on the interests, needs, and strengths of their students.

"Teachers will need to explain this approach to parents, and it will require a good dose of courage because they will face challenges from those who believe learning only takes place when the teacher is talking or students are writing," said Wells. "And it requires a different kind of mental preparation--it's much more like improvisation than acting with a script. They must be prepared to make mistakes and to learn from them, and encourage their students to do the same."

Transforming classrooms into forums for collaboration will help prepare today's students for the uncertain demands of the future while building a sense of community based on their own experience of participation.

"Education, at this point in our history, is really about the development of a mind to learn," said Wells. "We strongly disagree with the current drive toward predetermined outcomes and one-size-fits-all learning."

Acknowledging the challenges of promoting his ideas in an era of standards and accountability, Wells said he takes satisfaction from his work helping to prepare the next generation of teachers. "Education at the state and federal level was co-opted more than 100 years ago by those who see it as a way of producing an adequately equipped, subservient workforce at the expense of fostering diversity of talent and creativity," he said. "It is based on a system of direction, control, and accountability. Fortunately for students, well-prepared teachers can do much more, and individual schools and districts can be receptive to more contemporary visions of what is possible."


Note to journalists: Gordon Wells can be reached via e-mail at or at (831) 459-4701.