Beyond Learning, Beyond Standards: Author Marc Prensky Shares His Achievement-Based Vision for Education
The current education system focuses heavily on learning. This emphasis on learning aims to help students adopt a common set of skills and gain a certain breadth of knowledge so they can enter the workplace successfully and effectively apply what they have learned.
Marc Prensky, an author and speaker who is also the founder and chief spokesperson of the Global Future of Education Foundation and Institute, thinks this fixation on learning needs to change. He believes the primary goal in education should not be learning — it should be accomplishment.
Marc says shifting the focus in education to accomplishment would help students complete real world tasks before they even enter the workplace.
To give us some insight on what an education system that does not prioritize learning would look like, Jake Murray from the Boston University School of Education spoke with Marc about Marc’s vision for education reform, which would also put more value in individualized experience. Marc believes Common Core learning standards focus on outdated subjects that not every student needs to learn. Therefore, he does not support their implementation. He believes the education system is spending too much time on their consideration.
Listen in to hear Marc’s argument against learning standards, and how he believes the education system must change and improve in order to be an effective experience for its students.
Jake: Hi, this is Jake Murray from Boston University’s School of Education. Today I’ll be interviewing Marc Prensky for EdTech Times. Marc, great to have you here. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your work?
Marc Prensky: Sure. My background includes math, science, languages, teaching at all levels, Harvard Business School, Boston Consulting Group, and starting and running a games-based educational software company for over a decade. I’ve written seven books and over a hundred essays, and I’ve spoken in over 40 countries about today’s kids and the future of education.
Jake: Terrific. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Global Future of Education Foundation and Institute?
Marc: Yes. Our mission is to offer a new and better alternative for what education needs to be in order to serve the world’s newly-empowered kids. I’m the founder of the Global Future of Education Foundation and the chief spokesperson.
Jake: Terrific. So we’re going to switch gears — we’re going to talk about national standards and specifically the Common Core, and I know you have opinions about the Common Core. So let’s start with a beginning question: Do we need national standards at all?
Marc: We don’t need national standards, and the way that this is done: there’s no ROI, there’s no return on investment whatsoever on what people have done and spent a lot of time and effort on. We don’t even need for everybody in common subjects that the Common Core standards are about, because math and English and science and social studies, I call the mess — they are leftovers from another era. And so to standardize them, to make all the stuff that we do in common, is saying “Oh, let’s do the best we can for a hundred years ago.” Some kids still need those subjects, of course, but they need them in an individualized way. What every kid does need and what we don’t offer and what we don’t offer in common, are standards for effective thinking, effective action, effective relationships, and especially effective accomplishment. And those are skills, not content. Schools should be about building those kinds of skills and they should do it through kids accomplishing real world projects and if we have any standards, it should be for what constitutes a good, useful project that helps make kids into effective, world-improving people.
Jake: Okay, great. Standards, but not standards around content — about the skills you’re talking about. Do you think that there’s any appetite for that movement in national standards? Do you have any read on sort of the appetite or the mood of the country based on national election results and what the Republican administration might be considering in terms of standards?
Marc: I think we’re going to go through a tough time, but we’re already going through a tough time. I don’t think that there’s really a huge amount of difference depending on this administration. I think that most people see education in an old way, and we need to move toward the future. Common Core and this whole idea of subjects and content is absolutely the past, and it’s really sad that we’re wasting so much effort on these kinds of things because we’re hurting our kids tremendously, compared to the things we could be doing. So I don’t think that it’s just because of the administration, although in terms of Betsy DeVos, for example, and school choice — we have no school choice. It doesn’t matter what school your kids go to, they’re gonna get the mess: math and science and english and social studies, not particularly customized to each student, but customized according to whatever curriculum we have.
Jake: Right. So if we move in this direction — toward the types of standards you’re talking about, in terms of skills and of understanding and navigating the world — what has to happen in terms of teacher education? What’s your approach to teacher education if we’re going to revamp and move away from content areas?
Marc: Well, first, I’m not saying we should have standards for all these skills, I think that would be another waste of time. I think we have to figure out how to teach the skills through accomplishing projects. Each kid will do differently, because if you have 50 skills, each kid will be a little bit different, and that’s good because we don’t want kids all to be the same, we want to focus on each individual kid’s strengths and passions and show them how to apply those to the real world and become successful.
In terms of teacher preparation, we need teachers because kids need adults but what we need are teachers who are coaches and empowerers. What we have, and what we have trained, are teachers who are content providers. We have no need for content providing; that is all on the internet. So what we need is for teachers to become coaches and empowerers. The good news is that many teachers already know how to do this. They do it after school, they do it in programs, they just don’t think they have permission to do it. We have to give them permission to do this and to use their judgement on what they think kids actually need to prepare those kids for the future.
Jake: Right. Do you think — in terms of the Common Core today, there’s been a lot of push back around the assessment of standards, of Common Core standards, and there’s been opting out of Common Core assessment tests, such as the PARC or Smarter Balance — if we were to move towards these other types of ways that we teach and measure kids’ skills, do you see the value in assessment or assessing kids, whether it’s project-based or portfolio assessment, is that something you think is important?
Marc: Assessment is useful if it helps us to get better. I don’t think that tests do any kind of a job that we need of assessing. I would, before everybody, opting out of the tests. I think that would be a great national movement and I think we should replace it with something better. We need to assess each kid, individually, as to whether they are moving in the direction of becoming a good, effective, world-improving person.
Jake: So this world-improving person — can you elaborate a little bit more? So what I’m trying to determine: Sally’s in the tenth grade, I think she’s a world-improving person, what am I looking for? What am I assessing and trying to gauge?
Marc: What we want every kid to be doing at every level is to be joining a project that is a project whose goal is to make their world a better place in some way. Let me give an example: In something I recently read, a person described how they took a kindergarten class out in the neighborhood to interview shopkeepers, and they came back and they wrote a nice report that said “Gee, the shopkeepers all want the kids in the neighborhood to be nicer and more polite.” They thought they were doing something good with the kids. That is not enough. What the kids then have to do, is say “how do I make the kids in the neighborhood of which we are some nicer and more polite?” That actually makes the neighborhood better. It’s not that you need to learn how to do something, you actually have to do something, to apply to the world your own skills and knowledge and passion so that the world keeps getting better. The old paradigm for education is you spend X number of years educating kids, and then, if you’re lucky, they may go out and improve the world someday. The new paradigm for education is that we put kids with problems from the very beginning, we help them and guide them and coach them to find solutions and implement solutions to those problems. They often come up with solutions that we haven’t thought of. They then become people who improve the world while they are still students and the world improves around them, but the real kicker is they become people who know they can improve the world, know how to improve the world, because they’ve had an education that taught them to do this.
Jake: Right. That’s contextualized learning. They’re learning within real world environments.
Marc: I turn it completely around. I don’t think learning is what school is about. I don’t think learning is what education is about. I think learning is a means. I don’t think we should talk about school and education as primarily being about learning. It is primarily about accomplishing — and obviously, you learn to accomplish, but the accomplishment is where we need to put the focus. I really think that our focus on learning is a very misguided approach; it’s something that came up in the last 30 years because we got tired of focusing on teaching. We said let’s put the focus on the person who is receiving. But it’s not enough. And that is the hugest change in perspective that’s needed in the education schools, not to focus everything on learning and say this is a way to do learning, and this is another way to do learning, and this is a contextualized way to do learning — no! This is a way to do accomplishment, and what do we need to learn in order to accomplish? That’s fine. But learning is a means, not an end.
Jake: So, let me push back a little bit. Where does understanding math, understanding reading, or being proficient in reading and writing, where do those skills come into play in terms of this focus of accomplishment, or what you can do in the world? How would you encompass that type of skill in how students should be measured on their progress in those skills?
Marc: There’s very little that we can do in the world if we don’t know how to take in information from others. That information can come in the form of reading — and it has for several hundred years — now, it comes more frequently in the form of video, which is what people turn to when they want to learn how to do something, or even about something. So, that’s useful skill. But when we think about reading, we think about just giving the kids the skill to read. What we ought to be doing is saying “here’s something that you choose to do, because you’ve picked it, now in order to do that, you need some more information in order to do it well. Okay, here’s a set of things that happen to be in writing, you can use to do that, and if you really want to do that, we can help you decipher those things.” And when you do that with kids, every kids gets material that they really want to take in for some reason, reading becomes as easy as playing video games. People teach themselves to read because they want the information. So this whole focus that we have on teaching kids to read so someday they can read what they want to read is backwards. It’s backwards.
Jake: So one of the arguments for national standards is to ensure some level of quality of equity across schools, across states, across communities. How would you ensure that students are all getting the same type of experience or opportunities in this sort of framework that you’re talking about, that you’re trying to expose students to accomplishment and give them the tools to succeed in this world? What would be the way that you ensure all students were getting those opportunities to learn or to be able to be accomplished?
Marc: The way we have always done it in the past is you watch each student, you figure out what they are — we don’t want all our students to have the same education. We want every student, or at least I want every student, to have a different education, an education that fits that student; fits their restraints, their passions, what they want to do. If we told kids school was not about learning what we want you to learn, which is what the standards are about — no, school is about finding about who you want to become. We are good at helping you do that. So you tell me who you want to become at this particular moment that may change, we will help you become as successful as we possibly can at that. And then, when you’re successful at that, we can set higher goals, and we can help you become successful at something else. That’s how people have always grown up before we had school.
Then, we had this thing called school: “oh, let’s teach everybody some common skills.” And maybe that was useful in another era, maybe it was useful to have a population that could read anything that was put in front of them, but it is not useful in the same way now. We have different tools, we have an ability to individualize totally differently, and the way we are setting standards and thinking — it’s not just setting standards, it’s the way we are conceiving of what an education is is really not effective. We focus on thinking, we focus on thinking skills, like reading or mathematics, we don’t focus on action, we don’t focus on accomplishing skills, we don’t focus on relationship skills very much. And so our kids come out, some of them with grades and some of them with no grades, but they are equally unprepared. And even sometimes they make it through college, and they are equally unprepared and floundering. So, this is not an education, the way we do education in an academic way. That’s all one tradition of education. It’s a tradition that was focused on thinking, that grew out of people who thought deeply, and it’s okay, as long as we remember it’s only a part of what a real education is.
A real education is about effective thinking and combined with effective action, effective relationships, effective accomplishment. That’s what’s going to make people successful and until we see that and until we stop focusing only on this tiny part of education, we will not produce the kinds of kids we need in the world. The good news is that kids will do it without us, because they are learning to focus and use their tools and they are doing it more and more, and so I think that in the future, kids will get their education — unless we change — kids will get their useful education outside of school. And already, school is starting to turn into what a friend of mine who was a superintendent calls “a warehouse.” We just put these kids in a building to keep them safe while their parents work for 18 years or however many years we do it, and we give them absolutely nothing that they really need except in the most minor of cases. 19:01
Jake: Let’s explore that a little bit more. I mean, where education is going and where we have the ability to go now — so you talked about individualized learning or personalized learning, the advantages in education technology… 19:28
Marc: Excuse me, go back to where I’m talking about individualized education and personalized education — not learning. Please understand that’s not what I’m talking about. 19:45
Jake: Right, we made that distinction. That’s an important distinction. So personalized education, individualized education, the ability to offer students these individual educational programs or opportunities, where do you think that can ultimately take us? A school — or if it’s not even a school — what does education look like in 10-15 years with these new opportunities around personalizing education and education technology and we move away from schools as warehouses? What’s your vision? 20:27
Marc: The vision, and I don’t know how long it will take, but I certainly do know it’s already started, is that we have a generation of kids and now we will forever have generations of kids, who are far more empowered to do things in the world than kids ever have been in the past. If a kid sees a problem like kids being bullied at lunch, they can write an app. Some 16 year old wrote an app like find my table or something that said okay, here’s how you find a safe table. Kids can take action, and that’s what we have not been able to help them do. So unless we empower them, and that’s what I see an education is. An education is empowerment of kids to take action. Sure, they need some knowledge and skills to do that, and part of their education should be gaining those knowledge and skills. We should help them do that. But not for your own sake, not focusing on your education is learning these knowledge and skills, no — education is accomplishing things that make the world better. That’s your education. In the process, here’s a set of thing that we recommend that you look at it and decide if they will be useful to you. If they are, then you should go as deeply as you can into those things, and that’s so that we wind up with a world full of people, especially young people, who make the world a better place and then are taught to make the world an even better place for the rest of their lives. That’s the vision. 22:19
Jake: I think we’re at the end of our time. This is a lot to think about. Do you know of any place where — any innovative school — that’s doing something close to this right now? That might be of interest for our listeners to look more into? Or a model out there, that’s close to the sort of vision that you just outlined? 22:56
Marc: Yes, but we have to be very careful. There are places all around the world. There are little pockets, there are individuals, there are individual students, there are individual teachers, there are individual schools you could look at, one example is High Tech High in San Diego; but each one is different. We don’t want a model. What we want is an ideal that is to say we have a different view of education, what it’s about — it’s about bettering the world and improving humanity, and then what we want is for each person, each school, each state, each country to figure out how to do this in their own way. It’s not about spreading a model and scaling any particular model — it’s about spreading an idea and a vision, and giving people the power to realize that kind of a vision in the way they think is best. So it’s really — this comes back to the idea of best practices. If something is changing as rapidly and as fundamentally as education, there are no best practices. There are only good practices and the need to invent even better ones that fit your particular environment and needs. So we really have so many things — we see them from the wrong perspective, by saying oh, let me look at this school, let me look at High Tech High and do just what they did. That may or may not make sense in your environment. You may be in an environment where the whole town is about wooden boats — that’s the tradition in their whole town. So, their education is about restoring wooden boats and figuring out how to connect to their maritime community. That’s fine for them. Somewhere else, it may be something totally different. And if we focus not on the tales of the education, but on the ends of the education, of the idea of helping our kids become good, effective, world-improving people, in whatever way is best for our community, then we’ll make more progress. If we see education as just this process of learning that we are improving on the margins, we will get nowhere. 25:46
Jake: Well, that’s a great way to summarize your perspective. Marc, I want to thank you for speaking with us today and I wish you the best of luck in all of your efforts in helping us rethink what education can be and what are the opportunities for our children. 26:09
Marc: It’s a tough task to really change people’s thinking fundamentally. But if you spend time with our kids and see who they are and see what they need, it’s something we absolutely have to do. 26:28
Jake: Agreed. Let me just end by putting a little plug in that you have a recent book “Education to Better Their World,” that goes into more detail around this vision for education. So again, thank you Marc. 26:44
Marc: The subtitle of that book which is really important is “Unleashing the Power of 21st Century Kids.” Thank you, I appreciated the opportunity to talk to people. 26:57
If you want to learn more about Marc’s vision for education, he goes in-depth about it in his most recent book, Education to Better Their World: Unleashing the Power of Twenty-First Century Kids.
Read (and listen to) the rest of our “Demystifying Common Core” series:
Elizabeth hails from New Jersey and studies journalism at Emerson College, where she works for two publications: a lifestyle magazine and a music magazine. In addition to education, she also enjoys writing about health and fitness and pop culture.