Walter McKenzie

Education’s Attention Deficit Dilemma

In the blogging era everyone can publish their ideas and opinions and grow quite a following doing so; the democratization of information in practice. This proliferating idea exchange is part and parcel of Thomas Friedman's flat earth analogy. Developing one's voice and being heard is a good thing. But it's not enough. If we carry the flat earth metaphor to its logical conclusion, opinions freely rolling across a flattened sphere clatter, collide, and ultimately roll right off the edge. (I just had a flashback to playing Crossfire circa 1970.) Why settle for a random collision of opinions deciding which ideas carry the day? Not all opinions are equal. They need to be vetted for merit.

The blogosphere is an idea incubator—expository brainstorming—and sooner or later all the variations on an issue are examined and exhausted. Then what? Exploring all the possible ways of looking at an issue is an important step in the problem-solving process, but it's not the endgame. Identifying the best possible solution is the goal: a rigorous examination of facts distilled from various and sundry points of view.

Take the current national discussion on education as an example. There is an explosion of ideas, opinions, and reactions across a spectrum of media, both within education and in the larger public consciousness. Stakeholders have weighed in with differing viewpoints, and there is a heightened public awareness of the many issues that make up this complex topic. At some point, opinions and viewpoints will be exhausted, but that's not enough. With so many different voices in play, the depth of anyone's understanding is directly proportional to their attention span. For the majority of the public already on information overload, the ideas that grab their attention first tend to be the ideas they embrace as fact. To resolve this attention deficit dilemma we have to get beyond brainstorming.

The next step in the national education dialogue is to identify the ideas with enough merit to move education forward. What does that mean? Solutions with merit address the concerns of public education while building popular public support. Why public? The era of education professionals working in isolation is over. Educators certainly have credentials and experience that warrant a leadership role in the process, but the expectation that we can work autonomously from the rest of the community of education stakeholders no longer holds true. Why? Because we can't have it both ways. If we embrace the Information Age then we have to be willing, active, open, inclusive, and transparent participants. Not sure you like that notion? Try unflattening the earth.

So, what are the proper criteria for evaluating and identifying the best solutions for moving public education forward? Here's a suggested list of what the optimal solution must do:

  • Transform public education to help prepare students for living and working in the Information Age (as opposed to reforming the Industrial Age model).
  • Integrate education with community health, housing, public safety, recreation, and private sector business so that all children are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged to be successful students and citizens in society.
  • Provide educators with the training and support they need to utilize Information Age skills and teaching strategies throughout instruction.
  • Sustain the basic principle that a free and appropriate public education should be provided to all children.
  • Foster problem solving across the curriculum so that students can adapt to the contexts of different subject areas.
  • Model 21st century skills within all areas of study: global empathy, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and productivity.
  • Instill 21st century literacies in all subject area disciplines: visual, ethical, media, information, cultural, economic, scientific, and technical.
  • Provide tight alignment between K–12, higher education, and the workplace.
  • Fuel the American economic engine.
  • Build strong public consensus for public education.

Note that the criteria are broad in scope to be inclusive in evaluating the merits of each solution. Are there edits or revisions you would recommend? Are there other criteria you would add? Let's nail this down. Then we can move ahead to identifying a credible, viable solution.

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at wmckenzie@ascd.org.

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