The Challenges Facing Education Entering the 21st Century

The Challenges Facing Education Entering the 21st Century

Sustainability Education & Transformational Change

Andrew Bernier – PhD Cohort 7

Prescott College – Prescott, AZ

August 29th, 2011




In this piece, the author, who is a teacher, explores experiences in the classroom that mold his conceptual understanding of the challenges that face education and then draws upon various articles and authors that elaborate on those issues. From that, three key areas of transformative education is discussed and weighed as to how they can be incorporated into mainstream education. The piece then concludes with a summarization of the differences between transformative and transmissive education. There some of the major points for each approach to learning are compared to one another and how each style affects the communities in which they serve.



Looking into the eyes of a confused 16 year old is becoming a familiar sight. The student is on the verge of acting out again as he throws his hands in the air, pushes the laptop away and pokes the student next to him in hopes of evoking some sort of response for his amusement. In the midst of the shriek let out by the poked student, the teacher’s gaze goes from the screen of the student he is helping to the eyes of the poker accused, establishing the newfound relationship of “why on Earth did you do that?” His wide eyes not only cry guilty, but also that of “I have no idea what or why I am doing this, so I’m giving up and hoping to take others with me because I’m scared of being the only one not understanding here.” It is almost certain that he isn’t the only one not understanding the task at hand, and also that he isn’t the only student on the verge of giving up. In preparing for that day’s lesson the teacher, is sure the students are not at all used to the type assignment they have, one that includes collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving skills and cross-curriculum content knowledge.

That story has unfolded in my classroom several times, which has led me to two major observations. 1) I am growing more of an understanding of why students are regularly confused and 2) I am becoming more aware of how what they are confused about will hurt them in the future. Though, one cannot squarely look at just my students and fixate the blame; the same observation similarly takes place when talking to other teachers and sitting through a different version of the same teacher development aimed at “student success.” When listening to what I assume to be the main means of teacher growth and professional development, I can’t help but be worried that these trainings are only updates on the same tired means of instruction that has been practiced in the classroom for decades. As students are consistently subjected to low-level tasks in the classroom by teachers who are not receiving the development and training needed to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st Century, both the teachers and the students are not receiving the direction needed to participate in a functional education system to ready us as a public for the future challenges that face us.


The multitude of texts published along with my own educational experiences shed light on the fact that there are many challenges that education faces. As quoted from Science Foundation Arizona, “To succeed in the 21st Century, Arizona students need to acquire the ability to create, design, innovate and think critically to solve the complex challenges that will face them” ( Arizona STEM Initiative, 2010). As education evolves in this new century, educators and those who support them must be aware of the world around them, especially that of the rapidly changing problems that face us as individuals and as a collective society. The following three points explore means to address and transform the current education system to best prepare teachers and learners for those 21st Century challenges.

Problem Based Projects

For many students in this country, dealing with poverty on a daily basis has become a learning experience in itself. While juggling homework from four or five classes a night, many students in the United States come home to several siblings to look after while their parents work multiple shifts or even multiple jobs to keep the family a float. Yet, at no point does this student learn about how to eradicate poverty or even the causes of it in traditional education systems. This is where the notion of problem based projects comes into play, as in large scale group or independent projects that are focused on real issues and could potential result in a feasible, applicable solution.

In a recent article from the Journal of Social Work Education, several students in a social work masters program took on the task of collecting data and doing research on poverty in their community (Gardner, Touchman, Hawkins, 2010). There were no right or wrong answers but the students were able to draw conclusions and offer recommendations as how to remedy poverty in their community. In short, they identified a problem, designed a project and conducted the inquiry process to come up with their own answer, a highly engaging process that forced the students to work across the curriculums.

The question left is why are these types of engaging projects much harder to come by below the higher education level? If we could start to introduce the notion of problem based projects on a regular basis, allowing students at an early age to explore the inquiry process focused on real problems that face them and the community/environments around them, the level of investment in education and heightened sense of critical thinking could allow them to be apt for critical thinking processes throughout their academic career.

Service Learning

The John F. Kennedy quote “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” is a timeless reminder of the value of service. Many schools, both that the K-12 and higher education levels offer plentiful opportunities outside of the classroom to participate in volunteer service trips and local efforts. But it is not often that a service trip is a part of the curriculum of a daily class. The opportunities as it stands depends on the student to take advantage on their own time, effort and possibly expense to participate, and as mentioned under problem based projects, some students who can’t afford time or resource may not be able to participate in possible transformative service learning.

The transformative model of service learning “fosters civic participation in ‘doing with’ community through challenging systemic inequities and actively working for social transformation” (Verjee, 2010). Coupled with problem based projects, the chance for a student to apply what they have learned in the classroom to a real course of action is much better than a simulation or theoretical exercise. Learning by doing is one of the most effective means of learning, and doing with a purpose and observable outcome is a fantastic way to get students engaged, passionate and high level thinking about the skills they have practiced and the content they have absorbed.

Community Engagement

The idea of “it takes a village to raise a child” is common in school systems, but the execution of its modern day adaptation is lacking. Too often students arrive at a classroom and their greatest exposure to their communities is via textbooks and videos. Without regular engagement with the community in which they live; be it either taking the student into the community or bringing the community into the classroom, it may not be surprising that the same student’s don’t feel a sense of ownership when then living in the community.

For reference, community can mean either the social/human community or even the biotic community in which the student lives. In Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, he writes how “children often learn about the rain forest, but not usually their own region’s forest, let alone the meadow right outside their classroom window” (Louv, 2005). A sense of community and belonging can only be fostered when it is practiced and understood, much like a second language. If we constantly separate communities and schools, the communities will lose attraction and interest in its schools and those who teach and serve the students will feel isolate from the community that they serve. By engaging schools and students in the community, the wealth of resources the community has to provide is at complete expense of the students (Timpson, 2006); much more than the limitations of the school district alone can provide.

Transformative & Transmissive Learning

The concepts of problem based projects, service learning and community engagement bring forth the notion of transformative learning, or as Stephen Sterling would call it, constructive ‘education for change’ (Sterling, 2001). In transformative learning, emphasis on the education process is taken off of the teacher and placed on the student. Meaning that as opposed to a direct lesson where the teacher directly instructs and informs the student, the student is a substantial stakeholder in how their education takes shape; ranging from providing responsive feedback to open-ended inquiry processing.

Sterling points out that current education models follow a transmissive format, or an instructive ‘education for change’ (Sterling). In the transmissive format, instruction is inherently imposed upon the student, in that the primary focus is placed upon the teacher and a “top down” effect of educating is at hand, whereas in the transformative model there is just as much “bottom up” as top down, if not even more so.

The focus of current transmissive learning emphasizes the idea of economical gain, as in the model that education takes on is that of a small economy; teachers and schools as the sellers with students and parents as the buyers (Sterling). In this mind-set, the students and parents don’t have say in the creation of the product, they can merely observe it and either buy it or walk away. But in many cases of rural and/or inner city schools, some families don’t have the option of picking and choosing the style of education they have to “buy”. If what the schools are “selling” are not conducive to the needs and interests of the communities in which they serve, it is bound to have conflict.

In a transformative format, the schools and families have a chance to work together to form the educational process to engage the student in creative and critical thinking skills that could work towards solving real problems within the community. It would mean a shift away from economic and instrumental values within the education model and a shift towards social and intrinsic values (Sterling). For a community to develop leaders through their own school system, it is critical that those have the instrumental skills developed by economic exposure and practice, but that the educational model in which that practice is fostered is housed in an environment where social and intrinsic values are recognized and emphasized, and only then will we breed the knowledgeable leaders to take us into the challenges of the 21st Century.




Arizona STEM Initiative Concept Paper (2010).

Gardner, Daniel S.; Tuchman, Ellen; Hawkins, Robert. (2010). A Cross – Curricular, Problem Based Project to Promote Understanding of Poverty in Urban Communities.  Journal of Social Work Education, 46, 147-156. Abstract retrieved from EBSCOhost database.

Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.

Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainability education: Re-visioning learning and change. Schumacher Briefings Number 6, Devon: Green Books.

Timpson, William M. et al. (2006). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Sustainability. Madison, WI. Atwood Publishing

Verjee, Begum (2010). Service Learning: Charity Based or Transformative? Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal, 4, 1-13. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database