Educating the Class of 2030

February, 2017 Chris Colwell

Much is written about redesigning our education system for the the 21st century student. Our P-12 system seems to be under constant reform as politicians, policy makers, and business leaders appear to lurch from one innovation to the next, often with limited or even counterproductive results (Levy, 2014). The only constant in the reform movement is change itself. School board members and educators find themselves buffeted by the next best practice, innovation, and solution.

It can be sobering to realize that children entering pre-k in 2016-17 will graduate from high school in 2030. The sense that there is an urgent need to redesign our schools is understandable. How do we make reforms that last and make education relevant for this 21st century student, in what Daniel Pink calls the “conceptual age,” an era that requires creativity and innovative thought around complex problems not easily solved by linear thinking (Pink, 2015)? What knowledge, skills, and values will serve our graduates in 2030 and beyond?

Educators and policy makers work tirelessly to answer these questions by attempting to modernize curriculum, instruction, and assessment systems, and to find ways to be as efficient as possible within the human, financial, and time constraints we all face.

All of these efforts, however, cannot succeed in modernizing our education system as long as we attempt to implement these initiatives on top of our current 20th century teaching and learning platform. There are fundamental systems problems underlying P-12 education in 2016 that need to be resolved in order for any new solutions and innovations to truly take root.

Issue 1: Our modern system is not modern at all

Our P-12 design is based upon the organizational structures of the assembly line. We are still attempting to “build” educated students the same way the Model T was built in 1908. When that first mass produced vehicle rolled off the assembly line on Oct.1, 1908, the assembly line that produced it was a modern marvel; efficient, organized, and able to replicate that Model T over and over.

Our current “assembly line” of 13 stations, from kindergarten to grade 12, attempts to do the same thing, the same way. Where the Model T had a station designed to add the front bumper and another station designed to add the rear bumper, we have a station (grade level) designed to add number sense and another station (grade level) designed to add algebraic thinking, and so on. Our organizational structure is fundamentally unchanged over the last 100 years. We have moved from the agricultural age to the manufacturing age to the digital age; we just forgot to move our schools along with it.

Our calendar is built to serve an agrarian economy that disappeared nearly a century ago. In 1870, 50 percent of all workers were employed in the agricultural or agricultural support industry. By 1950 that percentage had declined to 20 percent. Today less than 1 percent of all employment is related to agriculture (CIA, 2016), and yet our calendar remains stubbornly rooted in a 19th century agrarian calendar.

Our secondary students are up before dawn to begin school days that often start before sunrise despite what we know about teenage sleep habits and learning (National Sleep Foundation, 2016). We have moved from an agrarian economy to an information economy; we just forgot to move our schools along with it.

Our curriculum was designed more than 100 years ago. The “seven cardinal principles,” written in 1918, remain fundamentally unchanged. The recommendations from the “Committee of 10” in 1894 to have a common amount of time dedicated to each and every subject remain in place today, 125 years later. If mathematics is a 60-minute period, then history, and art, and biology will also be 60-minute periods. That is how assembly lines functioned 100 years ago. It is how our curriculum functions today. The challenges of the 21st century are not the same as the challenges of the 20th century. Ninety-one percent of employers report that the challenges the modern workforce faces are more complex today than in the past (AAC&U, 2013).

Issue 2: Our current model does not align with what we know about learning.

Human beings develop and learn at different rates of speed. Just as the brain does not mature at the exact same rate for every individual, neither does every individual encounter every subject or skill with the same level of readiness (Semrud-Clikeman, 2016). Our “modern” structure tends to run at one speed only, and it runs at that constant speed sixty minutes per subject, six hours a day, five days a week, one hundred eighty days a year, for thirteen years. No wonder so many students are bored with the slow pace of the P-12 assembly line. No wonder so many students are frustrated with the rapid pace of the P-12 assembly line. When we don’t design systems that will allow teachers to regulate the pace of learning itself, it is inevitable that a significant percentage of our students will be either frustrated or bored.

Humans learn by connecting new learning to previous learning (Bax, 2003; Gipe, 1980). One fundamental problem with an assembly line is that each station on the line must perform its tasks perfectly and on time if the next station on the line is going to be able to do its job. The third grade station can only succeed if the learning tasks assigned to the second grade station on the line are all accomplished. Once the chain of prerequisite skills and knowledge is broken, once the student is no longer able to connect with the new learning being taught at the next stop on the assembly line, the probability of success for the student drops dramatically. Learning occurs in context with what is already known about a topic or subject. The loss of that context results in the loss of the ability for the student to make learning connections (Teacher Support Force, 2011). It should be no surprise that we can so easily predict high school dropout potential by looking at the academic standing of a child in third grade (Jimerson, Egeland, Sroufe & Carlson, 2000).

Humans learn best when interacting with the subject matter. Learning is fundamentally a social process (Change Learning, 2016). The taxonomy of knowledge for the 21st century must place a high value on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and team work. Our graduates will not encounter standardized multiple choice questions in their efforts to lead productive lives at home, at work, and in the community. An analysis of what 21st century employers are looking for in terms of skill sets for their workforce center around the employee’s communication skills, the ability to solve complex problems, to have a work ethic, and commitment to excellence; they look for employees with grit, with resilience, with tenacity (AAC&U, 2013; Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006;). Our “modern” design isolates students from each other. Learning is measured as an interaction between the student and a standardized test. Working in groups is called cheating. Being active and noisy is poor classroom management. Creativity is an after-school activity.

Humans learn best what they find interesting and relevant. We want to learn what we think we are good at (Ainley, 2006). We spend more time on what we perceive ourselves to be capable of doing well. The more time we spend the better we get, the better we get, the more time we are willing to spend on the task. The inverse is also true. What we perceive ourselves to be weak in, we spend less time attempting. The less time we spend, the weaker we get. When the student has both no inherent interest in the subject and no early success in interacting with the subject, learning is much less likely to occur.

Humans learn through failure. Making mistakes, and receiving feedback about our errors, is a fundamental part of the learning process (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Marquardt, 1996; Sitkin, 1992). How we view failure has a significant impact on our ability to learn, to think critically, and problem solve. Over the last half-century, we have made making a mistake the worst thing that can happen to a teacher or a student (Robinson, 2006). That must change. We must create classroom environments where fear of failure is not the primary student - teacher dynamic (Martin, 2010).

Today’s graduates all seem to have the same fundamental concerns – 1.) Will this be on the test? 2.) Do I need to know this? 3.) What is the correct answer? 4.) How do you want the answer to look? All of these questions center on a fear of failure and risk taking. And yet, making mistakes and taking risks is how learning occurs. We have devolved to the point that avoiding failure has become a cornerstone of the teacher-student relationship.

Issue 3: Our current model of assessing student learning does not align with the knowledge and skills that 21st century graduates need.

What is worth knowing in the “Age of Siri?” What does an educated person look like in 2016? What knowledge and skills, should the “Class of 2030” have? Does the modern graduate leave school with a set of skills and knowledge necessary to access the middle class through a well-paying job? Does the modern graduate leave school with the knowledge and skills to be a productive member of our democracy? Does the modern graduate leave school with the problem solving and critical thinking skills necessary to solve complex problems?

When we examine the demands our 21st century world will place upon our graduates, it seems evident that our current systems for assessing students’ readiness to succeed is no longer adequate (Gomes, 2016).

While standardized testing can assess specific standards, multiple choice questions, no matter how elegant in design, cannot measure many of the skills needed to be successful in 2016 and beyond. Standardized tests can measure whether the student understands fundamental mathematics. Standardized tests can measure the student’s ability to show competency with grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension. Our “modern” assessment system may be able to measure whether or not a student can identify major historic events or geographic locations. What is not easily assessed by standardized multiple choice exams, however, is the ability of the student to demonstrate the skills that 21st century employers are looking for; the ability to solve complex problems, think critically and creatively, take risks, assess the veracity of information, and work in teams.

Solution #1: Shift our focus towards developing the capacity of the adults in the building.

The capacity of children to learn is immense. They are learning machines, capable of almost unlimited potential. It should not be our goal to help each student reach their potential. Our student’s potential should be without question. It should be our goal to help every adult educator reach their potential to be extraordinary, so we don’t let our children down. What do all great schools have in common? Great teachers. The professional development of the adults in the workplace must be given higher priority. Until we create systems that support meaningful professional development as a core component of the teacher’s job as opposed to a few after hours workshops, we will not impact the capacity of the adults in the building to make a difference in the lives of students.

Solution #2: Shift our focus from the relationship between students and test scores, to the relationship between students, teachers, and the world around them.

Healthy school cultures are built on relationships; relationships among students, between students and teachers, and between students and the community. This relationship building can only occur in a modern context if we remove the isolating aspects of our system. The modern learning experience must be active and interactive at every level. Too often, “school is a place where young people go to sit and watch old people work.”

The modern learning experience must be meaningful to the learner. It is difficult to learn without context. When teachers cannot explain the purpose, the meaning, of why a subject or standard is worth learning, learning will not occur beyond perhaps the ubiquitous question from today’s student: “Will this be on the test?”

We can increase the relevance of what we teach today’s students by involving students in what it is they want to learn. We can introduce the concept of student choice and interest into every curriculum. Highly skilled educators are able to align the interests of students with the curricular standards they have been assigned, regardless of the grade level or subject area they teach.

Solution # 3: Shift from failure as the worst thing that can happen to a student, to failure as a normal part of the learning process.

Failure is not the enemy; it is part of the learning process. Our current system, with its outsized emphasis on summative testing, impacts students from a very young age. This fear of failure changes attitudes towards the learning process itself and results in a wide range of student behaviors that reduce creativity and risk taking (DeCastella et. al., 2013; Michou, et. al., 2014).

To know how to think critically and problem solve is a core skill for the 21st century. Creativity is now at the top of Blooms’ taxonomy. Problem Solving is now one of the top occupational skills sought after by employers (Murphy, 2011). The good news is creativity is also a natural state for children. Children are born inquisitive; they are born without a fear of failure or creative anxiety. As Sir Ken Robinson says, “Children will naturally want to “give it a go” until they are taught not to take the risk.”

Solution #4: Shift the P-12 curriculum towards what is worth knowing in 2016 and beyond.

Our system must be able to assure that every student graduates with the skills necessary to accomplish what they are being ‘credentialed” to do. We are a credentialing society. We rely on the accuracy and the truthfulness of the credential itself, no matter what the field or occupational level. The high school diploma, our credential, must mean something to employers and the society at large.

Our system must be able to assure that every student graduates with the skills necessary for modern 21st century literacy: the ability to be fluent with technology, the ability to make cross cultural connections, the ability to work collectively, the ability to understand and synthesize multiple sources of information, and the ability to respond in an ethical manner to our complex environment (NCTE, 2013).

It will take the coordinated efforts of school leaders at every level to make the organizational shifts necessary to move our system from a mass production model to a mass customization model. Those shifts will not occur, however, until we realize the “Class of 2030” is not the “Class of 1930.”

Chris Colwell

Chris Colwell ( is associate professor and Chair of the Department of Education at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.



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