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The wrong question

Schools need to encourage students to “opt-in” to controversial topics

Posted 10/7/20

It was all going so well, until… The Ely School Board candidate forum sponsored by the American Association of University Women and the Ely Rotary Club was everything the first presidential …

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The wrong question

Schools need to encourage students to “opt-in” to controversial topics

Posted

It was all going so well, until… The Ely School Board candidate forum sponsored by the American Association of University Women and the Ely Rotary Club was everything the first presidential “debate” was not. It was civil and informative, and none of the candidates gave viewers the slightest reason to turn away in dismay and disgust at their crude antics.
And refreshingly, on more than one occasion candidates admitted they needed to learn more before answering a question. Those were honest and good answers for people seeking to lead an enterprise devoted to teaching and learning.
Yes, it was all going so very well, and then they reached the final question:
“Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about policies that would allow parents to opt their students out of lessons that might be controversial such as climate change science, political discussions, sex education, and racial justice?”
The candidates all answered as one might suspect, supporting the central theme suggested that parents should be able to pick and choose what lessons their children participate in, while staying away from tackling any of the topics mentioned in the question.
They did the best they could with a question that should never have been asked, because at its root it is antithetical to the goals and needs of a 21st century education.
Using the word “controversial” to describe climate change science, political discussions, sex education, and racial justice is the wrong choice when talking about education. Instead, all these topics are “relevant” areas for study in the 21st century. That many consider them controversial only adds to their relevance for thoughtful, disciplined inquiry in educational settings.
At a time when society is as polarized as it has ever been and all one needs to know has been reduced to Facebook memes, schools shouldn’t be encouraging parents to pull their kids out of education around relevant topics; they should be finding ways to have them “opt in” by creating curriculum that is both educationally sound and responsive to concerns raised by parents and community members.
A titanic shift in the purpose of education has happened over the past two decades as districts, state departments of education, and the federal government have all embraced the notion that the role of schools is to prepare students for the world of work. Here’s Ely’s version of that:
“The policy of the school district is to establish the ‘world’s best workforce’ in which all learning in the school district should be directed and for which all school district learners should be held accountable.”
And it’s clear from employer surveys dating back to the 1980s that employers want more than readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic. While those are all essential skills, they don’t make any of the lists of the top skills employers say they want. So, what does?
21st century employers want people who have critical thinking skills, who can analyze and process information, who can communicate effectively and work in teams. “Old school” education doesn’t cut the mustard anymore, at least as far as employers are concerned.
In that context, those relevant topics with potentially controversial elements are precisely what students should be engaged with in their learning environments, in a manner that promotes critical thinking and analytical skills and teaches them how to talk with others when disagreements will occur. They’re going out into a work world where diverse teams are increasingly the norm and many of the challenges they will face haven’t even been imagined yet.
Disagreement of the kind we’ve seen in recent months from leaders in government to people on social media is inherently destructive, because there’s little constructive dialogue. “It’s my way or the highway” is no way to run a country effectively, particularly when it includes demonizing your opponents, something party extremists on both sides of the political spectrum do with regularity.
Yet any good employer will tell you that they welcome a certain level of disagreement on the job because it can make the organization better. Teams thrive best when there is a healthy level of creative dissonance. Those are skills kids can learn now by addressing timely, relevant topics in school with supportive educators to guide them.
So, let’s change that last forum question to one that’s more responsive to the current goal of education and the needs of our future 21st century workforce and citizens:
“Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for policies that would improve using relevant topics such as climate change science, political discussions, sex education, and racial justice for the teaching of essential workplace skills based on established state standards and informed by input from parents and the community?”
Yes, it’s a challenging and perhaps daunting proposal when passions run high, but underneath the controversies is a gold mine of possibilities for teaching the skills that will not only give students a leg up in the job market, but will also equip them to find a way through this political and societal logjam we’re mired in. We need future leaders who have chosen to “opt in” to being part of the solution. It’s up to our schools to teach them the skills to make that happen.

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