It seems that however well 21st Century education is explained the vast majority just do not understand what it’s about. It doesn’t matter that the roots of 21st Century education go all the way back to the ancient Greeks. It doesn’t matter that 21st Century education is not some new fad here in the United States. John Dewey was writing about this stuff during the beginning of the last century. Benjamin Bloom came out with his taxonomy some 50 years ago.
When it comes to talking about 21st Century education I know all about it. But am I really there, or am I still a product of my 20th Century education? I discovered the answer to this question when my daughter invited my wife and me over to her house for a family dinner of macaroni and cheese. When the oven door opened and I saw my daughter’s macaroni and cheese I had a macaroni and cheese epiphany! Even though we are a decade into the 21st Century, parts of my brain still dramatically reflect my 20th Century education. This revelation will take a little explaining.
I learned to make macaroni and cheese in the same way I learned almost everything in school. The teacher, in this case it was my mother, told me exactly how to make macaroni and cheese. The recipe from the Betty Crocker’s Cookbook was followed to the letter. My macaroni and cheese turned out exactly like my mother’s and probably exactly like the millions of others who believed that the Betty Crocker’s Cookbook was the bible of cooking. It certainly worked for me. Meatloaf, enchiladas, and most of the recipes I used throughout college came directly from this one source. I never though about why they tasted they way they tasted. It never occurred to me that there might be other ways to make these recipes. The pages of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook held the truth. That’s all I needed to know.
School offered the same type of education as my mother. Beginning with Dick and Jane we went from one standardized text to the next. There was one math series with one way of doing division. There was one social studies series with one interpretation of history. The spelling books contained only the words someone determined we all needed to spell. The readers contained the stories we all needed to read. And the standardized tests – they neatly tested all we learned in the standardized curriculum.
In college I began to learn there were other ways to teach and learn, but it was not until I had a grown daughter that macaroni and cheese enlightenment came to me. The problem stems from one instruction in the Betty Crocker’s Cookbook recipe. It is still there to this day. The Internet version reads, “Pour into ungreased 2-quart casserole.” You see, we are a family that loves that wonderful crispy crust that forms over the top during the baking process. For years we watched each other to make sure no one skimmed too much crust. We would spoon vertically so the crusty and non-crusty macaroni and cheese were evenly distributed among us. When the children were especially good we would give them extra crust. After dinner my wife and I would take the casserole into the kitchen and scrape the crusty bits off the side of the casserole while bemoaning our sacrifice to our children.
After many years of dealing with the shortage of crust the fateful evening came when our daughter invited us to dinner with her husband and our two grandchildren. The main course was macaroni and cheese. We waited in anticipation as she removed the main course from the oven. Her macaroni and cheese was not in a casserole pan. It was in a glass cake pan. The pan was long and wide and flat with tons of crust. There was enough crust to satisfy everyone. Why didn’t we think of that? Change the shape of the pan. This simple solution solved a problem that had been haunting us for years. Our daughter could not believe we have never thought of this obvious solution.
My education both at home and at school was by the book. Critical thinking and problem solving were not part of the curriculum. Even though I am an advocate of these essential 21st Century skills I realize that I do not always use these skills. Old habits die hard.
This made me wonder. How would a teacher with 21st Century orientation present a lesson on making macaroni and cheese in today’s classroom? She would likely begin with an essential question. What is it about macaroni and cheese that makes it such a wonderful food? This is a great question because it focuses the lesson without presupposing a single correct answer. Is it the crust? Is it the kind of cheese? Maybe it’s the pasta; seashells or elbow? What’s better, homemade or store-bought?
Research will be needed. Polls, interviews, discussions and debates will surely follow. Recipes and commercial products will need to be tested. Is there a perfect macaroni and cheese, or is it a matter of preference? Which is the healthiest? Which is the greenest? Do we care? Was that blue cheese recipe a breakthrough or a disaster? Why isn’t studying the Great Depression or Jane Eyre this much fun? They can be. We just need to find the right recipe.