The documentary film “Two Million Minutes” highlights stark contrasts in the educational experiences, perspectives, and expectations of high school students in the United States, China, and India. The film’s title is derived from the mathematical statistic that following eighth grade graduation, students have approximately two million minutes to spend until they graduate from high school. While I have not yet seen the film, it appears to offer an evocative window into the very different worldviews of students in different nations facing vocational as well as life opportunities in our “flat world.” The film’s YouTube trailer gives a taste for its focus and main points.

The call for change in the largely static educational system of the United States is not new, of course. Some people point to the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” as a watershed moment when the issue of educational reform and change in the United States began to capture the attention of politicians as well as the general public on a broader scale. The need for a renewed focus on science, mathematics, and engineering received strong attention in the late 1950s and 1960s in the U.S. following the launch of Sputnik. Reformers like Holt, Dewey, Freire, and many others had made convincing cases for the cause of progressive educational reform before Sputnik or “Nation at Risk” become topics of dinner conversation in U.S. households and legislative halls, however. Most recently (this past weekend, in fact) a wide variety of educators from around the United States as well as other countries (attending in person as well as via virtual means) converged at the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy for the EduCon 2.0 Conference, to discuss (among other topics) the prospects for broad-based as well as localized educational reform in the United States. If you missed the conference (as I did) but still want to join in the learning and conversations, check out the UStream.TV videos posted on the EduConTV wiki page as well as the HitchHikr aggregated blog postings of attendees, both face-to-face and virtual.

I am interested in seeing the film “Two Million Minutes,” but hope it articulates a vision for educational reform which goes beyond the destructive and counter-productive rhetoric about higher standards, rigor, and accountability which has ushered in the age of NCLB in United States classrooms. As Dr. Alfie Kohn noted in this fantastic presentation about the ideas in his book, “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” tougher standards and traditional classrooms are NOT educational reforms needed in our 21st century schools. We DO need to explore and share the educational/workforce connection which is ignored or poorly understood by most U.S. policymakers today, but we do not need to encourage constituents to grab pitchforks and torches under a banner of “Back to Basics.” As Kohn eloquently observes, it is ridiculous to call for a “return” to basics, because in most schools, learners NEVER LEFT the basics.

I tried to visually represent this “gap” between the workforce skills our students need and the skills emphasized in classrooms focused on high-stakes testing in the following graphic used in my February 2006 TCEA presentation, “Cultivating Digital Literacy Through Blogging and Podcasting,” which touched on these issues:

Mutually Exclusive?

Mutually Exclusive?

The important question to ask, in this regard of course, is posed in the second graphic: How much overlap is there NOW in high-pressure, high-stakes classroom environments for the real world, digital literacy skills and higher order thinking skills required in the 21st century workforce? In many cases, the answer is “very little” or “none at all.”

Hopefully the film “Two Million Minutes” will encourage a progressive, forward looking, and truly research-based approach to educational reform like that espoused by Kohn and others. As Kohn says, we need to be focused on EXCELLENCE and inquiry, problem solving and process, much more than our classrooms today largely driven by the demands of educational constituents focused on simplistic and often meaningless outcomes like subjective grades and norm-referenced test scores.

One of the most important, tangible things which teachers can and ARE doing to advance this cause of progressive educational reform is SHOWING others what differentiated instruction and assessment LOOKS like and CAN look like. As Kohn observes, many parents don’t realize their children SHOULD have choices and alternatives to the fear-driven, worksheet-dominated educational experiences which were common for most students in the 20th century. Will Richardson is not alone in lamenting the LACK of transparency in the classrooms of his own children in public schools: I want Radio WillowWeb and the learning culture of Mabry Middle School under the leadership of Dr. Tim Tyson for my own children NOW in their public schools too, not in 20 years when our local school board finally “gets it.” While I want to see this change take place NOW, it can’t and won’t. It can and will advance incrementally, however, and each time students and teachers use web 2.0 tools to more transparently demonstrate their understanding of concepts, collaborate safely with others, and explore the boundaries of content creation, communication, and digital learning, a step is taken in the right direction. Our abilities to amplify and share these examples via blogs and other digital communication tools are unprecedented in human history. Holt, Freire, and Dewey didn’t have these tools. We do. That fact supports my abiding optimism for the cause of progressive educational reform in the 21st century.

Does “Two Million Minutes” merely offer a clarion call for “change, change, educational change at any cost” and call for “more of the same” when it comes to educational practices with bigger sticks and harsher punishments– or does it offer a truly compelling vision for 21st century educational reform which transcends the limitations and problems of factory style, 19th century learning? I don’t know. I won’t know till I see the film.

After I do, I’ll be sure to check in here and let you know what I discover!

Thanks to Dr. Bonnie Bracey Sutton for sharing about the “Two Million Minutes” documentary on the SITE blog, and Bob Sprankle for adding Alfie Kohn’s compelling book talk to his “Bit by Bit” podcast channel with his December 2007 post, “What We All Want.”

[tags]education school schoolreform reform change learning politics twomillionminutes site bonniebraceysutton bobsprankle[/tags]


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