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The Transformer: Interview With Ken Kay

Category: Museum Magazine
Headshot of Ken Kay with the words "The Transformer" under it.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2011 edition of the Museum magazine.

Ken Kay has spent more than 25 years bringing together the education, business, and policy communities to improve U.S. competitiveness. As president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and CEO of the e-Luminate Group, he helped create the framework that the Institute of Museum and Library Services adapted as a self-assessment tool for the museum field. Now CEO of Edleader21, Kay heads a group of school superintendents and other leaders committed to implementing 21 st-century education strategies. Elizabeth Merritt, director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, invited Kay to elaborate on how teaching and learning may change in the years ahead and what that means for museums. Kay was a Thought Leader at the 2011 AAM Annual Meeting in Houston.

Human civilization has been around in one form or another for about 15,000 years, and formal education has arguably existed for at least a couple thousand. What’s different about the world now that calls for a revolution in how and what we teach?

At least two major changes come to mind. One is the nature of work. As you move from an agrarian to a manufacturing to a knowledge economy, one of the requirements of education is to help people be productive. The way you prepared people for the agrarian economy is not the way you prepare people for the manufacturing economy or for the knowledge economy-what some of us would now call the creative economy. That’s a huge shift. Then there is what’s required of citizenship. I think over time what citizens need to be able to do and know has shifted dramatically. Some of that is due to the complexity of problems. Some of that is the nature of technology and the ways in which one does or doesn’t participate, but also, the nature of democracy is changing. People way back when didn’t live in a California with 33 referendums on their ballot that they needed to be able to sort through. Now there are all kinds of participatory democracy. There are also much more complex social problems that average citizens need to be able to develop opinions about.

I’m glad you brought up the issue of educating an informed citizenry, because so much of what I’ve read about 21st century skills focuses on the workforce. Are there differences in how you teach workforce skills and the skills needed to be a well-educated, well -rounded citizen? Or do they overlap?

When we started the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which I ran for eight years, we really did start with the question, “What do young people need to be successful in the new global economy?” Then we realized that we needed to step back and look at the issue of citizenship. We took the skills that we had gleaned from the business community and asked people who were experts in citizenship, in not-for-profit work, “What are you looking for in your institutions?” It turned out that the primary findings we had from the for-profit side were virtually the same on the not-for-profit or citizenship side. Let me give you an example. The top feedback that came out from the business community was: We need problem solvers, effective communicators, effective collaborators, and people who can innovate and improve. If you think about the kind of citizen you would like to have in the 21st century, wouldn’t they be problem-solvers? Wouldn’t they be effective communicators and collaborators? Wouldn’t they be
innovative? The answer is yes. So unlike some other workforce projects in which people were looking for very specific skills to prepare you for the energy industry or the telecom industry, the outcomes that we developed, particularly the ones we emphasize today-which we refer to as the Four C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity-are equally applicable to citizenship as they are to the workforce.

Are there 20th-century skills that are now obsolete or irrelevant that need to be dropped from the curriculum to make room for 21st-century skills? For example, the ability to memorize vast amounts of text so you can recite pieces of the Iliad.

A student today still needs to know how to master information. You need to demonstrate mastery of the content of your field. But it used to be assumed that what somebody taught me in high school was most of what I was going to need to know in the course of my career. Today, the amount of technical information in the world is doubling every 24 months. By 2020 the amount of technical information in the world will be doubling every 72 days. In that context, it’s very clear that what we can’t, in high school, teach you what you need to know. You need to be taught how to master content and to have some general conceptual frame. But we don’t need you to memorize all of the content of a field by the time you’re 18 because that field is going to flip three, four, five, six times during your lifetime.

You are also going to flip careers three or four times. So unlike in my day when somebody said, “If you master math, science, English and social studies, we’ll give you a job or a career for 30 to 40 years,” now we give you a job for five to 10 years and then you switch into another field. The coin of the realm today is very different than in the manufacturing world of the ’50s, and that coin is now change. Are our institutions really preparing our workforce and our citizens for a world of constant change-of content, of challenges, and of the way things are received and delivered? That’s a hugely changing mosaic that we have to have our institutions address. Educational institutions and museums are two kinds of institutions that have been the most resistant to change. The question is, Are they going to be the keepers of “nonchange”? Or are they going to be institutions that help citizens and workers cope? For some institutions it’s going to be both. Some institutions are going to hang on to their content and space and artifacts because they take the position that the world is changing so fast, and if we don’t do it nobody else will. But if all educational institutions and museums take that attitude, there are not going to be enough institutions helping the workforce and citizens develop the new skill sets they need to be successful.

If you talk to museum educators as a group, they would say that they’re being very progressive in terms of pioneering informal education methods that do many of the things you’re talking about-stimulating curiosity and creativity and being about process rather than content. What do you think are museums’ strengths and opportunities in teaching 21st-century skills? It sounds from your last statement like you think they’re doing a pretty bad job right now.

I think far too many museums see their role as limited to the field trip where you co~e for a day and have a great experience. I don’t want to put all of the blame on museums, because I think K-12 education is not a particularly good partner, either. But when I look out 25 or 30 years I’d like to see very, very different landscapes of how museums and K-12 education are working together in very innovative ways. I do see glimpses of that landscape, but it’s the exception, not the rule.

There isn’t a classroom in America that wouldn’t benefit from exhibitions and curation as a platform for project based learning. There’s a huge amount that the exhibition museum community could give to the education community about how not just the curator but the whole team puts together an exhibition. And students could use that as a platform for their own much more dynamic thinking about how to present material that they’re interested in. So every student, by the time they graduate high school, could have been an exhibition expert and a curator.

Another idea revolves around the notion of digital history of a community. There are hundreds of examples of this around the country but none as comprehensive as I have in mind. Imagine every community in the United States beginning the process of collecting a digital history of their community in a comprehensive way. A lot of us are worried that this generation of 70-and 80-year-olds are dying without having recorded their memories of the community. We’ve just lost the last 10 years, I think, without much of it being recorded. This is a project that could involve our young people recording our older people. Every high-school senior could be doing a digital history of an important aspect of the community. We’re missing the opportunity to use our young people in school as major collectors and contributors.

There isn’t a classroom in America that wouldn’t benefit from exhibitions and curation as a platform for project-based learning. What would happen if museums and other institutions actually created a “city as high school campus”?

What do you think the educational landscape might look like in 25 years? Do you see students trooping into a classroom grouped by age and being instructed by a teacher and tested on standardized content?

I think things will have to be fundamentally different, and you can see it in some schools already. For example, there are schools where kids aren’t sitting in rows-they’re in teams of four, six or eight students. They’re not scheduled in blocks of so minutes they’re in blocks of two hours. They’re not getting straight lectures- they’re working on problems and challenges, much of it in teams, working collaboratively. There are hundreds of schools in the country that are doing that but, I think, it’s just the front wave of what education needs to look like. In general, we are not engaging our students in ways that are appropriate to their imaginations and their own challenges.

Take math, for example. I was at an inner-city school in Providence, R.I., a very innovative school that’s teaching students in very poor neighborhoods by giving them jobs for half a week and then teaching them academics around those jobs. A student took me into a closet in the school and showed me 1,000 bottles. He said, “A lot of us work at businesses in the community, but I work at a business run by the school- a local bottling and distribution company- and I’m the director of sales and marketing.” About an hour later, talking in the lunchroom with six students, they were all saying, “The school’s fabulous, we love the school.” And I asked them, what’s not working at the school? This same kid said to me, “”m not getting enough math! I’m the director of sales and marketing and they’re not teaching me the math I need to know to do my job.” Two or three other kids at the table said, “Yeah, yeah, we don’t get enough math either.” So later I walked into the principal’s office and said, “You know, I just met the first three kids in America who think they’re not getting enough math. So you’re doing something right. But what’s going on?” He said, “The people we can get to teach math don’t want to teach spreadsheets, or balancing business accounts, or profit-and-loss statements.” I said, “But the tragedy is that’s what kids are interested in. That’s the context in which they’re dying to know math and we’re not doing it. You’ve got to go out in the community and find some accountants who will work with these kids in the context of this work that they want to do.”

Part of what we’re going to have to do is to create contexts that are much more interesting to kids. I don’t think the current disconnect between adults’ and students’ perceptions of what’s relevant and important is going to stand. And when it comes to context, museums have a huge amount to offer, quite frankly, because the work is inherently interesting. One of the most interesting projects I’ve seen asks students to create an exhibit around the Civil War, rather than just reading about the Civil War. And the process of curating an exhibition requires a wonderful set of skills that involves critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity- exactly the skills I articulated earlier.

One of my predictions for the future is that we will see the end of 12th grade or certainly the last half of 12th grade. If you go to any high school in America now, that time period is close to irrelevant. Kids are wasting half a year of their lives doing very little. What would happen if the museums and the other great institutions of each city took responsibility for actually creating a “city as high school campus”? So that, either for your senior year or certainly for the second half of your senior year, you weren’t in this isolated building that arbitrarily is called the school. You might spend a month at the local art museum or at the local library. You might spend a half-a-year working at the city planning office helping your city on a strategic plan. I’ve given this talk on “city as high school” where I asked people to list their eight favorite institutions in the city and think about whether or not those institutions in the K-12 system could jointly offer a new conception of what high school or at least a part of high school could look like. I did that in Montana, and one of the people got up and said, “Well, my goodness, our local airport authority would be a great place.” I said, “Airport authority?” “Well, yes·, they’re writing a regional plan for the area and they could use rs seniors to help them think through what the future of Helena is going to look like relative to transportation.”
There isn’t a senior in America who couldn’t be part of that project in their local community. We’re dramatically underutilizing our students as a resource. And we’re dramatically underutilizing our institutions as a resource. I think these museums have huge underutilized capabilities to be part of a very engaged educational strategy.

I see a similarity to the tension between autonomy and accountability for teachers, and tensions about curation in the museum field. Maybe the kinds of people who will choose to be curators or teachers in the future will be different from the people who went into these professions in the 20th century. How would you describe the role of the 21st-century teacher? And how might someone assess whether they’re well suited to that role?

Most teachers didn’t go into the teaching profession because it was a cauldron of change. That’s just the nature of the profession and the nature of the people who were attracted to the profession. The one thing that the teaching profession did do that was particularly wonderful is it attracted people who care deeply about kids and want to do the right thing by them. What I’ve been saying is look, for those of you who have been in the teaching profession a long time, the idea of being in a cauldron of change is not what motivated you to go into the profession. But here’s the deal: Your kids desperately need models of change. And you are in a position to meet the change to keep your craft and your pedagogy up with the changing times. So one of the ways to think about where we need to go as teachers and as museums professionals, at least as part of our portfolios, is to be models of change. That’s what we need to be demonstrating to citizens and workers: How do you responsibly accommodate change? How do you make the transition from a 20th-century schoolhouse to a 21st-century schoolhouse?

Think about it this way: What if every school and museum were purposeful and intentional in thinking about ways of making the transition to the 21st century? What if they model for their kids, their citizens, their customers, the continuous improvement that those people need to show in their own lives? Some teachers are saying “that’s not my job.” Well, to the teaching community I can easily say your gift to your kids now is that you are actually going to undertake the transition, not only because your schools need it, but because your kids need that modeling. So one way to describe the new teaching profession is, Are you going to be a practitioner of continuous improvement? Are you going to see your craft as needing to continually get better?

Education and museums have been two of the institutions that have been both resistant to and effective in fighting off change longer than others. Their collective gift back to young people could be modeling continuous improvement in response to change. That’s going to be a sea change for a lot of people in the profession.


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