Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Education for the 21st Century: Mapping the Field of Forces That Shape Children's Lives

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Education for the 21st Century: Mapping the Field of Forces That Shape Children's Lives. Education Week, 32 (64)

This article addresses a broad and fundamental issue identified by the author: that we currently do not know precisely which forces influence the lives of children, and that we must know if we hope to increase the happiness of the next generation. He asserts that we need a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of the forces that “shape the hearts and minds of our children.” Most notably, he says quite strongly that the results of this survey must be tied to action.

Csikszentmihalyi goes on to suggest three steps for this survey and resulting action. First, “mapping the field of forces,” involves a top-to-bottom view of the conditions that influence young people, including everything from the family up to the media and the economy. The second step emerges from this study, and is quite simple: “choosing targets for research and intervention.” Csikszentmihalyi says “those interested in helping with this problem could select for further study one or more factors that may be amenable to change.” Finally, the third step is “diffusion and implementation of findings.” He says ““all too often, useful psychosocial research fails to be implemented because there is no connection between the generation of information and its application.”

Csikszentmihalyi then goes on to assert that ““the central purpose of educational policy should be to understand better the dynamics of happiness and to find ways to increase its occurrence in the lives of the next generation.”

This value of this article is in the way it connects the action research we are all already doing (since his three steps are really a bullet-point version of what our process will be like) to the creation of meaningful, deep change in the lives of young people. I found this both affirming and humbling, since he ascribes great power to educators who can genuinely identify what is best for young people. He reminds us of one of Plato’s greatest quotations, when Socrates says “the most important task of educators is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.”

Pleasure in the right things, indeed. Csikszentmihalyi says toward the end that “the most enjoyable experiences do, in fact, tend to come from the ‘right things.’ That is, from activities that require skill, concentration, involvement: the arts, sports, music, a well-designed science experiment, the solution of an intriguing math problem, a good conversation, a job well done. These are activities that lead to formative education, to personal growth, and to a lasting sense of happiness.” This sounds like great teaching. It sounds like the kind of teaching we can encourage through our action research. This sounds transformative and deep and rewarding, and if nothing else, this article confirms that my interest in Csikszentmihalyi’s research is indeed leading me down the right path.

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