Airplanes and Education

Posted by on Mar 6, 2010

A couple things ran through my mind today as I flew into San Antonio for the 2010 ASCD conference.  Both related to education.

On the trip, I started reading 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel.  Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of the name.  I don’t necessarily like it, but I do get it.  While these skills have absolutely been a requisite part of our society and learning for many centuries, and they aren’t unto themselves new skills by any means, there is a new context in which we should be engaging them.  I agree with that.  Emphatically.

It seems over the past decade, our education system has temporarily lost the use of its mind.  We went from focusing on a more complete education of our youth to a finite focus on basic skills.  And we ramped up the testing and the accountability for those very specific skills, and we left many important things behind as a result.  Now the focus of many instructional programs is on test preparation.  And the majority of those skills apply very narrowly to the experience of taking a standardized test and can then be discarded by students once they are done with that two week window.  We do this at the cost of creativity, innovation, collaboration, problem solving, and other important lessons students should be learning about being a part of a democracy.

Frankly, it’s tough to watch.

And the watching led me to my second thought.  Airplanes.

What is it that airplanes are designed to do?  Really designed as their most core function?  Fly.  Take hundreds of people up thousands of feet in the air and fly them over the earth at mind numbing speed.  Transport us across the country in a matter of hours rather than months.  They are truly amazing, and though that word has been prone to overuse in our society, in this context I believe it is a perfect descriptor.

But what must an airplane also be able to do as a necessary utilitarian function?  Drive.  On the ground.  I was struck with this thought as I looked out the window when taxiing at the airport.  The comedy of it.  Looking out and seeing these incredibly elegant flying marvels of science lumbering around the holding grounds.  All that ingenious design and the power of jet propulsion being used to move along the ground at the speed you or I could match on our bicycle.

And that’s when I realized what we’ve been doing this past decade.  We’ve taken the airplanes and tried to make them cars.  We’ve told our students the most important part of what they learn is the utilitarian function of powering down all their potential to crawl around the ground.  There’s a reason we don’t use airplanes to commute to work on our highways.  The basic functioning of driving on the ground is such a minute part of what makes an airplane so powerful.

But that’s what we’re doing with our students.  We’re leaving behind the best part of what they could be doing with their education.  Forgive the Lifetime Original feel-good movie of the week payoff at the end here, but I have to.  We aren’t letting our kids fly.  We’re keeping them grounded and using metrics to measure how well they taxi as airplanes rather than how well they could be flying.

Though I still don’t care much for the name, I really do hope that we will find ways to begin moving our focus, conversations, and effort to the 21st Century Skills approach to learning.  Remember that there’s a whole lot more that we could be having our students do.

This quote is listed at the beginning of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in our Times.  Will it every come to pass?  I don’t know.  But I certainly can hope.

“I’m calling on our nation’s governor’s and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.”  -President Barack Obama

I think it’s time we start getting education off the ground.

*Cross posted at Tech & Learning Advisor blog.

Thanks to Drewski2112 for the use of the Flickr image.


  1. Andy Coverdale
    March 9, 2010

    Nice analogy and sentiments. Perhaps we still need to guide students – even in flight, planes are channelled along air corridors?

  2. Catrien Ross
    March 10, 2010

    Ben, I am new here and deeply appreciate your Airplanes and Education post. Thank you for your powerful statement, “We’ve told our students the most important part of what they learn is the utilitarian function of powering down all their potential to crawl around the ground.” I live in Japan, and have first-hand experience with the university and school systems here, as well as the results in society. I have been away from the US for many years (and from Europe even longer), and have just emerged from 15 years of living in the mountains in Japan to engage again in writing/teaching/social entrepreneurism/change. Last summer I established my small publishing company at the foot of Mount Fuji, and started my first website/blog. The way the world has engaged education has resulted in the situation I describe in my latest blog post – the continued blasting to bits of Mount Fuji. Please visit if you can – the comments section has yielded some powerfully expressed emotions and insights. I am very impressed with your website and look forward to sharing perspectives from this part of the world. Thank you – Catrien Ross.

  3. Heather Mason
    March 30, 2010

    Love this post. I talk about testing not just from the standpoint of a teacher, but also as a parent. My daughter is going to start public school next year, and for the first time, I wonder if public school is really the best option for the very reason you write about in this post. She is artistic and intelligent. She is curious and compassionate. She wants to succeed. I have no doubt that in three years, she will perform well on the tests. To use your analogy, she will drive very well.

    But I want her to fly. Sigh…

  4. Ben Grey
    April 1, 2010

    Heather- That’s exactly what I fear for my own son. I want him to be part of the public education system, but I don’t want that to come at the cost of permanently grounding him.


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