Introduction

This Charter has been written by educational researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. It is a response to the momentous and turbulent changes of our time—a time when we need more education, everyone agrees, but as we will argue here, not more of the same.

We recognize the role education plays in providing a foundation for economic prosperity and social wellbeing. There is certainly an urgent need to revitalize the bricks and mortar infrastructure. There is also a need for additional teachers and better qualified teachers. However, more broadly and deeply, we need to create the human capital needed for America's economic growth and broader development in vastly different conditions to those of the twentieth century, when our schools of today were created and our teachers of today were trained. Our education system requires nothing less than a transformation if it is to serve our social and economic needs into the future.

The University of Illinois has a proud history of innovation in education—as the place where the world's first computer learning environment was created, where foundational approaches to mathematics, science and literacy teaching have been devised, and where the notion of ‘special education' was first developed. We stand in this tradition of bold but practical thinking. In this spirit, we want to propose a set of strategies for this critically important moment.

Dimensions of Change, and Our New Educational Responsibilities

Looking back at the sluggishness of educational reform and uneven performance of US education in recent decades, even if business continued as usual, we would face enormous challenges. However, we face today an unprecedented urgency to act, reflected in the scope of the recovery and investment agenda of the Obama Administration. This moment could be a decisive turning point and an unprecedented opportunity for education. Or it could be a moment which disappoints if institutional inertia and old habits of mind mean that we only do more of the same.

Whichever way we look, we see enormous challenges in areas of critical concern for our future. The seemingly stable pillars of our economic system, from Wall Street to Detroit, have suddenly shown themselves to be less sturdy than we had thought. We face a crisis of sustainability in the way we use the earth's natural resources, from transportation, to our food and water supplies, to industry, to our homes. New technologies profoundly disrupt old ways of working and modes of life, change that extends from the traditional culture and knowledge industries to our most intimate private and civic lives. Mass movements of people are crossing borders in search of work and a better life, movements which have accelerated in recent decades and show no signs of slowing down. The palpable forces of globalism challenge us to recognize threats and opportunities at the ends of the earth that are simultaneously local threats and opportunities. Human diversity becomes more insistent in every aspect of life, whether we are negotiating differences in our organizations, communities or nations. These are just a few of the deep practical challenges today's generations face and must address for the sake of future generations.

As educators, we are used to being responsive to such circumstances. In fact, we find ourselves adapting all the time. The challenges we face today, however, are so large that they demand more than an adaptive response. They require we take a role amongst and alongside society's leaders.

Why? Because knowledge and learning will be pivotal to the social and personal transformations required to address the peculiar challenges of our times. The transformed economic system emerging from the current crisis will require human capacities that only education can nurture, based on deep knowledge, practical imagination, creative participation, intellectual inquisitiveness and collaborative commitment—not just on the part of a knowledge elite whose members are deemed to be leaders, but of the many in the labor force and in the broader society. The ‘rescuing of the middle class' and extending opportunity to those marginalized by poverty and historic discrimination, over the longer run depends almost entirely on the education system, including the reduction of high school drop out rates, increasing access of children of the middle class to college, and lifelong learning programs in community colleges for adults who have been displaced by globalization. Emerging digital information technologies already invite, indeed even at times demand, greater participation than the knowledge systems and cultural environments of our recent past, blurring as they do the boundaries between authors and audiences, creators and consumers, knowledge makers and knowledge users. Immigration, globalism and diversity require that we nurture civic impulses based on new paradigms of self-governance for groups and, amongst individuals, mutual responsibility despite vast variations in life experience and sensibility.

Where better to begin realizing the momentous opportunities of our times than in and through our learning environments? This is a transformational moment that needs transformational education.

Education is a process of self-transformation which enables a person to negotiate the as-yet-indeterminate as well as the changes that must surely come. Historically, the simplest measure of personal transformation was intergenerational—succeeding generations doing better in economic or social terms than their predecessors. That fundamental role for education remains. In fact, it becomes all the more pressing in a time of economic turbulence and material distress.

As educators and in these times, it is also incumbent upon us to participate in transformations in our learners which are more than personal. Education is a laboratory of and for society. It is a ‘sandpit' for exploring the range of possible thoughts and actions. This is where its most profoundly transformational possibilities lie, and where its constructive potentials in this moment of deep disruption can most ambitiously and most pragmatically be deployed.

The distance between our heritage practices in schools and the everyday lives of our children and families is growing larger by the day. We cannot transform the lives of learners unless we also radically and urgently transform our own practices with in the existing institutions of education. We need to reconsider the basics—from who we are to what we do, where we do it and with whom. We need to go back to the drawing boards to re-examine the design and delivery of educational programs, the relations amongst ourselves and our communities, our assessment and research methodologies, and the relationships of educational inputs to learning outputs.

In response to these great challenges of our times, this Charter builds an inventory of practical things we can do. Its bias is towards emerging imperatives and new areas of action, because the things we do already and do well, we will surely continue to do.

Educators can and should, take a lead as we ...