Tony Gurr

Why we need more “Committed Sardines”…

In Educational Leadership, Our Schools on 04/10/2011 at 7:22 am

A couple of days ago I did a “lazy Sunday” post – but shared a poem from the guys at the 21st Century Fluency Project (Ian, Andrew and Lee). The poem clearly touched a nerve with many of you and showed me just how much we educators value allthingseducation – and “the need for change”.

If only our schools, colleges and universities were half as passionate!


Lee, Andrew and Ian have recently published their latest book – Literacy is Not Enough –and have kindly offered to share selected chapters of the book with you all. After I had posted the poem, I thought elements of Chapter 12 (the end of the book) would be the best to start their series of guest-posts for us.


We must immediately begin to rethink and reshape the current classroom learning experience. We must re-examine the way we teach, the way students learn, and the way we assess that learning. We acknowledge that this is a great challenge. What we are being asked to do is not like changing a small bad habit such as smoking or eating a bit too much chocolate or biting nails.

The challenge we’re facing in education at this time is that educators are being asked to reconsider our fundamental assumptions about how we teach, how students learn and how that learning should be assessed.

But when we’re challenged to rethink education, we’re not being asked just to change a few small behaviors or habits like how we spend our money, what we put into our bodies, or how we spend our time. What we are being asked to do here is reconsider some of the most fundamental, traditional, embedded parts of our life experiences and our habits of mind.

And that is the real challenge that educators face.

And yes, change is hard. Sometimes the challenge of change seems absolutely overwhelming. So where do we begin? How do we in education deal with a world of such fast-paced change? How do we deal with embedded traditional mindsets about teaching and learning and assessment? How do we deal with the digital generation?


Facing the Music

It may seem a bit selfish, but what we passionately believe is that this is not about us; it’s not about our issues; it’s not about our comfort zone. This is about our children and our hopes and our dreams and our prayers for their future. They may only be 20 percent of the population, but they are 100 percent of the future of our nation.

Put on a more visceral level, all of our pension plans depend on how well we prepare them. Three billion new people entered the world economy in the past ten years, and if even if only ten percent of them have skills and opportunity to compete with us, that’s still 300 million people—about twice the size of the entire U.S. workforce and twenty times the Canadian workforce.

In the work culture of the 21st Century, everything from the neck down is going to be minimum wage. Everything that can be automated, turned into hardware, turned into software, or outsourced or offshored will be. So we have a choice. Either our students and workers have high skills or they get low wages. And if they don’t get those 21st-century kills in our schools, where will they get them.

We hear complaints all the time that kids today are different, and that our schools aren’t what they used to be. Frankly, we believe the problem with our schools isn’t that they aren’t what they used to be. Culturally and socially they are different, but structurally, they are just like they were when students were released for 3 months in the summer so they could harvest the crops based on a European agricultural cycle from 150 years ago.

No, the problem is that our schools are what they used to be. So if we’re going to prepare our students for their future and not just our past, if we’re going to prepare them for their future and not just our comfort zone, we’re going to need new schools—and more than that, we need a new mindset. We need new schools for the new world that awaits them. We need schools that will prepare students for their future—for life ahead of them after they leave school—for the rest of their lives. We know this is hard, but as educators, we must understand that our job is not just to serve what is or has been. Our job is to shape what can, what might, what absolutely must be.

Once again, change is difficult, and it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the changes required. But this is normal. Little has ever been understood or achieved in one blinding flash of light. The process of change is messy and doesn’t happen overnight.

Honestly, in writing a book like Literacy is Not Enough, and in creating a project as large as the 21st Century Fluency Project, it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed, and we certainly do feel that from time to time. But when we do feel overwhelmed, there’s a place we like to go to decompress. That place is the Monterey Aquarium in Monterey, California. Some say it’s the world’s greatest aquarium.


The Joy of Whalewatching

A few years ago, Ian took his wife Nicky there for the first time. After they paid their fee, they walked inside. Immediately on their right was a gift shop that was playing a DVD about the blue whale, the largest and, at 190 decibels, the loudest mammal on earth—much louder than a person can shout (70 decibels) and louder than a jet (140 decibels). The video was full of amazing facts. The blue whale weighs more than a fully loaded 737. It is the length of 2 1/2 Greyhound buses put end to end and has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. It has blood vessels that a human adult could swim down, and a tongue 8 feet long that weighs 6000 lbs. One particularly amazing fact was that in its first year of life, a baby blue whale was estimated to gain 15 pounds an hour.

One other amazing fact caught their attention—a blue whale is so mammoth that when it swims in one direction and it decides it needs to turn around, it takes three to five minutes to complete the turn. There are a lot of people in our world who draw a strong parallel between the blue whale and the school system. And there are also a lot of people who believe that all the calls for charter schools and vouchers are being made by people who are wishing and hoping that we just won’t be able to turn public education around in time.

But if you walk past the video on the blue whale, turn to the left and walk about 50 yards down the way, you come to what we consider to be the absolute centerpiece of the Monterey Aquarium. It’s a 10 story, all-glass tank inside of which have been placed many of the creatures that are native to the Monterey Bay. If you’ve read ever John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, you’ll know that a century ago, twice a year, in the inner Monterey Bay, there used to appear—out of nowhere—schools of sardines that were the length, the width, and the depth of city blocks. These immense crowds of the tiny fish had the mass not of one, two, or three blue whales, but of rather thousands of them.

But there is a fundamental difference between the way a blue whale turns around and a school of sardines changes its direction. How do they do it? How do they know? Is it ESP? Is it Twitter? Are they using cellphones?

Because we were quite curious, we pressed our noses against the tank and looked at the gigantic school of sardines swimming around inside.

At first glance, it looked like all the sardines were swimming in the same direction. But when our eyes adjusted to light, we began to realize, slowly at first, that at any one time there would be a small group of sardines swimming in another direction. And when they did this, they inevitably caused conflict, discomfort, collisions, and stress to each other.

But finally, when a critical mass of truly committed sardines was reached—not 50 or 60 percent who wanted to change, but 10 to 15 percent who truly believed in change, you know what happened? The rest of the school turned and followed. And that’s exactly what has happened over the past few years with things like out attitudes toward smoking, our unwillingness to tolerate drinking and driving, or politicians who lie. It’s exactly what happened with regime change in the Middle East. Each and every one of them was an overnight success that was years in the making. Every one of them started with a small group of people who were willing to make the change despite the obstacles and resistance.

You All Need To Be Committed!

On the 21st Century Fluency Project website ( is our blog, which we call “The Committed Sardine Blog.” When we first started posting we had a vision of building a following and providing world-class books and free resources that would help to transform education to be relevant to life in the 21st-century. We had a trickle of subscribers, which has turned into a flood. Today we have tens of thousands of Committed Sardines in dozens of countries. The blog and resources have been accessed millions of times. Shortly it will expand into a personal learning network where you can create and share unit plans like the ones in this book.

So the big question is:

who amongst you is willing to become a Committed Sardine?


Who amongst you is willing to swim against the flow, against conventional wisdom, against our long-standing and traditional assumptions and practices in education and begin to move schools from where they are to where they need to be?

American anthropologist Maragret Mead put it this way:

  1. Reblogged this on allthingslearning and commented:
    Just wanted to re-blog this post – to wrap up Ian, Lee and Andrew’s series on 21st Century Fluencies. This was taken from the last chapter of their book – but I used it earlier on in the series.

    Thanks again, guys!


  2. […] The rationale behind creating digitally fluent individuals lays in the fact that no longer do we live in a solely print based world. In the workforce, education setting, home life and social context there is an expectation that individuals will be  technologically-savvy and literate.Committed sardines […]

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