ORONO – There is widespread agreement that Maine needs better education in order to have a qualified labor force to work smart and attract businesses that can thrive in the 21st century while providing more employment at higher wages.

A parallel need is for young citizens to be inoculated against indoctrination by sound bite as they participate in the “public square” where essential choices must be made to strengthen our democracy.

So what are the elements that produce better education?

A quick review of how education helped bring us to today might be illustrated by the way Paul Bunyan (a man with an ax and an ox) evolved into “American Loggers” on the Discovery Channel.

Imagine the numerous inventions and innovations that made this pathway, a road paved with “Yankee ingenuity” that countless individuals applied to problems they confronted in their work.

In the 1800s, schools offered literacy to some, but Paul went into the woods with no printed operating manual. He and his fellow workers invented ever more productive ways to convert standing trees into building materials.

The dawn of the 1900s brought forth the public high school intended to move masses of youth beyond literacy to be the skilled work force for the assembly lines of industry, and informed citizens of a democracy.

By the late 1900s we moved into the knowledge economy where information replaced “things” as the content of work. Repetitive tasks of the assembly line had been outsourced,

Now, in the 2000s, we need a work force that creates new knowledge and manipulates it to solve new problems. We must go “back to the future” to reinvigorate Yankee ingenuity.

Education for a creative economy will focus on process and on content.

The current fascination with video games discloses the power of challenging young minds.

Students are just as able to confront real-life problems of production and public decision-making, not just games. They will be turned on to learning, will not drop out, will be enticed by tackling real problems to pursue further, life-long learning.

Collaborative learning and problem-solving groups (engineering teams, health care teams, performing arts groups, athletic teams) are state-of-the-art in modern industry; computer networks allow team members to be anywhere in the world.

The recent campaign season demonstrated how important it is to go “back to the future” if democracy is to survive. Sandra Day O’Connor lamented the absence of civics in the curriculum with the result that voters have no understanding of “how a bill becomes a law.”

Now it is possible, using laptops and search engines, for any school to follow a bill through its legislative process. Teams of students can follow different bills as they encounter facts, opinions, political values, public needs, financial realities, lobbyists, compromises and, ultimately, voting in the legislature.

Such a “citizenship project” could be reported to the whole community as an antidote to oversimplified, 30-second sound bites offered by the media on the same bill.

The learning and teaching process has been truncated by assessing outcomes only by test scores.

Teachers at all levels know that helping students confront real life problems creates a spark. Growing gardens, service learning, writing software programs, constructing robots, serving internships, conducting original research: These are teaching practices for the 21st century.

Outcomes can be assessed by measuring motivation to engage in problem-solving and being a team player, as well as knowledge gained.

Better education for the 21st century will rekindle and reward Yankee ingenuity.