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What 21st Century Schools Can Learn From 24

Despite numerous accolades and killer ratings, I’d somehow missed the TV counter-terrorist boat. As of last summer, I’d sailed straight past the first six seasons of 24. Thanks to iTunes, I’ve been catching up, downloading season after thrilling season. Preposterous plotlines and torturous interrogations aside, 24 is highly entertaining and a pure adrenaline rush. Admit it, you’ve watched!

There are TV shows I want to keep watching, like The Office and Lost. But then there are TV shows I need to keep watching, shows like The Wire. Shows which are deeply gripping because they speak to big themes in compelling ways. So I was puzzled when 24 made the leap into my “need to watch” pantheon.

I pondered why I felt compelled to watch back-to-back-to-back episodes on my iPod? Did I secretly want to be a government agent? Was I amused by Kiefer’s comeback? Was it the “beep … BEEP … beep … BEEP” cadence that leads gasping viewers to commercials?

Upon reflection, I realize that as a principal of a tech-savvy, high-needs school, I can actually relate to Jack Bauer. Not because a work day involves espionage, violence and chaos. Okay, there is some chaos from time to time. Yet the real ah-hah moment was when I realized that Jack and his colleagues work in smart, effective ways that we can relate to at CIS 339. I truly believe that 21st century schools can learn lots from 24.


Here are some examples of quality practice employed by 24’s Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU):

1. CTU uses cross-functional teams with experts who specialize.

Counter-terrorist operations are carried out by folks with discrete expertise. They have a focused point person making key decisions, but there are also key role players. They have communications experts, weapons pros and scientists. When there’s an injury, a top-notch physician knows what to do in the medical area. Field teams assemble and deploy precisely. Everyone works together, and everyone knows their jobs. As important, everyone knows each other’s jobs and when to ask them for help. When Jack tells Chloe to rearrange the specs for the operation and uplink them to all of the field agents, he’s showing great delegation skills. He also is demonstrating his comfort with his teammates having the answers.

2. CTU enjoys state-of-the-art technology and impressive tech support.

You’ll never hear someone at CTU say “the Internet is down” or “how do you turn this thing on?” They have the coolest gadgets, toys and equipment–and they know how and when to deploy their tech tools. It seems like they only hire the best candidates from a Cal Tech / MIT short list. For CTU, technology isn’t just anoption, it’s the option. Can you imagine Edgar saying, “Jack, I’ve decided that we’re going to track the cannisters of chemical gas using US mail”? Neither can I. We would never tolerate our government agencies saying “enough with techhnology! We’re just going with pen and paper this year.” So why would we ever allow our schools to ‘decide’ whether to integrate technology?

3. CTU values real-time transparency.

CTU agents share the same terminology at the workplace. They use consistent language and they collaborate using real-time information. When Tony Almeida barks “Send the schematic of the power plant to my screen now!” you know that a) he means business and b) transparency is an important value. When Jack doesn’t have video surveilance working , he instructs Chloe to upload satellite still images to his PDA every 15 seconds. This is excellent real-time intformation sharing in practice. Schools need to do a better job with this, and current tools that exist in Google Apps (as an example) make this possible.

4. CTU agents over-communicate.

Many jokes have been made about the duration of Jack Bauer’s cell phone battery. Clearly, 24 serves as product placement for whatever model he’s saving democracy with. However, the bigger picture is that Jack and his CTU friends are modeling the practice of “over-communicating.” They spell out exactly what they need from each other, providing rationales and details. Sure, we know why Jack is asking for stuff–we saw the last scene. But the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t. And when you’re saving the world, you can’t leave anything to chance. At schools, information sharing is critical, and all too often, over-communication is rare.


Whether CTU agents utilize cutting-edge technology or real-time information sharing, they aren’t just saving America. They’re offering up some serious models for how we can make school teams faster and smarter, as we make our work even more transparent. I’m betting that schools which employ these techniques will quickly join 24 on “need to watch” lists.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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