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Are Our Schools Ready For the Future?

It’s a tough question… but the answer is easy, it’s “no”. The reason the question is tough is because schools, their design and purpose, has been the same since their arrival on the scene at the end of the enlightenment and the dawn of the modern industrial age. They are designed like a factory or fast food line and the goal is to create workers. The reason the answer is easy is because the world our schools came from and the world that exists today is not the world that students starting grade 1 now will work in when they graduate university, or the world they’ll be students in by the time they reach 5th grade. So, two things have to change from my perspective: the design and the goal. Preparing kids for the 21st century they will live and retire in cannot be accomplished within a system designed in and for a century that has passed.

Schools were created to fulfill the needs of an industrializing world. Mechanization and factory production were taking over industry and economies and no longer could education be solely the luxury of the upper classes since modern methods of production and economic exchange meant that children could no longer learn all they needed to know about the world simply by following their parents’ examples. New methods of communication such as the use of the mass printed word, coupled with new inventions, occupations, the advent of social mobility, and a whole host of changes that we accept as normal were then new and required ever growing populations to be actively engaged in the enterprise they produced. In short, something had to be done, which resulted in formal public education so kids could grow up and participate in the world unfolding around them.

So, where did the inventors of school look for inspiration? To the industrial model, of course. What better way to prepare students for a life in a modern industrial economy than to make the new institution that would get them there in the image of industrial production and efficiency, the factory? At its geneses, the modern school system that we all take for granted, was essentially the production line model of education. We divided students based on age because that was convenient for school administration; we chose math and the sciences as our core subjects because that is what the then modern world needed; we designed tests so the quality of the product could be assured and grades attached to show the consumer which product, oops, I mean “child” was manufactured the best; we made decisions based on what was most efficient and what was the most productive; and in the end we paged them into years and awarded certificates of inspection. All so parents, tax payers, and governments would know and rest assured that there were enough round pegs to be fit into the available round holes in the society industrialization had created.

The problem is: round holes are getting scarce and every few years there’s a new shape out there that our students won’t fit into. This realization has lead to fits of reform over the years as changes increase in frequency. Now we are finally realizing that the way things were yesterday are far behind where we find ourselves today and the tomorrow that is nearly here has become almost unimaginable. Our goal remains the same though, to produce workers, pegs for the unknown holes that will lead us further along the road of never ending economic prosperity.

Efforts at Reform

So what has been done over the years to change public education and why? The short answer is “reformation”, and the reason is to make better worker bees. No one has challenged the entire system. As our economies changed and as our societies found new social ills to focus on, educational reform has been seen as the only answer.

Larry Cuban, in “Computers Meet Classroom: Classroom Wins” (1993), lays out the history of reform quite clearly. From the effort in the American school system to use public education before WW2 to make education a tool by which immigrants could be successfully turned into “Americans”, to the post war era that sought to improve students’ academic performance, and arriving the 80’s and 90’s at a stage where educators, politicians, and business promoted the idea of technological driven change they saw in society and economy at large could be harnessed to make education more efficient, e.g. producing better ‘products’ in less time, we see that no one, including the author of this article, had ever stopped to think about fundamentally changing the structure of our schools and their aims.

In regards to technological innovation that was changing so many aspects of business and people’s working lives, the first aim was “to bring schools technologically in step with the work place because of the fear that students will be unprepared both to compete in the job market and to adjust to the changing marketplace” (Cuban, 1993). The second target of reform was more student centered and sought to make schools into places where “self-directed learning communities” would flourish (Cuban, 1993). Unfortunately, the old 19th century industrial age focus on math and sciences with the addition of “technology” as an area to apply these subjects. The third focus of reformation efforts concerns productivity. It is an effort to make teaching more productive and efficient, as the author notes is a highly prized historic value of educational systems (Cuban, 1993), making plain to all that little has changed since the first public schools were invented and that the success of educational systems can only be evaluated in regards to future economic output of the society they exist in.

In addressing how a reformation of the school system can be done, all theories presented follow the main theme of an assembly line moving to automation with computers solving problems of inefficiency and presenting better widget to the world  ready to take their place as a peg that fits snugly in the new hole our economies have created. Cuban (1993), when addressing likely scenarios, does hit the nail on the head regarding people’s perceptions of education as a reason why reforms over the years have largely failed to produce the results people wanted and expected, mainly, the preconceived notions and cultural beliefs about what education is, and the structure of our schools (Cuban, 1993). People believe that “teaching is telling, learning is listening, knowledge is subject matter taught in books, and [that] the teacher –student relationship is crucial to any learning” situation (Cuban, 1993). Secondly, the more than a century old reality that schools should be age graded, with curriculum divided into subjects, teachers and their students separated from each other in self contained classrooms, and all the other things that we associate with the factory based model of public schools interfere with the efforts of reformers trying to prepare students for the technologically dominated world we now find ourselves in. Neither Cuban nor any of the reformer movements he mentions, ever question the necessity of our beliefs or of the school system they produce…

Revolution!?

The failure of reform is likely due to this lack of reflection on the organizational principles and basis of public education systems. Sir Ken Robinson in his video “Changing education paradigms” (2010) lays it out quite clearly.

 

 

When it comes to 21st Century Skills, Mark Warschauer in “The paradoxical future of digital learning” (2006) gets it right. Simply, “literacy”. Not the new fangled technologically driven catchphrase ridden jumble of skills I listed, just “literacy”. Plain old 19th Century Literacy. In relation to the modern era he focuses on “Information Literacy” and “Multimedia Literacy” being the two most important modern applications of educating people to read. The mainstays that education needs to address to ensure that today’s youth can operate in tomorrow’s world.

Information Literacy: “refers to the ability to define what sorts of information are needed; locate the needed information efficiently; evaluate information and its sources critically; incorporate selected information into one’s own knowledge base; understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information; and access and use information ethically and legally.” (Warschauer 2006; American Library Association, 2000)

Multimedia Literacy: “refers to the ability to interpret, design, and create content that makes use of images, photographs, video, animation, music, sounds, text, and typography. [It] includes an understanding of frame composition; color palette; audio, image, and video editing techniques; sound-text-image relations; the effects of typography; transitional effects, navigation and interface construction; and generic conventions of diverse media.” (Warschauer 2006; Daley 2003)

Warschauer recognizes that these new 21st Century Literacies are not making good ol’ fashioned literacy obsolete, but they actually increase the value of basic reading and writing skills people have been taught since the advent of Guttenberg’s printing press (Warschauer, 2006).  Research has shown that the greatest impediment to young people becoming competent in the literacies required of our technologically infested world is the lack in basic reading and writing abilities. Lack of these abilities limits or prevents students from making use of the internet as a tool to find and use information (Warschauer, 2006). Much research has been done on inequality of access to computers and the internet and lack of funding for schools catering to lower socioeconomic status students as the primary reason poorer kids learn less, perform worse, and end up in lower paying jobs and enjoy a lower standard of living later in life (Warschauer, 2006), but at the very basic level, kids from poorer backgrounds are just not being taught to read. So in looking to reforming or revolutionizing our school systems, rather than simply looking at technology being added to classroom and the home, educators need to take a long hard look at their educational practices in regards to foundational skills such as reading and find ways to encourage students to be critical of what they consume and come to their own conclusions.

In attempting to set up a learning environment that encourages kids to actively interact with subject matter and form their own beliefs, some methods are better than others. While educational reform in the 80’s and 90’s sought to use technology to remove the teacher from the equation (Cuban, 1993), Warschauer (2006) presents research that shows some of the simple notion of some early reform efforts that saw greater student autonomy (Cuban, 1993) as a desirable goal in and of itself; that students need to be free to make up their own minds, is ineffective and that teachers remain an integral part of student lead learning experiences. Teachers need to explicitly teach the basic skills and knowledge students need to form their own conclusions. Teachers need to be mentors, be an active part of the discovery and learning process, especially at the initial stages of instruction. If simply given new hardware to play with in the classroom or at home, students fail to use it in ways that help them learn anything. They don’t participate in the learning program as designed and get side tracked by other things that interest them like sports, gossip, video games, etc. (Warschauer, 2006).

All That Tech

So what about all that hardware; the interactive whiteboards, computers, computer labs, printers, internet access, projectors, screens, tablets and  host of other tools bought and brought into our modern classrooms? It has been proven (Cuban, 1993) that simply providing a budget for hardware and dumping all these things into classrooms doesn’t produce students that can use them or environments where learning is taking place (Warschauer, 2006), so, is it worth the money/effort? From my experience the answer is a resounding and definitive “maybe”. Why “maybe”? Well, what I have seen here in China, in public schools back home in Canada, and in technology companies that promote educational technology in the classroom is a significant lack of knowledge on the part of teaching staff of how to use it effectively and a dearth of software solutions available to educators who want to use it effectively. This has led me to the conclusion that hardware is the easy part. Make a budget, buy a bunch of tech, install it in the room and forget about it. The hard part is actually using it to promote learning. This is why, as with use of film and audio in previous generations (Cuban, 1993), most fancy new tech in the classrooms are expensive dust collectors.

The fact is, the producers and promoters of hardware are not teachers, and that when a tech company does come up with easy to use software solutions like Promethean did with ActivInspire for its IWB products, teachers lack the computer skills to make use of it. In short, teachers lack Multimedia Literacy. Their education programs at our university did not prepare them to teach in the world technology has helped to create. In short, they lack the skills that 21st Century educational reform programs are eager to promote. I believe this to be a bigger stumbling block to the successful education of today’s youth for tomorrow’s world than anything else.

Are teachers part of the problem? In some ways, yes.

One leading cause of teachers being unwilling to try new things, explore software, learn to write new software, and to integrate technology into the learning experiences they provide to students is that they are… wait for it… ADULTS. Yes, “adults”. Adults that have had their creativity crushed, their natural childhood curiosity mashed, and a fear of failure instilled by the education system and society that formed them into the perfect pegs for the standard one size fits all professional role. This is going to be a major obstacle for educational systems to overcome if the school experience of youth is ever going to prepare them for a world which no one can predict. I believe we need to do a better job educating teachers in technology; we need to have a very strong emphasis on developing their multimedia skills; and down the road we may get to the point where reformation of our school systems gets dropped in favor of revolutionizing how we teach. When you think about it, public schools are no more than another manufactured peg that fits a socioeconomic hole and all we are doing is trying to reshape it to fit with today’s and tomorrow’s reality. Why not build a new peg

If we were to go the revolutionary route, as perhaps Finland is well on its way to doing, what will the result look like? Finland has removed school subjects (OMG!) and testing (OMG! OMG!) from much of its public school system, but from my understanding, they are still seeking ways to produce pegs for predetermined slots. So I think we have to think more radically. We have to give up the notion that school is for producing workers… that school is about economic concerns. We also have to forget about testing as we now believe it to be. We have to put the student, not the technology, not the beliefs about what education should look like, not our economic concerns, nothing else but the student at the centre of our approach. I believe we have to make “fostering creativity” the central goal of education and that the test of that creativity will be the capabilities our students possess exemplified and proven by what they can produce. I turn once again to the wisdom of Sir Ken Robinson (2006).

Looking Forward

I can’t tell you what following visionaries like Ken will produce, but I know that it will be revolutionary and wise. If we truly want our kids to be able to live and function in the 21st Century world unfolding all around us, we need to look to them for guidance. Kids naturally possess the curiosity and imagination that tomorrow’s world will make use of, so we need to find ways to help kids retain it. Our educational revolution needs to be one that lets the best things about children, indeed the best traits of humanity, continue to grow and flourish into adulthood. The future of our species needs to be one where adults are not prepared to be wrong so they have no fear of failure. They need to be just like kids who “will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go!” (Robinson, 2006). We don’t need pegs, we need playdough!

References

American Library association. (2000). Information literacy competency standards for higher education. Retrieved Febrary 2, 2006, from http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/standards.pdf

Cuban, L. (1993). Computers meet classroom: Classroom wins. Teachers College Record, 95(2), 185-210.

Daley, E. (2003). Expanding the concept of literacy. EDUCAUSE Review, 38(2), 32-40.

Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

Robinson, K.(2011). Changing Education Paradigms [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms

Warschauer, M. (2007). The paradoxical future of digital learning. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 41–49.

 

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