Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Don't Panic!

Everywhere you look nowadays the leading conference presenters and the education bloggers (myself Included) and various companies have been warning us that we have to change the way we teach or we rob the kids of their future. Why? Because we're not teaching them by using the tools that they use at home (presumably). There are some EXCELLENT videos that do an excellent job of putting today's students into perspective with the global economy and the flat world in which they find themselves. (Sorry, I had to say it. Everyone can fill in that block on their buzzword Bingo cards, now.)

The argument goes something like this: Kids are different. Kids THINK differently. Kids are digital natives. (Oops. Everyone can fill in that block, too.) Kid's BRAINS are different. They're going to be entering a world in which they will be asked to solve problems that we don't even know will exist in 20 years or so. They're going to change jobs frequently. They're going to be competing with people from all over the world, unlike at ANY time in our history. And, by golly, we MUST change the way we teach them (and use all the technology we can in the process) or they're doomed. The U.S. is doomed. We are failing our kids by our failure to teach them using all this technology. My GOSH the changes that they will experience in their lifetimes! How WILL they survive?

I'm old. No, I'm in the youth of my old age - my 50's. I was born in 1949 - a baby boomer. I recall the excitement over our first TV set, a 9" rounded black and white screen on which I watched Howdy Doody. I was paddled three times with a leather strap on my FIRST DAY of school in FIRST GRADE - for drawing a star on my new tablet after the teacher told us not to make any marks on them. I cried every morning and every afternoon that year, and even hid out in the doghouse in an effort to hide the fact that I wasn't going to school. I survived.

In the 50's when I was in elementary school we were forced to learn poetry (I think that I shall never see a poem more lovely than a tree...), and we stood to recite our times tables, and our projects involved cutting up magazines to make posters, and we sat in rows, and we worked independently, and we - or at least *I* - had much cooler things to play with at home than I did at school. I didn't have my own tablet at home, though – or a tablet or my very own (I didn’t have to share it!) pencil. While I was doing that, the U.S. was rebuilding after a war I knew nothing about. There were lots of jobs, and the local coal mines were hiring. The future for the students of the time looked bright and full of promise. There was no mention ANYWHERE about something called a ‘computer.’ Meanwhile the world was inventing the bar code, and the hydrogen bomb, and oral contraceptives, and the MODEM!! And those things were being invented by folks who went to school in the ‘30’s, probably.

Around the time I turned twelve or so, the transistor radio hit the market (or at least it hit my school) and I was one who would walk around with it stuck to my ear, and turn it on at night with the volume low under my pillow to listen to Cousin Brucey in Chicago. My junior high years were marked with the Kennedy assassination, the Lee Harvey Oswald killing, the Martin Luther King, Jr assassination, and the Bobby Kennedy assassination. The world was coming apart at the seams, so my mother said. Yes, we landed a man on the moon using a computer that was smaller than the ones in your watch, today, but that changed nothing at school where we were forced to learn poetry (I think that I shall never see a poem more lovely than a tree...), and we stood to recite our times tables, and our projects involved cutting up magazines to make posters, and we sat in rows, and we worked independently… but at least I had a transistor radio at home which I couldn’t use at school. Didn’t the school realize that we were going to be called upon within the next 10-20-30 years or more to solve problems that we didn’t even know WERE problems? Didn’t the school know that we were going to be changing jobs and careers two or three times in our lifetimes? (I’ve been a music teacher, a quality assurance monitor for Ralston Purina, a realtor, a security monitor, a computer teacher, and now I’m... doing this.) Meanwhile, the world was inventing the video cassette, contact lenses, and permanent press fabric – by people who went to school in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, no doubt.

In high school it was the same. I graduated from high school in 1967 (the year that the handheld calculator was invented probably by someone who went to school in the ‘30’s or ‘40’s) when the biggest problem that the teachers could envision for us was whether to go to college, to the coal mines, or into a trade. Do you think that even ONE of those teachers back then had ANY idea the kinds of jobs that we graduates would have in our lifetimes? Or the kinds of problems we would be asked to solve? And I would bet my CABIN on the fact that NOT ONE of my teachers would have given me even odds of becoming even remotely successful. I am too ashamed to tell you what my junior and senior year report cards were like, but suffice it to say that they were…awful! AWFUL!

Think of all the amazing inventions of the past 50 years, from Teflon to Velcro to space flight to microwave ovens to the micro chip to the world wide web. Which one of the inventors of those items went to a school where they KNEW the kinds of problems that would need to be solved? Not one, I’m sure. Yet, they all managed to solve those problems, perhaps in SPITE of their education.

What’s my point? I don’t think that today’s students will see any more of a dramatic change in their world than I experienced in mine. I went from a 9” black and white TV to seeing a lunar landing and space flights and the world wide web and the global economy. The change they will experience may be different. It will take them into space and into an unimaginable network of information, and it will link them to the world unlike ANYTHING we can imagine now. But, they will be fine, just as WE were fine in the face of OUR changing world. Sure the kids are digital natives, but it was the digital IMMIGRANTS who invented this digital world, don’t forget.

That said… we DO face an appalling dropout rate – as high as 75% in some schools. The expanding global economy cannot be understated. So, we MUST find a way to re-engage our students to keep them in school. But, we DON’T have to teach them, as Sir Ken Robinson said in his Ted Talks video, “ as though they’re all going to be college professors.” We need to do our jobs. We need to excite them about learning, true. And, as we do that there will be many instances where the proper tool to bring about that excitement and the desired level of understanding will be a computer. And the web. Likewise, there will be times when it’s NOT the right tool. And, for those teachers who are unwilling to learn the technology to use for those times when it IS the best tool, we must charge them with malpractice and bring in others who DO know the tools. But, I have to believe that the kids will survive and flourish, perhaps in SPITE of their education – just like we did.

So, let’s take a deep breath and relax a bit. Yes, we DO have to change some things, but I don’t think we need to panic.

What say you? SURELY I said something in there that struck a nerve, eh?


Kevin Sandridge said...

Jim, thanks once again for the words of wisdom. I think what you're describing is key when new adopters to web 2.0 technology begin using it in the classroom. I've definitely caught myself becoming so enamored with a tool's functionality that it takes me a while to reflect on whether it really fits my educational mission. Hey, I'm a gadget guy... what can I say?

As i begin to introduce new things to my kids, I realize that they are in fact very familiar with the technology. But, as has always been the case in education, they will still need to be instructed in the ways the technology can be used to further their learning.

Passion and a desire to excite, engage, and captivate students has and continues to be a central part of teaching (ref: Harry Wong and his article on Training Gen Y Teachers for Maximum Effectiveness.) Wong is not saying that Gen Y teachers are doing anything new - other than tapping into a mindset that some, if not many veteran teachers simply do not share.

Though, you sure don't have to be a youngin' to be called a Generation Y Teacher. I think anyone who is actively engaged in using technology to spread the same love and excitement for collaborative learning I experienced old school style at the loving hands of several teachers throughout my childhood can be tagged as a Gen Y Teacher. Don't you?

Karen Janowski said...

You're right...don't panic. But, as an educator I believe there's a better way...when I hear my 17 year old son, or my 13 year old nephew say, "I HATE school!" and it's still summer vacation and they are dreading the return in one month; or when my 23 year old daughter tells me, "kids are supposed to hate school!" (And many of the students with whom I work HATE school or believe they are stupid and have "given up.") I know there's a better way to educate our kids.
And I believe that effective, not gratuitous, technology use is part of that better way because it taps into engaged learning. No one learns anything unless they are engaged, no matter what your age. These tools are part of the conversation about how to improve public schools.
Yes, you survived public school, I survived public school but there's definitely a better way and I want to be part of the solution.

Jim Gates said...

I agree wtih you. SURELY we should be able to say more about our formative years in public education than just, "We survived." That's why I said that we must engage them and, in fact, for those teachers who refuse to learn the tools that are needed we should charge them with malpractice and ... hasten their move to another line of work. :-)

I do hope that this post isn't mis-read as being just a "Lighten up!" article.

Ken Pruitt said...

I was watching the TED video about technology's impact on mankind and I can't help but think of this. As the speed of innovation picks up will people notice the changes or will we simply become adaptive beings that just incorporate inovation as we move along?