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Highly Educated Useless People (from "guest blogger" - Ian Jukes)

“Our students are amongst the very best performers academically in the world on the TIMS.” . The TIMS stands for The Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The speaker was describing students from his country As he walked away, he calmly added, “The problem is that most of them couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag if their life depended upon it. They’re nothing but highly educated useless people.” The commentator: The Minister of Education of a certain high profile country. I was speechless. Highly educated useless people? What was he really telling us? What he was saying was that his high-achieving students had school smarts and thus could excel at school-related activities - that they had developed special abilities that would allow them to move smoothly through the school system because they had developed the necessary skills to effectively cram for and write tests. What he was suggesting was that most academically successful students do well in large part because they have learned to play the game called school. But in describing them as “highly educated useless people”, what he was also suggesting was that while many students in his country, particularly the brainy ones, had school smarts, they did not possess what is generally known as street smarts. For him, being street smart was about having the necessary higher-level thinking skills and competencies above and beyond being able to do well on a written exam that were needed to live and work in the real world beyond school, solving real world, real life problems in real time. We become curious. What were the distinctions between being school smart and street smart? How could so many of these students, who were good at school and able to do so well on the tests, at the same time be inadequately prepared for life?
1. We must acknowledge the new digital landscape Schools must embrace the new digital reality of the online, computerized world described by Friedman’s The World is Flat. Outside of schools, the digital world has fundamentally and irrevocably altered the way things get done. This is not just the case for business but for many aspects of our lives. It must be stressed that this is not about schools having high-speed networks or students being able to use laptops or handhelds. Even when hi-tech resources are available, if the resources are only used to reinforce old mindsets about teaching and learning and how that learning is assesses, little will have changed. This is about developing the full spectrum of cognitive and emotional intelligences that are increasingly required in the culture of the 21st century. As such, this is primarily a headware not a hardware issue.
2. Access but little guidance The new digital landscape allows students access to information and learning experiences outside schools and classrooms. Learners can engage in experiences that have traditionally been the domain of teachers and the adult world. From home, shopping mall, whenever and wherever they are, students can access information, music, original sources and multi-media, full motion color images from friends and acquaintances, as well as people who might have diametrically opposed perspectives. Because of our current fixation on testing, we are unable to properly guide our students or help them develop the necessary skills that will empower them to effectively use these powerful resources. As a result, it is often the students, not the teachers who define where they go, how they get there, and what they do when they arrive. This is compounded by the fact that many adults, decision-makers, and educators are not in synch with the new digital reality of students. We don’t have the experience, skills or even the inclination to help them even if we have the time. Schools and teachers persist in using new technologies to reinforce old mindsets. These are issues well beyond computers and networks and way beyond traditional testing. To understand the new digital landscape– to leverage their world, we must be willing to immerse ourselves in that world and embrace the new digital reality. If we can’t relate, if we don’t get it, we won’t be able to make schools relevant to the current and future needs of the digital generation.
3. Changing minds We must address the shift in thinking patterns that are happening to digital students. They live and operate in a multimedia, online, multitask, random access, color graphics, video, audio, visual literacy world. As Steven Johnson points out in Everything Bad is Good For You, these new literacies are generally not acknowledged, valued, or addressed in our schools. This is because these emerging literacies do not generally reflect our traditional definitions of literacy, which were confined and defined by the technologies of the 19th and 20th century when PCs, Internet, cell phones, and other digital technologies were the stuff of science fiction. We must acknowledge that because of this new digital landscape, our students not only think differently but also learn differently from the way we learn. Only by accepting this will we be able to begin to reconsider and redesign learning environments, instruction, and how we assess learning.
4. The whole learner We must broaden evaluation to encompass activities that provide a complete picture of students learning. As management guru Tom Peters says “what get measured gets done” and conversely “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done” - it’s imperative that we begin to measure more than information recall Dave Masters uses this analogy:
“You can get a good picture of a person’s health by taking their height and weight but would you go to a doctor who only took your height and weight and said here’s a picture of your health. The answer of course is no. It would require a battery of tests - urinalysis, blood tests, blood pressure, cholesterol, checking for lumps and so on to get an accurate picture of your health.” However schools act like the doctor who only takes your height and weight and then says here’s a complete picture of your health. We test students using standardized instruments that primarily measure information recall and low level understanding, and then say here’s a complete picture of a student’s learning, which is absolutely not the case. It is extremely presumptuous for us to say that current test scores are a complete indicator of student learning. A complete picture of student learning needs to include portfolios of performance, demonstrations not just of recall of theoretical content, but also the application of that theory used to solve real world problems.
5. Relevancy and connections Last but not least, we must increase the connection between instruction in schools and the world outside if we hope to increase the relevancy of the learning that takes place. The key point here is that the students must perceive the relevancy of what they’re learning. They need to understand not just the content, but also the context of that content as it is applied to the world outside of schools. For this to happen, schools need to become far less insular. We need to systematically work to bring the outside world into our schools while at the same time sending our schools out into the community. New technologies and an understanding of the new digital landscape can help us do both. The online world creates virtual highway and virtual hallways to both our local and global communities. If we want to unfold the full intellectual and creative genius of all of our children -if we want to prepare them for the new world that awaits them - if we want to help them prepare for their future, not our past - if we are going to march through the 21st Century and maintain our tradition of success - if we want our children to have the relevant 21st century skills – then we must create a bridge between their world and ours so they can develop both street smarts and school smarts. For this to happen, there needs to be fundamental shift in how teaching and learning takes place in schools. We must look for alternatives to the traditional organization of schools. We need to uncover our longstanding and unexamined assumptions about teaching and learning, about what a classroom looks, where learning takes place and the resources that are needed to support it. And we also need to re-examine the use of time – the length of the school day and school year, the school timetable, and the traditional methods used for instructional delivery. And we must consider the potential of online, web-based, virtual learning that can be used to augment, extend, and transform the role of the traditional classroom teachers.
In other words, we cannot foster street smarts in our students who are school smart unless we ask the powerful and relevant questions around our assumptions of what schools currently are and what they need to be. © The InfoSavvy Group, 2011 You can find Ian’s latest book (written with Ted McCain and Lee Crockett) on my list of 25 “must-read” books.