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Into Tomorrow: Moving the Educational Debate - Ian Jukes

This was learning unlike anything I’d experienced in school or, when it comes right down to it, I had allowed my students to experience – what I call ready, fire, aim or making it up as you go learning. And although I’m an author who writes and presents about the need to change how young people are taught in preparation for the Information Age, this event brought me face to face with my own non-digital “programming”. I simply had no past experiences that would support learning by searching for the critical patterns, feeling free to experience ambiguity and uncertainty and experimenting and allowing myself to fail in the process of learning Despite being a vocal advocate for this type of education, I found it extremely difficult to walk my talk and to act or take the lead as a learner. The entire venture has left me more convinced than ever that the way we are teaching in our education system is fundamentally flawed. Much of what we do in schools is simply wrong if we want students to succeed in an age of technology and InfoWhelm where organizing information and continuous learning are increasingly critical skills. Skills as important if not more so than simply recall. Clearly the public has every right to expect higher standards from our student, for teachers to do better at teaching the basics, and ensure that all kids are technologically and informationally literate if not fluent.
But hidden behind these expectations are powerful assumptions about what schools should look like based on our own collective experiences in the schools of our youth. Genuinely new solutions are hard to envision because so few of us can imagine the age for which this generation needs to prepare. Most of us grew up in the industrial era, and yet in less than five years, only 8% of the population will be working in industry. We lived and grew up in schools modeled after the factory, and, by and large those schools worked. The problem is that much has changed while our schools have not. In order to really understand the changing nature of education, we need only ask local schools why all children are “herded” it to a large building or site, and why subjects, regardless of how simple or complex they are, have been fragmented into “periods” lasting from 45 to 60 minutes.
Why does the teacher typically divide and deliver “lessons” on topics dictated by an outside agency of one kind or another? Why are learning activities often unrelated to student interests, purposes and meaning? Why is testing still limited to paper/pencil tests that largely ignore genuine performance? WHY DOES THE TEACHER... Why do the teacher, the school, and various administrative and political bodies retain the sole authority over instructional materials, class organization and teaching methods? Why is significant teacher time taken up with classroom management— maintaining order, monitoring student work and conducting quizzes? Despite a whole class setting, much of the time students essentially work and achieve alone, with virtually no opportunity for small group collaborative work. Little time is spent on commending and correcting students, or on guidance for improved performance. Students have limited exposure to primary sources of information, relevant technology, field trips, outside presenters and little hands-on contact with subject matter beyond the printed page. The truth is that the purpose and assumptions behind the current approach to schooling has long been forgotten. Assembly line procedures with pay for “work done” (grades), time lines (due dates and paper/pencil tests) and rewards (promotion) are so deeply entrenched that we no longer question them. And unless we are willing to examine the assumptions that underpin these fundamental “basics” and reinvent schools and education at a deeper level, there is the real danger that all of efforts we are making to raise standards and test scores may just be us rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic. In reality, it’s our collective beliefs, our mental models about education and learning, which are grounded in the Industrial Age that is actually keeping education spinning its wheels at precisely the time that there is the greatest need to change our collective thinking. These mental models have become deeply entrenched, unexamined beliefs about how the world works. In terms of schools, these collective assumptions dictate what schools should look like, what teachers should do, how students learn and how that learning should be assessed. We accept these mental models in large part because, despite the fact that many educators will acknowledge that the world has changed and continues to change, the existing educational model “worked” for us. When our generation of adults went to school, society as a whole could agree on what students should learn and what an educated person should know. Much of what we still are teaching in our schools is based on this view. Even decades ago however, major researchers in several fields were lamenting the fact that it was impossible to keep up with the information explosion.
Today, anyone who wants to maintain relevancy and marketability as a professional must continue to learn on an ongoing basis. And because there is simply too much information, we no longer expect to “know it all”. Yet traditional educators still insist on specific topics and content to be “covered“ at different grade levels - that there is a specific set of standards that students need to know and be able to regurgitate on demand in order to be an educated person. At the same time they are ignoring most of the literature, music, art, science and knowledge that has been added to the human front in the last 30 years; not to mention what we have learned about history, archaeology, geology and other many other fields since technology and advanced dating and research tools have been with us. How does today’s prescribed curriculum prepare students to live in a world where massive amounts of information are available at the touch of a button?
Learning can no longer be defined by the amount of “stuff” we know and recall, but by how well we can access the appropriate knowledge and information necessary, and then use it to complete real life task, inventing new approaches to solve real problems in the process. The new age of InfoWhelm and the “flat world” are already bringing with it the need to communicate both locally and internationally with different individuals of varying cultures, and different perceptions. If today’s students are going to effectively operate in this new global economy, education will have to look different than it does now. There are schools all over this nation (albeit a very small number) where students are already learning through complex experiences that require that they apply and use knowledge. These experiences range from replicating the Amazon jungle (down to the topography, rivers, plants, animal species and insects) with basic materials to designing products, creating bike paths, printing newsletters and newspaper columns, designing space stations or following the paths of birds and animals on the endangered species list to name but a few. Students do this in groups and individually. Their work includes math, writing, reading, computer know-how and sophisticated research, communication and interpersonal skills. Skilled teachers guide their projects, as substantive questions, insist on the inclusion of critical skills and continually urge students on to higher standards. Students are also allowed to determine their own learning goals in consultation with an expert adult, and to measure their learning in relationship to those goals. Although traditional paper and pencil test are included, genuine performance is critical, these students are doing what any successful citizen and worker in the Information Age will be doing and will need to know. Time lines are flexible and determined by specific tasks. Breaks are taken on an “as needed” basis. Knowing how to find information is as critical as the information itself. Many sources for learning and information are utilized. Individuals work with others as they plan, coordinate and cooperate. They also access their own creativity, acquire self-discipline and come to believe in their own abilities.
Let’s contrast this with a classroom deeply steeped in almost exclusively replicating WHAT the teacher decides to be important and marked by an environment where the curriculum is fragmented into courses, topics to be mastered and test be taken. At the heart of this type of teaching is an almost pervasive meaninglessness and lack of purpose. In an age of unlimited access to information, students are steeped in a curriculum unrelated to the world they experience outside of school. Is it any wonder that they must be controlled or that classroom management and student discipline is of growing necessity? The difference between the 21st century school and the Industrial Age school are staggering.
Real education reform cannot succeed until the adults in charge of education have a new mental model that embraces the future. The answers are already there. But in order to move ahead, teachers not only need to have expertise in their respective disciplines, they need to know how to engage students in meaningful, complex learning experiences. To do this, teachers will need help in moving away from an outdated factory approach to teaching. And in order to do this, they need support and guidance, not edicts and mixed messages. Teachers also need to have the opportunity to work together as professionals in their schools. They need to experience the conditions for 21st century learning we want them to provide for students and to develop the skills that they themselves will be expected to teach their students. Genuine meaningful change means not succumbing to the seductive certainties of the past or assuming that the future will be a natural extension of that past.
Only by challenging our assumptions about ourselves and embracing the future one step at a time will we move our schools from where they are to where they truly need to be. It won’t be easy but do we really want to do less? Ian Jukes is the Director of the InfoSavvy Group, a Canadian based international consulting company.