Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's World: Why We Shouldn't Change Everything We're Already Doing
I'm at an arts and education conference this week, so I'm thinking a lot about education and related issues. One of the arguments one hears from school reformers goes something like this. "Today's students will be living in a world we can't even imagine. They will have careers that haven't been invented. For that reason, we need to get them ready by doing [insert new program/idea here]." This usually involves throwing out traditional curricula, subjects, and skills and implementing new things that are mostly untried.
I believe this is absolutely wrong, and I want to explain why.
First of all, this argument about a new world usually requires using archaic methods like standardized testing. Testing is certainly something with some value, but standardized testing dates waaaaayyyyy back. It is not new or dramatic or innovative in any way. It goes back to philosophies that had currency well before WWII--like back to the turn of the century. My purpose is not to re-trace this history, but it's well-documented. The point is, if tomorrow is going to require such radical readjustment, then going to a method and philosophy that was current when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House is a bit contradictory.
Politicians/Corporate Leaders: "You teachers need to change! You're too old fashioned. You need to do X. And, by the way, we're going to use early 20th century methods to track how well you prepare students for the future."
But there is another reason I think this argument is basically bunk. Think about this.
What is the biggest change in our lifetimes?
I'd say the internet and the availability of digital connectivity. Of course, there are other technological marvels that are in the pipeline (self-driving cars, etc.).
How did this amazing new future happen?
It happened because people who were educated in the old school made it happen. Some of them were college drop-outs, but they were students educated in the old regime. They grew up in a time when schools were still teaching penmanship and diagramming sentences.
And yet, this amazing technical future happened. No one foresaw the technological innovations of the last 20th century. No one planned it, and no one tried to change the schools to make it happen. No one said, "We don't know what our students will do in the late 80s and early 9os, so we need to change our educational system."
The thing about traditional education is that it allows innovators and inventors to succeed. By blending learning traditional skills with an economy that rewards innovators and affords people the chance to experiment and follow their dreams.
Since I was a child, I have heard that the Russians were going to overtake us in education. Then the Germans. And the Japanese. And the arabs. Then the Chinese. But they haven't. And the technological innovations that changed the world largely happened here in the U.S., driven and imagined by people who came through the traditional school system.
No one specifically anticipated the digital revolution and no one tried to make it happen. Now, we live in a time when we say we must change because we don't know what's ahead.
Think about that logic carefully, and ask yourself if you would be comfortable applying it to other key areas in life.
I'm not against change and improvement. I don't think we should never change, and I'm not advocating that our classrooms remain like they did in 1967. But I think those changes ought to be carefully considered and based on classroom realities and long-term benefit. I also think those changes ought to be carefully considered based on research.
Another argument that usually stems from this line of reasoning goes something like this. "We need to stop doing X because its outdated and students won't need it in the future." So, in other words, we don't know what the future will be, students will be doing jobs that we can't anticipate, but somehow we know what will and won't be obsolete. And we know that with certainty.
Let me offer two reasons we should be cautious about making changes based on a nebulous future. It became self-evident a few years ago that handwriting was no longer needed or valuable. It also became de rigueur to jump into using iPads* and the like and throwing everything else out.
Guess what? Cursive is coming back. It turns out it was important because it had significant mind-body connections that have a big impact on reading skills. Also, it turns out reading on screens can make it hard for brains to engage in deeper thinking and using books can be very important.
Those two changes were made because some people advocated with absolute assurance for those changes based on the future. But they were wrong.
I think that ought to give us pause before we go tinkering with schools and throwing things out because they are obviously obsolete in a new world.
This new world will be made by people who live in the current world. The future will evolve and happen based on today and tomorrow. And, I would argue, that future can be shaped best by people who can read and write. By people who can think, and articulate those thoughts. By people who know their past and know what great thinkers in the past thought. By people who have been mental discipline and who know a lot about a lot of things. By people whose minds and souls have been stretched by exposure to the arts.
If we want to argue about the value of different subjects and different modes of instruction--fine. Those are healthy discussions. But to simply say we don't know what students will be doing and therefore we have to change everything is misguided. Especially if it simply is a way to get some corporate leader or politician's new idea implemented, which it often is.
Education is highly susceptible to shiny new ideas. That is because it is extremely difficult. Consequently, there is always someone who is sure they know the solution to those problems. Ironically, those people are usually not teachers, nor have they spent a lot of time in a classroom. But that is a topic for a different time.
*I am not opposed to iPads or technology per se. They can have great value. I'm fortunate to work in a school where technology has been seen as a useful tool, something that can help serve the curricular and instructional goals. In some places, I fear the majority, technology has simply become the driver.
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