Four steps to bring new life into the classroom
Hello again, I recently had the pleasure of attending a professional development seminar by Heidi Hayes Jacobs on the topic of Curriculum Mapping. I’ve long been a proponent for radical changes in pedagogical approaches within our classroom setting and it was refreshing to listen to another expert in the field of education share similar thoughts. While the topic of the seminar was “curriculum mapping” I felt a strong resonance with the underlying educational philosophy espoused during the session. I believe that if one were to choose the most important aspect of the session as a take-home point to remember, it is that we MUST serve our students by preparing them for their future. One of the great questions asked by Dr. Jacobs was to conduct an honest self-evaluation of your school and try to determine (overall) what year you are preparing your students to enter in adulthood. I have a feeling that few could honestly answer 2020 or beyond, which is a huge injustice to the students. After attending this seminar I walked away with a four step program in my head to bring classroom pedagogy into the era in which it belongs.
Step 1. An Honest Look in the Mirror
The first step is taken directly from Dr. Jacob’s question. “What year is your school preparing its students for?” When I gave this serious consideration, I was shocked to come the realization that it was somewhere within the range of 1970-1980 for my school. This era reflected a time when computers did not dominate the work force. When Apple was still just a hobby kit in Job’s and Wozniak’s garage. Now, I teach a great deal of technology in my classroom, in an attempt to prepare students for their future, however when looking at the school as a whole I was forced to come to the conclusion that many teachers still relied on paper and pencil, books, and pedagogical practices that they had been using for the last several decades. This is frightening… after all if Moore’s Law holds true (and it has for quite a while) the rate at which technology increases is exponential and doubles every two years. How then can we say we are reaching our students if we are using pedagogical methods that do not use technology that was created within the last five years? The truth is, a good honest look in the mirror is necessary so that change can occur.
Step: 2 Prehistoric tools for space-age learning
After this look in the mirror you may find that a great many of your colleagues are attempting to use prehistoric tools for space-age learning. It is difficult to fathom how teachers expect to truly prepare students for their future careers using only books, pencil, and paper. I’m sure the argument is that this approach has worked for hundreds of years and therefore should still be adequate for today. However, a hundred years ago we did not have technologies that allowed instant access to information from around the world delivered within seconds of searching for the information. A job a hundred years ago depended more upon your ability to be a skilled laborer or farmer rather than to be able to seek out information and turn it into something that can be used to support a family.
The truth is, our school system is largely outdated and needs a massive overhaul. Jim Grant in his book The Death of Common Sense in our Schools explained that our current school calendar was brought to American in the 1840s from Prussia by Horace Mann. This calendar prepared students for work in factories but also allowed students to return home to help on the farm. Essentially what Grant states is that “our current educational structure is built for a European state and an American farm economy that no longer exist”. This alone is a huge detriment to our students, and change to the calendar year and schedule is something that will take quite a bit of work to revise. However, as teachers, we have the ability to affect change on a much more local level (our classrooms). While its ridiculous to maintain a school structure built on “Expired” political and economic conditions, it is also equally ludicrous to maintain teaching methods and tools from the pre-cold war era in our information age. The truth is, we are supposed to be preparing our students for a future when they will hold jobs that use technologies that haven’t even been invented yet. How are we preparing our students for this future if we are not even using the current technology of today? Its akin to telling a person that they will one day be expected to navigate the internet to search for information effectively, however (for the time being) we are only going to provide them with an encyclopedia and a dictionary…. good luck future web surfer. If we are to truly aid our students in their ability to have successful lives, then we must prepare them for their futures by not only providing them with recent technology, but by surpassing the present to meet their future needs.
Step 3. Surpassing the Present to Prepare for the Future
What do I mean by Surpassing the present? Can it be done? I think it can. The trick is to envision the growth that may occur within the next five years and to provide an infrastructure and pedagogical methodology that enhances students’ abilities to thrive in the future. Dr. David Thornburg in his book Edutrends 2010 made the argument that we should not be striving to put into place systems of the present… because by the time we install and implement these systems, they will have already become outdated (Moore’s law in action). Instead we should be aiming for an attainable point in the future and striving to ensure that our pedagogy, technology, and students are prepared for this time. In that way, we are never trying to “catch up” to the technology trends, rather we are riding the wave and directing our students toward the rich waters of future success. What does this mean for the modern educator who has looked in the mirror and decided that prehistoric tools will no longer be used?
Essentially, it means that we must look at what exists in the present, and anticipate the future. I can easily ask my students to create a youtube video about a topic for their assignment and this will be a huge success in helping students to meet present needs. However, the future is right around the corner and a new service, or medium may arise that causes the extinction of youtube. The key is that educators need to be on the cutting edge. We need to be aware of current technologies and how they are used in the world to create jobs and stimulate the economy. If I am preparing students for their future they need to be prepared for the technology skills that will help them to lead successful productive lives. That means that we must seek to always be on the cutting edge, to embrace change and to prepare our students for a world that is rapidly changing. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center”. I think this philosophy should be adopted by all teachers. If we live on the edge we can peer beyond the event horizon and help our students thrive in the world in which they will soon be living. Life on the edge means eliminating prehistoric teaching methods to give control of the learning environment to the students.
Step 4. From Controlling Students to Student Control
Most of our students are ahead of us when it comes to technology, and for the teacher who lives by the use of prehistoric tools this is a frightening concept. The traditional approach is that the teacher is sitting in what Paolo Freire would term an “Ivory Tower of Isolation” providing passive knowledge to those who are under them. Instead, I argue that it is important for us to acknowledge students’ advanced knowledge and to construct a more meaningful classroom learning experience by engaging them in solving real-world problems using the abilities they possess. I’m highly constructivist in my approach and I believe that students should own their learning experiences. This is difficult for some teachers though. There are teachers who believe that they must teach only from the textbook; what a frightening concept! The truth is, students bring with them a plethora of skills and knowledge that utilizes real-world technologies and that can be used to solve real-world problems. The traditional knee-jerk reaction has been for teachers and schools to bury their heads in the sand and say “you can’t use facebook in the classroom”; “You can’t use youtube”; “you can’t do X,Y,Z” etc. Educators have a long standing bad habit of ignoring the elephant in the room. Our students use technology every day. They are highly adept and efficient in its use. The day is coming when the student who is able to gather and use relevant information quickly and efficiently will be the best prepared for the world in which he lives. If we surpass the present, the future success of students will largely depend upon these skills. Embarking on this four step journey can be scary. Giving up a totalitarian grip on teaching practices is a frightening process for those who have lived by that sword. However, it is our duty to embrace change, to prepare our students for the information age in which they live. To do otherwise is an injustice to our students and our profession.
I’ve been sharing my thoughts on the topic of necessary educational reform at the classroom level. I’ve intentionally kept this short and basic because I’d love to hear some of your thoughts or questions. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.