It was 1992, my sophomore English teacher asked us to write 500 words explaining why Herman Melville was an important figure in American Literature.
This assignment required us to spend a day in the library, flipping through the card catalog, writing down Dewey Decimal numbers, and hitting the stacks to find the correct book that would allow us to properly respond to this assignment. We didn’t have the internet or encyclopedias at home.
I assign this same assignment in my classroom as a warm-up activity. Ten minutes. 50 words. Tops. Take out your smartphones, kids.
The means in which we learned vital skills during the 90’s – learning the card catalog, holding a volume of lore in your hands, asking for help from a librarian – is now as outdated as an abacus. My students whip out their cellphones and go to work. We summarize our findings and we move on.
Technology has taken what many still consider to be “real” education and turned it into something nearly archaic. What used to be important serves no purpose to today’s student.
Education has a specific hierarchy: Math and Science are at the top, followed by English and History, and below are the Arts - which has a hierarchy within itself. This hierarchy is an artifact of the Industrial Revolution – a time when engineers, machinists, and inventors were needed to feed the American machine.
You see, modern day education systems were made in the image of its creators, and its creators were near-sighted white men who feared a beeping Soviet ball that orbited above their heads, all of whom are now either dead or very close to it. Following World War II, the Cold War seeped into our classrooms and militarization of education began. This is still shown to this day through the nomenclature of education. We teach lesson “plans” with specific learning “targets”. Each assessment has a specific “objective”. In my English class, we ask kids to “decode” a sentence as if it’s an encrypted message from a Soviet sub.
The Cold War took the framework of the Industrial Revolution and reinforced the hierarchy. It was a timely response to a time that has passed. This hierarchy was designed to give America the one-up on a future that was grim with little room for optimism.
The Cold War ended but the classroom hasn’t changed much; it no longer aligns to the generation of students who occupy them. To quote Bruce Wellman, “At this point, we appear to have a 19th century curriculum, 20th century buildings, and 21st century students facing an undefined future.”
That “undefined future” that Wellman talks about is a reality. And that undefined future establishes one of the greatest generation gaps in educational history. The system no longer fits the student. The Industrial Revolution ended and the Technology Revolution reigns.
What’s the point of assigning a reading quiz on three chapters that were to be read at home when a student can Google search the chapter summaries, never touching the book, and get a 100 the next day? Did I really authentically assess whether a student “did” their homework?
And what’s a math class going to look like when Google Glass becomes Google Lens and students can just look at a math problem on paper and the answer appears on their HUD, invisible to their teacher? What future does math have?
Let’s move away from Industrial Revolution/ Cold War hierarchies and introduce a new form of education, one that embraces technology and builds a bridge between the student and the school.
Why isn’t coding taught in elementary schools? Schools shouldn’t shy away from iPads or smart phones in the classroom, we should throw the programming guide at them and say “make something with it”.
Why ask students to write an essay on themes of Moby Dick or Billy Budd when we can ask them to design an app or game that shares the themes? Or design an online magazine that matches the tones or moods of the novels? And rather than tossing a numeric grade on it, actually cultivate the skills needed to create a stellar product, one that fits into the students’ worlds, so he/she walks away with the proper technological and problem-solving skills needed in today’s world?
Creative thinking, creative writing, creative planning, creative design, all through embracing technology.
I’ll leave you with this: My graduate level British Folklore and Culture professor required a 30-page research paper of our choosing. I am fascinated with a Welsh song called “Suo Gan” – a beautiful lullaby most commonly known from the film “Empire of the Sun”. I researched online and noted that the song could only be traced back to the early 1800’s, but it was thought to have originated as early as the 14th-century. Being the driven individual that I can sometimes be, I told myself I could trace it back further. And I did. I emailed a Welsh librarian who sent me attached PDFs of letters written by a noted musician who lived in the area, and one of the letters mentioned the lullaby directly by name – in the year 1748.
I had successfully added to the human knowledge bank, something for the scholars to know for the foreseeable future. Truly, a stellar feat of academia.
I got a “B” because my professor noted that I never signed into the library – never physically entering the library and holding a book. He refused to give an “A” to someone who didn’t’ do “real research”.
We, as educators, need to recognize that our students are not carbon copies of who we are and where we came from. They live in a new world where old skills are mastered in new paths that may seem unfamiliar to us, and we cannot disregard or devalue them. We can’t expect them to pack the libraries when the small machine in their pocket possesses the world’s knowledge, and we can’t punish them because they refuse to live and learn in the past.
It’s time to flip the Industrial Revolution’s educational hierarchy around and stop thinking of technology as a tool to teach other subjects, and start teaching it as a subject itself.