The death of school

April 11, 2008 8 Comments »

There are two ways of knowing things. You can know a lot of things in not too much detail, or know a few things very well. Schools are designed to teach the former in a world that increasingly values the latter. And schools aren’t even the best place to get in-depth knowledge in a particular field. The ubiquity of information has rendered our way of conveying knowledge concepts obsolete. We need to find new purpose, or risk fading away into the mists of history, unmourned.

How did we get here?

When our present manner of schooling was implemented, knowledge was exclusive, kept by specialists outside of the mainstream of society. People sent their children to school to gain some of the knowledge that resided in the instructors at the school. It was, at the time, an excellent way of ensuring that information persisted and that a new generation was inculcated into the elite, possessed of knowledge unavailable to the masses.

So, what happened?

In short, the information age. Information has become omnipresent, available to all comers for such a low entry fee that it may as well be free. Where once dusty libraries in cloistered colleges held repositories of “secret” knowledge (in the sense that it was unavailable to the common man), the world wide web has put everything out there for everyone to access equally. Our secret knowledge isn’t so secret anymore. And it’s only going to continue in that direction – the portable game systems that students carry around have more computing power than the desktop systems that I grew up with, and now contain wireless links to the web, putting a world of information literally at the students’ fingertips.

So what’s the problem?

When a student has access to Wikipedia from his cellphone, is there any point in my teaching him the date of the repeal of the corn laws? Is there any point in making a student memorise her multiplication tables, when wherever she goes, she will have access to computing devices thousands of times more powerful than those used by the Apollo astronauts to calculate their trajectories around the Moon? Our role as gatekeepers of knowledge has come to an end – the students are climbing the walls into the compound themselves. Or more aptly, they’re finding more and more that the walls which previously existed have vanished, replaced by instantaneous access to any information, from anywhere at any time.

What are we to do?

If we can no longer be the sole repositories of knowledge, is there any future for educators? My answer is, with no reservations, yes! Modern schools have become far more than simply mechanisms for transmitting knowledge, and it is to those functions that we must now turn to find our new role. If we can no longer be counted on to be the most accurate and up-to-date source of information, we at least have a role in demonstrating how that information is come by. We need to become teachers of process more than teachers of content. In the new way of doing things, the “how” becomes our focus, rather than the “what”.

Also, as most of us adults (but not all students) are aware, not everything available on the internet is of equal validity or equal value – teachers become instructors of evaluation methods. We can certainly teach how to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to information resources.

What’s stopping us?

A lot of teachers are technological neophytes themselves (or worse, Luddites), unable to distinguish for themselves which resources are educationally valid. We have been bombarded recently from all sides telling us we must subscribe to this resource, or that if we aren’t using that technology, we’re behind the curve. This is overwhelming at times for even those of us most comfortable with technology. Rather than telling teachers what they need to do to pull themselves up by their technological bootstraps, we need to free students to explore technology in every class, with the teacher overseeing and evaluating technology resources as the students bring them in. Even the teacher most fearful of technology may be able to see educational value in resources that students request to use in their classroom. Whether that then becomes a tool in the teacher’s toolbox to be passed on to other students is neither here nor there, as each student would be able to bring in new resources for their own assignments and projects.

What does this look like?

First of all, it will take freeing the restrictions that presently exist on access to the information available. I recently had a very encouraging meeting with some technology co-ordinators for our school where we discussed the possibility of blanketing the school in WiFi for student access. The project, if it happens, is a couple of years off yet, but the potential is there. It is excellent news that the people who make decisions are thinking about this. The potential downside is a widening of the digital divide, but there are ways to mitigate the harm to our least fortunate students through technology loan systems and other means.

Secondly, it will require revising the way teachers look at student distraction in class. This may mean accepting some bad with the good, but there’s no reason a student can’t have their laptop (or Sony PSP or Nintendo DS – both of which have wireless internet) open at their desk, looking up information related to the topic at hand. Remembering that if we’re moving from teaching content to teaching process, it means that less and less will students be interrupting lecture-style classes, and more and more they will be adding information to group discussions or projects.

Why now?

My thoughts on this have been shaped over the last little while from a couple of sources. First, an article sent to me by my principal which talks about some of the same things in terms of teachers needing to get out of the way of student learning. Secondly, as I try to move my students further up Bloom’s taxonomy, I realise more and more that the generalist knowledge that is valued by schools will be less and less useful to the students as they leave high school. They require specialist knowledge in specific subject areas which is often beyond the scope of the classes we offer at the secondary level. Our role must change to allow students to pursue knowledge in areas of interest, and to help them evaluate the knowledge they acquire by their own methods.

For my own teaching, this means that I have to be less concerned with making sure the students know dates and names, and more concerned with whether they can see the connections, evaluate the reasons behind what they see, and apply their knowledge and evaluation skills in their own lives. It’s a sea change in the way we instruct in history, for example, but it needs to be done if our graduates are going to be able to take anything away from the four years they spend with us. And if they manage to memorise the date of the repeal of the corn laws (1846) in the process, so much the better.

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  1. Dawn Kilmer April 11, 2008 at 2:23 pm -

    ah, grasshopper, well put….

  2. John April 12, 2008 at 6:23 pm -

    Interesting article. Where did the “repeal of the corn laws” phrase come from? Anything to do w Mandi’s g-father?

  3. Ian April 17, 2008 at 4:34 pm -

    Yes, actually – I thought it was funny that I actually cover that in my History 10 class, given Mandi’s stories about her grandfather.

  4. Dennis Fermoyle April 18, 2008 at 3:45 pm -

    Ian, when I earned my masters, I was hit with a lot of process over content, and I never really bought into it. After what I wrote, and after what you wrote, maybe I need to give it a lot more consideration. Thanks for making me think.

  5. Roger Sweeny April 27, 2008 at 10:45 am -

    Mindlessly memorizing, “The corn laws were repealed in 1846” doesn’t gain the students much. But … in order to think about their effects, you have to know what came before and what came after, which means knowing when they ceased to exist. In order to think about why they were repealed, you similarly have to know what was before and what was after.

    Any understanding of history requires some, I think the educational buzzword is scaffold, to put your reasons in. You can look things up but then you have to remember them for as long as you are trying to understand them.

    Perhaps the most pathetic things in education are where students pretend to do Bloom 6 things (“evaluation”) when they hardly have a basic knowledge of the facts.

  6. Ian April 27, 2008 at 2:40 pm -

    While you make a good point, what I’m trying to say is that the need to remember that kind of information has passed, since it’s always available at the beck and call of the students on a wide variety of devices which they have with them at all times. The need to know something that obscure outside of school is more or less non-existent (other than an appearance on Jeopardy), so we just have to make sure they know (a) how to get at the information when they need it; and (b) how to apply the information to situations that will be useful in the real world.