The Internet has delivered an explosion of learning opportunities for today’s students, creating an abundance of information, knowledge, and teachers as well as a starkly different landscape from the one in which our ideas about school were born. Traditional educators, classrooms, and brick-and-mortar schools are no longer necessary to access information. Instead, things like blogs and wikis, as well as remote collaborations and an emphasis on critical thinking skills are the coins of the realm in this new kingdom. Yet the national dialogue on education reform focuses on using technology to update the traditional education model, failing to reassess the fundamental model on which it is built.
In Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, educator, parent and blogger Will Richardson challenges traditional thinking about education— questioning whether it still holds value in its current form. How can schools adjust to this new age? Or students? Or parents? In this provocative read, Richardson provides an in-depth look at how connected educators are beginning to change their classroom practice. Ultimately, Why School? serves as a starting point for the important conversations around real school reforms that must ensue, offering a bold plan for rethinking how we teach our kids, and the consequences if we don’t.
Why must schools change how they teach? What’s at stake?
Schools were built upon the fundamental premise that teachers and knowledge and information were scarce. That is no longer the reality. Now, as so many more of us gain faster and broader access to the Web, all of those things are suddenly abundant. That means that the traditional role of school, to deliver an education, is quickly becoming less and less relevant. If we continue to see schools as the place where our children go to master a narrow list of content, knowledge and skills that were originally defined almost 150 years ago, we risk putting those kids out into the world with little idea of how to take advantage of the explosion of learning opportunities that now exist. The problem, however, is that most “reform” efforts are aimed at simply doing what we’ve been doing better, almost exclusively in the form of raising test scores. But doing “better” on measures that don’t account for this huge shift we’re in the midst of is the absolute wrong emphasis. Instead, we need to think very differently about the experiences, outcomes, skills and literacies we desire for our kids when they come to school.
Every generation seems to think its students are different. How are today’s youth different in terms of how they gather and absorb information?
Students in the K-12 system have never known a world without the Internet. No question, some kids have had more access than others, and that digital divide is something that we must address with more focus. But for the vast majority who have access, information and answers are a Google search away. They expect to use their technology to get their answers…except in school. In school, we ask them all sorts of questions that they could answer with their phones or laptops, but we don’t let them. So, I think the biggest difference is that our children are connected to people and to knowledge in ways that no other generation before them has been. We have not fully realized all of the ramifications of that, and in large measure, those who oversee our education systems have not yet begun to understand that this is a much different time for learning.
With so much information out there, it seems that finding information is easy but assessing it is tricky. How important are critical thinking skills?
Critical thinking skills around information have never been more important. For all of the value that comes with individuals being able to publish freely and widely to the Web, the huge potential downside is that we haven’t developed the literacies that are required to make sense of all that unedited content that’s out there now. In the scarce world, almost everything we consumed was edited or checked by someone else. Now, each one of us has to have the dispositions and skills to edit the world as it comes to us. Again, this is a huge problem for school systems that were designed for a different time, and it’s an even greater challenge since few if any assessments that we give kids ask them to make sense of an abundance of unedited media and information.
What can schools do to implement some of your ideas?
It’s a difficult moment for schools and the administrators and teachers who in large measure care deeply about kids but haven’t fully understood or acclimated to this moment of abundance we find ourselves in. Most policy makers and businesspeople are focused on finding more and more efficiencies in the system, and they see technology as a way to “deliver” that traditional education to get “better” results needing fewer and fewer teachers while making greater and greater profits in the process. The next 10 years are going to be exceedingly difficult for schools to navigate the gap between maintaining the traditional curriculum that reformers want and providing the learning opportunities and literacies that kids desperately need today, opportunities that few outside of education are asking for. I think the first step is that educators have to reexamine their own learning practice and move toward becoming more networked and connected themselves. It’s hard to have meaningful conversations around change in a 21st Century sense if you’re coming at it from a 20th (or even 19th) Century lens.
The educational process is pretty slow-moving and sclerotic. Do you have hope that these changes will be made?
I have hope because I see more and more individual classrooms that are beginning to understand what abundance means, places where teachers and kids are getting connected, doing real, meaningful, beautiful work for real audiences that help students become true modern learners in the process. I have hope because every one of us knows that amazing relationships and amazing learning happens in those real life places we call school, that they are an important part of our communities and histories. And I have hope because, at the end of the day, just as we’ve seen with many other institutions, old thinking simply cannot prevail. This isn’t optional. The fact is that schools are not going to go away in the near term for a host of reasons. But what we do in schools, the way we answer the “Why School?” question will change. It has to. The more that each one of us begins to get involved in the process of answering that question, the sooner and more effectively we’ll make the changes our kids are waiting for us to make.