“Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” –Principal’s Association, 1815 1, 2
“Students today depend upon store bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own. When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement. This is a sad commentary on modern education.” –The Rural American Teacher 1928 1,2
by Chris Wondra, WTWL Editor
The problem with blind spots is that you don’t know you’ve got them. I mean, it’s obvious to us today that students weren’t going to need a slate or homemade ink in order to be successful.
But imagine living in that time. There was no way those people could have foreseen the changes that make us snicker at those statements today. Might we also be clinging to faulty beliefs about what will make our students successful? If so, how do we identify them? How do we differentiate between the beliefs that are no longer relevant and need to go, and the ones that are and we need to keep? What skills and content are we teaching that will be irrelevant in five years? What tools are we still using that are already outdated?
And how can we possibly determine that?
Out with the old, in with the new
As a quick exercise, take a part of your curriculum, any part, and imagine for a moment that it’s totally irrelevant to our students’ realities in the 21st century. Then make a bold and crazy statement–or two. I’m an English teacher. Let me start.
- The traditional research paper in English classrooms is dead.
- So is the traditional works cited or bibliography–you know, that MLA or APA formatted way of documenting your sources.
In some districts, those two statements would probably be grounds for my dismissal. But we’re all friends here. So let’s just play around with this for a while.
The research paper: A closer look
Why do we have students write research papers in the first place? Why include a works cited? Well, we assign the paper to instruct and assess skills and knowledge related to researching, organizing, analyzing, and synthesizing information. We have students include a works cited to show that they’re not just making stuff up as they go along. But works cited and bibliographies also serve two other important purposes:
- They give credit for ideas, and
- they point us in the direction of those ideas–so that interested readers can follow up and learn more.
Organizing, analyzing, synthesizing, writing, and attributing ideas are valuable skills. So what could possibly be wrong with the research paper?
The problem is two fold:
- If we want to read some of the sources, we have to do more work. We have to order a book, go to a library, find a specific journal, magazine, or article. This takes effort. But perhaps, more importantly . . .
- This takes time.
Couldn’t they then simply link to the actual source that they used, and/or help the reader along by linking to a definition for potentially confusing terms or concepts (as I did above)? Doing so simplifies the whole process by attributing, defining, and also actually supplying the source of the ideas referenced.
Yes, I know. Sometimes that’s not entirely possible. One can’t always link to an entire book or periodical. Alas, not everything is on-line and free. But we can still link to a listing of the book on Amazon.com, an author page, or biography. So we can get pretty close–much closer than a properly formatted APA citation.
So, in comparing this approach to the traditional research paper: What skills are we missing? Nothing. We’ve enhanced it. We’ve taken the research paper and made it better, faster and stronger.
But that’s not all . . .
Perhaps the most glaring weakness with the traditional research paper is who has access to it. If the topic and writing is truly relevant, aren’t they also potentially valuable to greater audiences? And isn’t that audience’s feedback also valuable?
Today’s tools make all this possible in ways we couldn’t imagine as recently as five years ago.
So is the traditional research paper, in fact, going the way of the slate and homemade ink? I’m pretty sure it is.
And if that’s the case, and we’re still attached to the research paper (and we are), to what else might we teachers be clinging?
And how can we possibly know?
We can’t. But I think we can shine a little light in this darkness by asking ourselves two basic questions:
- What will the future look like? and,
- How do I prepare my students for that?
The engine of change revs to exponential speeds
If Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod are right:
- there are five times as many words in the English language than when Shakespeare lived, and
- the amount of technical information we have available to us is now doubling every 72 hours.
We think we’re supposed to know what our students need to thrive in the 21st century? C’mon. Let’s get real.
These kids are going to have fourteen jobs, many of which don’t even exist today, before they turn thirty-four. How do you prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet? How can we–how can they–possibly plan for that?
We can’t. They can’t.
The bottom line (and perhaps most important reality to consider) is that the rate of change is accelerating exponentially. We can’t possibly keep up. Ergo we can’t plan. Apple or PC? Explorer or Firefox? Google or Yahoo? Photoshop or Fireworks? A blog or a wiki? Ford or Chevy? It doesn’t matter. Today’s standards will not survive the night. Tomorrow will be completely different. By the time these kids hit the job market, we’ll be snickering at questions like these.
In fact, somebody somewhere is probably snickering already. The cost to communicate has fallen through the floor and the speed to do so has gone through the roof. This creates a whole new world. A flat one. Ideas, collaboration and creativity no longer have borders. Technology is removing the traditional constraints that used to slow progress. Today, our students can collaborate in real time, with information and people half way around the world, to solve problems, create solutions and to change everything.
We don’t know what, and we don’t know when. All we can be assured of is that, eventually, everything will change—again. And again. And again. It’s time to face the music. We can’t possibly plan for that. That’s the bad news. Welcome to the 21st century.
The Good News
The good news is that we can coordinate like never before.
Let me explain.
Remember what it was like a few years ago, before we all had cell phones, when you had to pick someone up at the airport? Remember what had to take place in order for that to happen? Lots of planning. You had to consider where the baggage was. You had to get there early to park the car. You had to meet at a prearranged time and place. And hope the plane was on time.
You don’t have to do any of that now. Just check the flight schedules on-line, and have your party call you when they land. If the flight’s late, run a few errands. If it’s early, just pick them up outside. Figure it out on the fly. No planning. Just coordination.
Now, with cell phones, it makes more sense to just wing it. Flight schedules change, baggage takes time to pickup, stuff happens. But now we can adjust on the fly. It’s easy to just roll with it.
Preparing our students for their futures is a bit like using our cell phones to coordinate an airport pick-up.
Successfully navigating the chaos of the pace of 21st century change will not require our students to know how to use today’s technology. It will not require them to plan very far ahead. It will, however, require them to connect to people and information and be able to create and collaborate in real time–on the fly.
It will require that they be able to “roll with it.” To “wing it.” To improvise.
Think of life in the 21st century as improvising in a jazz quartet. You never know exactly what’s coming, so you can’t plan too far ahead. Still, it’s not chaos. You are connected to the other players through the structure of the music. The notes of the piece flow from a combination of that structure and the harmony of your collaboration and creativity.
Our job as teachers is to show students what is possible within the structure of our time and space, an how to coordinate information and people in ways that create music with our lives . . .
. . .and then to dance.
Reflect on your beliefs and add your thoughts in the comment section below:
- What skills and concepts are you teaching that will help students be successful in the fast paced changes of the 21st century?
- If the “Research Paper” is going the way of the Cuckoo, what are some other instructional techniques/strategies/tools that might soon be outdated, or look very different in the near future?
- Sometimes the more things change, the more things stay the same. So what essential understanding are you teaching today that won’t change in the 21st century. What do you believe will stay the same?
Source of quotes:
1. Thornburg, David. Edutrends 2010: Restructuring, Technology, and the Future of Education. Starsong Publications, 1992. (link)
2. To see additional statements read and scroll to the bottom of this article .