Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Invention

"Class, I'd like to introduce you to something magical.  It is an invention that allows anyone, almost anywhere in the world, to have access to nearly everything that any human has ever known.  It can almost instantly give you answers to nearly any question.  It can connect you to people who know the answers so that they can explain them to you."

"It can show you almost every work of art ever created.  You can use it to learn about music, and listen to the greatest masterpieces ever created by mankind.  You can look into outer space.  You can watch animals being born.  You can see what is going on nearly anywhere in the world.  You can see how a cell divides, or how plants turn energy from the sun into food."

"It can be used to find the location of almost any place in the world, down to a few feet in accuracy.  You can use it to meet new people, explore new ideas, or share your own ideas with the world.  You can use it to do nearly anything, because there are countless people out there using it to show you how."

"It has been used to revolutionize oppressed nations, to organize opposition and overthrow tyrannical governments.  It has been used to bring things to places that would never have them otherwise.  It can be used to change the world, if used correctly.  It can be used to work with others, to get feedback on our own work, to stretch our thinking, and to share what we create."

"But, when you come to my room, we are going to pretend it doesn't exist.  Instead, we are going to continue acting as if I'm the only person in the world who has the knowledge you need to succeed in this class.  If I see you trying to use this amazing invention, I will take away the device you are using to access it, and you will be punished."

We may as well hang this statement on our classroom walls.  In our district, nearly a third of all classrooms ignore the fact that the Internet exists.  They use computers once or less during the entire school year.  This data comes from a survey that teachers in our district took.  That, in itself, was a difficult process-there were many teachers who flat out fought about even having to log in to a website to take it.  

What makes us think that we don't need this tool, this invention that has literally changed the world we are supposedly preparing our students for?  How can we be so arrogant to assume that what was good enough for us is even remotely close to what is best for students today?  Have we not noticed that the Industrial Revolution is gone and not coming back?  Have we not been paying attention to the exponential advancement in technology?  Is it even possible for a teacher who cares about the success of their students to think that they are preparing them well for the future that they largely ignore is a reality?  

Come on, people.  It's time to get past your own hangups about using technology.  It's time to do the real work of preparing students for the world-the real world-in which they live, not the one that only still exists in your past.  

The Coach

As a star athlete transferring from a large school, Joe Student was excited to attend his first basketball practice.  Finally, he would feel that he belonged.  His first day was filled with uncertainty, unfamiliar faces, and confusing corridors that always seemed to lead him away from his next class.  Here, on the court, he felt at home.  This, he knew.

But as he entered the gym, he was again hit with a thick cloud of uncertainty.  What was going on here?  No one was suited up.  There were no basketballs to be seen.  The team was seated, in the same clothes they had worn to school, in front of a large whiteboard.  The coach was there, encouraging everyone to sit down and get quiet, handing out packets of papers.  Was this a meeting?  Had he misunderstood?  This was not the practice he was used to.

Things got more confusing from there.  It turned out to be a practice, but not like the ones Joe was used to.  Instead of running drills, getting tips, going through plays, doing sprints, working on ball handling, or scrimmaging, the team sat and listened.  The coach drew plays on the board.  He told players what to do in this situation or that situation.  He quizzed them on procedure, rules, and plays.  There was a quiz the following week, he said, over what was covered in today's "practice".  Joe wondered how this team was ever going to perform in games if they never did anything but listen and think about the plays.

If school is supposed to prepare you for life, why isn't school more like life?  Sitting down and listening to explanations, doing worksheets, and regurgitating information for tests doesn't work any better in school than it would in the basketball scenario.  Students, like athletes, need to actually practice and apply what they are learning in order to be successful.  They need to try, fail, get corrective guidance, and try again until they are successful.  The failing part might be the best way to learn.  Just as athletes watch film of mistakes and analyze what should have been done differently, failure is possibly the best teacher.

In school, we don't allow for failure.  We don't have time for it.  We make everyone do the same things, at the same time, using the same materials, so that it is easier for us to "cover" all the material and "manage" our classes.  That way, it can be regurgitated for the test.  But then it is forgotten.

Preparing students for life by doing things that are so far removed from real life that they can be forgotten within a week is definitely not what is best for them.  So why do so many continue to do it?  I think that can be summed up by answering the following question honestly:  Am I doing this because it's easy for me, or because it's best for them?

The Shop Class

As students arrived for the first day of Wood Shop, they noticed at the front of the room a table filled with tools of the trade.  There were various instruments that seemed to be for cutting, several others that looked like design tools, and many more that these first year students didn't recognize.  Imagine their surprise when the bell rang, the teacher stood at the front of the room and announced that they weren't going to be using any of them.

He explained that he didn't know how to use them, and so the students wouldn't be using them, either.  It would be dangerous for students to use things if he wasn't familiar with their proper use, he said.  It would be distracting to students if the sounds of the different tools hammering, sawing, and sanding could be heard during class.  Rather than risk anything unsafe, unfamiliar, or distracting, they would instead learn about how to make things without using any of the tools.

They would watch a video now and then, but mostly they would receive instruction in lecture format and practice the basic knowledge with worksheets.  If they wanted to use any of the information they might pick up between naps, they would have to do so at home, on their own time.

If this sounds ludicrous to you, think about how you teach your own subject.  Are you allowing students to use the tools available?  Are they using the best tools, or the ones that you are comfortable with?  Are they using or learning to use anything they will likely need in their own lifetimes, or the ones that you became comfortable with in yours?

Another scenario could have described a table with only the tools used hundreds of years ago, and none of the modern tools of today's carpenter.  This would be a fairly accurate comparison to schools today, as most classrooms operate they same way they did when they were modeled to fit the needs of the Industrial Revolution.  We operate as if in a time capsule, assuming that what was good enough for us, our parents, even our grandparents is somehow enough for today's students.

Teachers need to know what tools are available, how to use them, and how to teach students to use them effectively in their own lives.  To make the assumption that kids know enough about technology already and don't need anything from their teachers is to assume that knowledge of video gaming and texting will somehow transfer to corporate success.  Here is the truth:  kids aren't technologically savvy.  They know how to do what they want to know how to do, and nothing else.

Students need their teachers to be knowledgeable about the things that they will need for their futures, not be limited by what was good enough for their teachers' pasts.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Not Enough

It's not enough anymore.  

It's not enough to teach the way we were taught.  The world has changed.

It's not enough to let students use computers and digital tools.  They need to be taught to use them.  

It's not enough to hand out countless worksheets to demonstrate mastery of a skill students knew coming in, when they should have already been allowed to move on-and actually use that information on something that matters to them. 

We can't keep doing what we've always done and expect different results, and what we've always done before isn't enough anymore.  

Imagine a carpentry apprenticeship, or even a middle school shop class, in which the teacher spreads all the tools out and tells the students the first day that they will be using these, but they'll have to figure out how to use them on their own.  Even if the best of things happen, the skills and things created won't be as good as if they were taught to use the tools effectively from the start. 

And that means that it's not enough to have the tools and to let students use them, we need to know how to use them, too.