Changing Content For New Technologies

It’s true that technology is exploding at a rapid pace.  I just learned that my old school district is giving iPads to the kids to use.  IPADS!  If I had an iPad for school when I was a kid I would flip out.  I’m jealous actually.  However, are the teachers and educational institutions simply putting old textbooks in a new package?  Or are they making new material that suits the advantages of this new technology?

Here’s a speculative article snippet that I found:

When are we going to finally accept the idea that the future of education should not be just an extrapolation of the past? Educational practice needs to be completely redefined, and if it is not, all of our enthusiasm surrounding technology will be meaningless.

There was no more telling–and depressing–example of this than one of the popular full-page ad for a particular distance learning system. This ad shows a teacher standing in front of a blackboard filled with tim tables! Get a grip, folks. We’re supposed to waste bandwidth by broadcasting video images of multiplication tables int classrooms around country? Hold me please–I may pass out here.

And yet, I’m sure this kind of drivel sells products because it says to educators, “Hey, don’t change a thing. just use our technology to keep on giving the same tired, top-do Lures you’ve always given.” Worried about what to do with all those old mimeo handouts? No problem, scan them in and ship them over the Net.

I think I want to throw up.

The fact of the matter is that old ideas are comfortable and we give them up with reluctance. This has to do with human nature, and the propensity is not limited to education–not by a long shot. From LPs to CDs. The reality is that new technologies are displacing old ones at an unprecedented speed, a speed that is only accelerating. In my lifetime, as an electronics hobbyist, I made the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits. It took less than 20 years for the microwave oven to move from oddity to an essential kitchen appliance. On the audio front, CDs have become so pervasive that I have a teen-age cousin who doesn’t even know what a phonograph record is.

Obviously, high-speed changes like these are sharply affecting employment. When I was in school, a job in a Fortune 500 company was deemed a ticket to secure success. Since that time, the Fortune 500 has permanently cut 25 per cent of its workforce. But for every job lost in the Fortune 500, 2.5 jobs were created by small entrepreneurial companies.

What are our schools doing to prepare children for this rapidly changing world? If you don’t know what I am talking about, answer this question: How many required courses do your students have to take on entrepreneurship or on starting their own company?

Our system of education is largely unchanged from the system established during the Middle Ages. Yes, certain practices have changed, but the system has not. Schools are still largely built around the concept of information as a scarce resource that must be metered out by teachers, primarily through lectures. Has the technological revolution changed this? Not by a long shot. It is not enough to just bring in some new flashy, interactive multimedia. We need to spend some time thinking about what we are trying to accomplish and in the process we may have to grapple with what we have to change to get different results. Unless we have the guts to abandon instructional practices that don’t meet our needs, we’ll never have the time to create the educational system needed to prepare kids for their future.

Can you spell r-o-t-e? Let’s look at one example. Someone came up to me after a workshop and asked how I felt about weekly spelling lists. This person pointed out that if we teach 20 spelling words a week for 40 weeks a year over 12 years, this amounts to a written vocabulary of 9,600 words (assuming none of these words is ever forgotten). Whoopee. Since kids by that age have a working vocabulary of over 20,000 words, most of which they can spell, we might ask just where it was they learned how to spell the other 10,000 words we never got around to teaching? (Yes, I can feel your hackles rising.

For the record, I am a fan of knowing how to spell words correctly–or at least knowing how to spell them well enough that my spell-checker can find the mistakes and recommend the correct replacement.

The question is–where does all this rote learning lead? in math, we spend about a decade trying (unsuccessfully) to turn our youth into replicas of $3 pocket calculators, and then wonder why they have a hard time with word problems. This decontextualization of learning is one of the core reasons why so many of our students come out of schools so ill-equipped to function in the work world.

We present material linearly, even though our children think in a broad mosaic of interconnected patterns. True interactive media–the best commercial software and very often the projects created by young people themselves–reflect this reality, but much of traditional classroom teaching does not. We persist in operating in the Gutenbergian world of left-right, top-down presentations from the printed page. The time has come to stop preparing our kids for a world that no longer exists. How long are we going to put the same old vinegary wine in new bottles?

David Thornburg runs the Thornburg (enter for Professional Development in San Ramon, Colif. His most recent book is Education in the Communication Age. To order, e-mail DThornburg@aolcom. pare kids for their future.

Thornburg, David. “Old wine in new bottles: new technology should not be delivering the same old goods.” Electronic Learning Mar. 1995: 18+.