Teaching to the Student

Tonight on PBS, Frontline offers a program titled “Growing Up Online” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline/)  an attempt to provide greater understanding of today’s youth.  A sociological exploration, if you will, into a generation that never knew corded telephones, typewriters, a library card catalog, or UHF television.  A demographic that can’t recall a pre-Internet world.  A group we hope is being built on the notion of working smarter, not harder; to innovate and not follow.

From some of the early reports on this special, we are seeing that some teachers are fretting the current generation of students because of their short attention spans and desire for instant gratification.  Undoubtedly, we’ll eventually hear pinings for the good ole days, when students plucked quills from porcupines and hand-wrote everything on paper with chunks of wood still embedded in it.

Face it, we are living, working, and learning in a new frontier.  It’s adapt or perish.  We see that in industry, as businesses are forced to do more with less, to adopt green practices, and constantly innovate and build a better mousetrap.  We see it in the media, where morning newspapers and traditional network news has been replaced with specialty cable stations and a plethora of web sites, blogs, and other “news outlets” that provide the information we want, as soon as we want it.

So shouldn’t we expect it in education as well?  K-12 education is one of the last bastions of old-world thinking.  Consider this, most of today’s high schools are just like the high schools we went to, or our parents, or our grandparents.  The fact is, little has changed in secondary education over the past century.  We still have rows of one-piece desks.  We still have teachers lecturing 25 some-odd students for the full class time.  We still have worksheets and multiple-choice tests on relatively arcane topics.  And we still have anywhere from a third to a half of students dropping out before earning their diploma.

At the same time, we preach the need for education.  We tell students that high-skill, high-wage jobs require both a high school diploma and some form of postsecondary education.  We talk about the relevance of school and the need to achieve.  And then, in far too many communities, we go back to rows of desks and a lecture on the French Revolution.

It shouldn’t be this way.  Last summer, Eduflack wrote about the danger of “deskilling” today’s students.  http://blog.eduflack.com/2007/07/26/deskilling-our-students.aspx  Perhaps Frontline can teach us a little about what we need to do to engage students, make school relevant, and upgrade the learning environment to meet the skills and expectations of todays skills … and not their great-grandparents.

What does all that mean?  It means change.  Change in how we teach.  Change in what we teach.  Change in how we measure it.

It means putting technology in the center of the learning process.  If students resonate to information gleaned from MySpace, Facebook, You Tube, and the Internet in general, use it to the teachers’ advantage.  We can expect far more from students using the Internet than the Dewey decimal system.

It means making school relevant.  We are already seeing the successes of programs like Early College High Schools and other Gates grantees.  If I want a high-skill, high-wage job, show me how my high school (or middle school) experience gets me there.  Yes, some of our nation’s great educational thinkers believe K-12 is a time to cultivate a love for learning, and college or grad school is the time to focus on career.  But if you talk to today’s eighth or ninth graders, it is all about the path to a good job.  The courses they take, the extra-curriculars they participate in, the schools they choose.  If our students are focused on relevance, shouldn’t we?
Ultimately, it means recognizing that the student is the primary customer in our K-12 system.  And as we all know, the customer is always right.  That means we teach in the environment where our students can get maximum benefit.  Think about it for a second.  Would we rather build up a teacher’s skills so they are teaching in a 21st century learning environment, or would we rather strip a student down so they are learning in a 19th or 20th century classroom?  The choice should be simple.  Our schools should be home to an ongoing evolution of effective learning and teaching.  They shouldn’t be museums where we honor the good teaching of 1937 educators.

Some get this, and we see their impact in efforts such as one-to-one computing, online high schools, dual enrollment programs, high school internship programs, and the like.  But these seem to be the exception, instead of the rule.  If a public K-12 education is going to mean something in 10 or 20 years, such innovations need to be the norm.  Deep down, we all know that, even if we don’t want to talk about it.  The educational model of the past century is not going to cut it as we move further into this one. 

Sure, this is all a little harsh.  Yes, if we try to build of K-12 systems solely around the whims and wishes of the average teenager, we’ll run in circles and lose what hair we have left.  But if we are to learn anything from programs such as “Growing Up Online,” it is that we need to effectively reach our audiences with language, tactics, and strategies they understand, appreciate, and embrace.  We need to build that better educational mousetrap, if you will.  And we need it now.

4 thoughts on “Teaching to the Student

  1. Very interesting post. Online high schools are an interesting idea I’m not very familiar with. Online education though has definitely had some success at the collegiate level. They can demand a self-motivated student, but adding options to appeal to all types of learners is vital.

  2. Ok, it is a new world with facebook, myspace et all. But the school tests you support are really ones that put a premioum on reading, essays and a longer attention span than seseme street. How do you deal with that apparent contradiction???

  3. Ok, it is a new world with facebook, myspace et all. But the school tests you support are really ones that put a premioum on reading, essays and a longer attention span than seseme street. How do you deal with that apparent contradiction???

  4. Venues like Facebook and MySpace demonstrate that many of today’s students are interested in group interaction, team projects, and the like.  We can take advantage of that through project-based learning, etc.  Many of our nation’s leading business schools are now focused on the team aspect of learning.  If it works for the Whartons, Harvards, and Dardens of the world, it should be good enough for our K-12 schools.Also, we just need to think in terms of delivery.  Is it really important for a student to read from a textbook, or can they also gain fluency and comprehension from reading on a computer screen?  The data is still being gathered, but I’d like to think the latter is true.  We’re never going to abandon tasks like essays.  I, for one, think the five-paragraph essay was one of the best things I learned during my K-12 experience.  But can we email essays, instead of writing longhand?  If it allows the student to focus on the content, and not on the process, we should be supporting that.

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