What’s Your Vision for Education?

In a recent email addressed to my colleagues, I posed the question, “What is your vision for education in the 21st century?” Realizing the complexity and open-endedness of the question, I was expecting to hear from only a handful of educators and was surprised that many of my colleagues not only responded, but that this question truly mattered to them. From the responses, several themes emerged. Here are the top three topics of interest:

1. Questioning the effectiveness of the use of technology in the classroom.
2. Placing more emphasis on critical thinking and social skills.
3. Reevaluating the “one size fits all” model of education and the unquestioned tendency toward fragmentation and subdivision.

Combing through the responses, there is an overall agreement with points 2 and 3, that the “factory” model educational system, brought upon by the industrial revolution, works well for only a handful of students and that we should spend more of our class time on individualized learning with our students (“guide on the side,” as opposed to the “sage on the stage”), teaching students critical thinking skills (as opposed to the memorization of facts and dates), and taking a more interdisciplinary approach towards education.

However, there exists a strong bifurcation of opinions, specifically between the young and more experienced teachers, when it comes to the use of technology in the classroom. While it is no surprise that younger educators fully embrace the use of technology in the classroom (there were several references to the inverted, or flipped classroom approach, the use of social media to stay connected outside of the classroom, and the use of nascent technologies overall as another arrow in the pedagogical quiver), a substantial portion of the more experienced teachers stated otherwise, calling for a “step back” approach, with some suggesting the removal of computers and smart phones from the learning process altogether.

In one response, an older teacher (relatively new to the world of education) wrote that new tools in the classroom are good, but only in moderation, and should be used carefully and thoughtfully. Another teacher, a 30-year veteran in education, had this to say:

At a time where pages of computed logarithm values were used to calculate the pH level of a solution, I remember having to spend a full week of class time teaching my students on the effective use the slide rule. I thought this was pedagogically progressive and that this was the future. However, when the calculator first came out, everyone jumped aboard, the slide rule became a relic and students quickly threw away their log tables – but with the advent of the calculator, the students lost something here. Punching numbers into a keypad and quickly having an answer appeared novel and cutting-edge, but students had no reference as to whether or not the values seemed reasonable. They stopped associating pH with logarithms. They had no reference or perspective on whether or not their answer was correct. Math that is not explicitly shown is already difficult for them to grasp. Let a machine perform the calculation and basic practical skills are lost.

And while I agree with this veteran teacher’s perspective, refusing to implement new technology in the classroom, for fear the glimmer and shine of something new will bewilder our students from the lesson at hand is a faulty generalization, a misleading vividness that could stymie the growth and creativity of a student in the classroom. Students want to see connections between the real world and the classroom and depend upon educators to demonstrate this.

We live in the age where “Googling” makes more practical sense than pulling out a dictionary, where the use of social media like Twitter can be used to initiate nation-state regime change, and where smart phones and tablets are not only reshaping the way we receive information, but have more computing power than the mainframes used by NASA to land humans on the moon in 1969; incidentally,  NASA is using Android Smartphones as the principle computing device in its most recent satellites.

Never before have we had immediate access to a plethora of information and technology; but how do we (as a society) process this information in a meaningful way? Nate Silver, author of The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog writes, “We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it,” referencing the housing bubble (and its subsequent burst in 2008) as an example of how many failed to predict how complex credit default-swaps and collateralized debt obligations obfuscated the looming economic recession. In a fast-moving world where technology changes rapidly, ask yourself this: is your classroom a time capsule of a bygone era, or a laboratory where students are part of the future?

If we decide to endeavor into the future, then how do we teach our students to navigate (and in an ethical manner) through a landscape riddled with corrugations, whose peaks define new ways of thought and whose valleys cast shadows of misconception and misinformation? If we choose to ignore the benefits of technology for the sake of “losing practical skill,” then to what extent does our inertia affect the future of our students and our nation as a whole? If our students see us as model learners, what message are we sending our students when we simply refuse to implement technology in the classroom?

When we consider our current generation of students, ask yourself this: are critical thinking skills diminishing? Are attention spans in your classroom waning? And if so, is this due to the increased use of technology in our society, or is this due to the homeostasis and malaise of the educator set in his or her ways? As Shakespeare once wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Are we doing enough to help our students become as (globally) competitive as possible and to what extent does the use of emergent technologies help establish an edge?

There is no doubt that educators will certainly use technology to enrich their classroom, but only if the timing is right, and only if it doesn’t take away from the lesson. But what if the lesson is outdated? Let’s find new ways to think and innovate, without losing the critical thinking skills. Incorporate technology, but don’t have students entirely depend upon it. Crafting meaningful lesson plans that demonstrate the use of current technology is truly engaging for both the teacher and student. The trick is making these lessons clear.

Skyler Saucedo teaches physics at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida. He is also the head middle school boys' lacrosse coach.

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