Can tradition and technology coexist?

| November 17, 2010


Almost everyone understands by now that we are living through a time of extraordinary change.

But what may be less readily apparent is the tremendous acceleration of change we are experiencing. Moore’s Law, which holds that computer capacities double every couple of years, is now applicable to many technologies and innovations. And though educators may know from their day-to-day experience that this is true, their students are feeling the full impact of these high-tech transformations.

Rapid changes fuelling a technological generation gap

Consider just one example: Facebook. Though this social networking site is only about five years old, it has attracted enough users that, were it a country, Facebook would be the third most populous nation on the planet (after China and India). Its success illustrates the rapid spread and adoption of new tools that are a hallmark of the generation now in school. The sheer amount of information being generated is also expanding exponentially, and it is increasingly available, for good and for ill, at the click of a mouse.

These rapid changes are fuelling a technological generation gap. As digital education expert Marc Prensky has argued, today’s students are growing up as “digital natives”, while their teachers are relegated to operating as “digital immigrants”. We can and must provide classrooms that reverberate with our students’ experience. This requires much more than computer screens in classes.

It means making sure that students have not only up-to-date technological tools, but also the skill sets that will enable them to use those tools successfully for learning. The task demands a reconsideration of what we, as educators and parents working together, want to impart to the next generation. For me, such a consideration leads necessarily to a combination of new and old, an optimal mix of skills for the 21st century.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

For many weeks this year, I kept three whiteboards in my office, labelled respectively ‘Baby’, ‘Bathwater’ and ‘Fresh Water’. This was a way of helping my teachers, administrators and myself categorise educational skill sets: traditional skills that retain their relevance (the ‘baby’); traditional skills that are being eclipsed by new developments (the ‘bathwater’); and skills that have not typically been central to traditional educational models, but are increasingly necessary in the world of today and tomorrow (the ‘fresh water’).

Consider, for example, how we train students to approach information. A high school student asks a librarian for help with a five-page research paper about marine invertebrates. Directing him to plod through the limited shelf of books available – most of which are woefully outdated – in a small high school library is less valuable than helping the student conduct an online search using today’s powerful search engines to scour vast resources almost instantaneously around key words. But it is also crucial that the teacher guides and trains that student to be choosy about which sources to select from the many hits such a search will generate.

He must know that an article from a respected, peer-reviewed science journal is going to be preferable to an amateur’s blog. This example provides a model in miniature of the direction modern education might take. Culling information from individual silos/printed volumes is a skill moving to the margins (‘bathwater’). What are needed instead are ‘fresh-water’ skills such as digital literacy, metadata gathering, data mining and bias recognition. These skills, which include traditional educational values such as critical thinking and the ability to separate reliable from less rigorous sources (the ‘baby’), do not eliminate the need for learned guides, but quite the contrary:
They require more than ever that students have teachers and librarians who train them in the most effective ways to surf the vast digital-information ocean. This can be overwhelming to those without the proper navigational skills. That is why, at my school, even as we have shifted to a digital-library format, we have increased our library staff by 25%.

Refashioning traditional roles

Some of the other combinations of traditional and newer skills we need to place emphasis on as we prepare children for leadership in tomorrow’s world include those in the areas of play and creativity. Today’s students are used to learning in a virtual environment replete with games. Being able to harness such play for their school learning will go a long way toward fully engaging them. And, done properly, it will also allow them to be interactive content co-creators.

Estimates are that a third of young people today are creators of content on the Internet. Author and educational technology expert Alan November has spoken eloquently about the value of inviting today’s students to work alongside teachers in creating classroom materials. At Cushing Academy, where I am the Headmaster, students have the opportunity to create digital presentations of key chapters in their textbooks – and the results have often made the teachers’ jaws drop.

The digital native versus digital immigrant divide is real, and we teachers should not pretend we are the authorities on technology in the classroom. Give students a chance to show their digital savvy, and they will not only run circles around us, but also reinforce their learning and build their creativity and leadership skills. So, in addition to allowing them to be co-creators of content, we need to cede much of the mantle of technology guide to them. They can teach us how really to use these tools.

Does this mean that teachers are obsolete or ‘de-centred’? Hardly. Teachers remain the authorities in the classroom on content, analysis and propriety. And they, as well as a new brand of librarians, will be more vital than ever for steering students to the best, and away from the most spurious sources of information in the digital world. What it does mean, though, is that 21st-century classrooms ought to be marked by not one centre of authority – the teacher as all-knowing – but by two: the students as authorities on technology, with the teachers as content masters and learned guides.

Allow students to bring their expertise to bear Pretending otherwise only exposes us as phonies to the students. At Cushing, we have found that students respond with
tremendous enthusiasm and learn much more passionately when they can bring some of their own experience and expertise to bear in working as co-creators, alongside the teacher, of the classroom learning experience. And the teachers are having more fun, too.

We are living through a great change in human society, marked especially by an acceleration in the speed with which we are accumulating and accessing knowledge on a global scale. It is myopic in the extreme for schools to fail to reconfigure their teaching methods and priorities amid such profound and rapid transformation. By the same token, we do not have to be disoriented or paralysed by these developments. A considered admixture of the best from time-honoured educational traditions with
the most promising of the new skill sets emerging from our exploration of digital learning can lead to a more engaging school experience for today’s students, as they grow to be the 21st century’s leaders.

Dr James Tracy is Headmaster and President of Cushing Academy, in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, USA, where he has overseen the creation of the academy’s Institute for 21st Century Leadership. The institute works in aff iliation with the University of Oxford and Singularity University at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This article f irst appeared on the Education Week website and is reprinted here with Dr Tracy’s permission.

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Category: e-Education, Summer 2010

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