Wednesday, May 27, 2009

21st century education

Last night I attended a community forum about the future structure of the Charlottesville public schools. Many things were discussed, but here's what struck me: the assistant superintendent's speech about providing our students with a "21st century learning environment" and with connecting classroom content to the "real world."

First of all, the "21st century learning environment." What is that, exactly? What is different about this century? The technology, obviously. Still, what does that mean? More computers in the classroom? We already have computers in the classroom. The time for getting excited about computers in the classroom passed twenty years ago. I'm not a luddite. I appreciate the ways that computers have enhanced our lives and increased our access to information, but I think their use as educational tools has been maxed out, pretty much.

I'm fairly appalled at the way my kids write research papers. They'll have one window open to google, and in another, their text document. They find their information willy-nilly with no regard to the reliability of their sources. They'll rapidly switch from internet source to document and cobble together a "paper" within half an hour--something that for me, was a several day process, what with trips to the library for books--actual books--and taking handwritten notes which were translated into a handwritten paper unless my mom was feeling generous and let me use her typewriter. But sometimes you hesitated about handing in a typed paper if it wasn't required. You'd get panicked questions from your classmates: "OMG, was this paper supposed to be typed?" You risked looking like a brown nose.

Obviously, this issue goes far beyond typing vs. handwriting. And I'm not saying we should return to handwritten papers. My three oldest kids all type as rapidly as professional secretaries, and that is fine with me, but is their *learning* improved because of this skill?

The assistant superintendent mentioned texting, and how popular it is with our young folk. Indeed it is! One recent cell phone bill showed that we sent or received 50,000 texts. FIFTY THOUSAND TEXTS IN ONE MONTH. But how does that translate into something useful for the classroom? Will kids be texting their test answers to their teachers? Just because we have this technology and kids enjoy using it, does that mean it *must* be incorporated into the classroom?

Next is the issue of aligning content with the "real world." It's the age-old grumble of students that what they're learning has nothing to do with real life. You know what I say to that? Suck it up, kid. Think how impoverished our children's education would become if the one overriding educational principle was that everything learned had to relate to real life. I guess we could do away with literature because what do Shelley or Shakespeare have to do with real life as an adolescent sees it? Or maybe literature would be confined to works that reflect modern real-life problems that our kids can relate to personally? Because God knows, we wouldn't want them to have to stress their brains by trying to understand something that wasn't personally relevant. And I guess we could stop math once basic arithmatic had been mastered. History? It's in the past! What does it have to do with real life, now? Away with it! Music? Nope, no real life link. Think of the cost savings in doing away with all those instruments.

Did I put my kids in orchestra because I thought they were going to become professional musicians? Of course not. Like most parents, I wanted my children to have the experience of learning an instrument and performing in front of an audience. I thought the self-discipline required for practice would be good for them and I thought that playing an instrument might enhance mental agility. But most of all, what I love about the orchestra program in the Charlottesville schools, is the music. They make beautiful music. I enjoy listening to it, and my kids enjoy playing it. It's about beauty, and you can't force beauty to relate to the real world or to career skills.

That's the other thing. In aligning content with real life, the assistant superintendent said, we will be preparing our children with career skills. OK, careers are good, and of course we want our children to have successful careers, but if the main focus of K-12 education becomes careers and job skills, then we have replaced education with vocational training.


  1. I agree with you on all points. I almost got the sense that Ms. I. was preparing us for the demise of arts in the curriculum. I don't think that's what she meant, but that's certainly what came across.

    The larger issue is that she stood up there and talked at us for nearly half an hour, saying a whole lot of nothing. But, boy, wasn't all that hot air impressive?

    I also came away from last night's forum with the very real sense that central office knows what direction they want to go and that that they're just having the forums to see if there's any real public outcry against their preferred plan. Yes, I went into the forum with that thought already in place, but walked out with it affirmed by everything I read and heard.

  2. What a great post. My kids are in public school in Georgia not Virginia, but I get where you're coming from.

    I think one of the most important things kids need to learn in the internet age is the evaluation of sources. Wikipedia is not a legitimate source!

    My daughter who is 13 loves to tell us little "facts" she's learned from the web or her friends who've learned it from the web. She is the daughter of two of the most questioning people you'll ever meet, and yet she believes all of this crap until we force her to do a little research on it.

  3. Amen. There is "knowledge" and there is "education." "Learning" and "training." Not always the same. As a former teacher, I despise the jargon that passes for curriculum development these days.