09.08.2015: 21st Century Learning
What is the future of learning? And how did learning in its present form take shape? Sugata Mitra says that the skills we teach our children are based on the Victorian era need for interchangeable human calculators. In an age before modern computing and telecommunications technology, the British Empire ran efficiently on columns of numbers transcribed into ledgers and transported around the globe by ships. It was necessary to have human calculators who had the same abilities scattered all over the world in order to transmit and receive the vital information of commerce, so spelling, writing, and mathematics were standardized. Students needed to read, write, and spell accurately, perform calculations correctly, and not demonstrate too much creativity. Schools of the Victorian era fulfilled their mission, but most schools are still doing it today, over 100 years later, when, perhaps, it no longer serves us so well.
It became possible to eliminate some of these drudgeries back in the 1970s when early technologies started invading the classroom. These technologies made it less necessary to memorize mundane things, but there was an inevitable backlash. Students were forbidden to use pocket calculators because they became less proficient at memorizing their times tables, or because they couldn't do a long division problem by hand, or when they trusted the output of the calculator even when it made no sense. Students were forbidden to use word processors and spell checkers because the quality of their cursive handwriting and their ability to spell was suffering, or because cut and paste was making term papers too easy to plagiarize. But, rather than ban the tools, perhaps we should change what we teach? I'll expand on this idea below.
Should we continue to teach those basic skills, even if only to give students an appreciation for our humble origins, much as we might derive an equation from first principles in a graduate seminar class? Are skills like cursive writing and knowing one's times tables important to the shaping of neural pathways, influencing our intuitive language and computation abilities as some studies suggest, or are they relics of a bygone age? I would argue that some basic skills are important and should still be taught because I can do basic math in my head faster than my children can reach for their iPhones. However, in a knowledge economy, our ability to synthesize and evaluate information is much more important than it used to be, back when we could trust that most of the knowledge found in library books had been vetted by experts during the arduous publication process. Although we like to think that we're in the Information Age, there's an awful lot more easily accessible misinformation online too. Retrieving information is easy. Evaluating and synthsizing it is the bigger challenge in today's world.
Categories in the cognitive domain of Bloom's Taxonomy.
Does it still make sense to give students multiple choice tests with closed notes, closed books, and no electronic aids? Is asking students to memorize facts that can be easily retrieved of much value? Sure, students must understand the foundational materials. Even the die-hard constructivists admit that you can't construct your own learning without the basic building blocks. Otherwise it's just time wasted reinventing the wheel, and a pretty primitive wheel it will be. But shouldn't the emphasis be on the higher order thinking skills? Does it matter if a history student knows the date of an event, or is it more important that he/she understands the causes of the event? Does a math student need to know how to tediously calculate a square root by hand, when the calculator is so readily accessible? We need to redesign our curriculum to emphasize the kinds of assignments that require thinking rather than memorizing, and synthesis rather than fact gathering. Why assign students to do a biography of a lesser known president when that information is so easily looked up? Instead, why not assign the students to write about whether he was a good president and whether, based on the information he had at his disposal, or in retrospect, he made the best decisions? Students still need to learn what the guy did, but the tougher question, the one that makes you search your own values and understanding, is, "Was it the right course of action, and why?" You can watch the incurious students squirm when you ask questions like that!
Rather than ban a technology from the classroom, why not acknowledge that, in the modern workplace, it's not so important to know how to run a linear regression with only pencil and paper (perhaps useful if stranded on a desert island?), or to look up some information online on what constitutes a healthy diet. What's really important to know is whether a linear regression is the right tool for the job, or to assess the validity of a website that claims to have all the answers about healthy eating. Creating a generation of critical thinkers who know how to use technology tools is what we're really after, even if it means allowing open book, open note, open Internet on tests. The mathematically curious ones will still want to know how a linear regression works, but the rest can skip ahead to the more stimulating problems. Except for a handful grand masters, most of us can't beat the computer at chess, and yet we don't lose sleep over it. Let's let computers do what they're good at: brute force searches, speedy, error-free calculations, and rapid information retrieval, and let's get humans doing more of what we're best at (when properly trained): critical thinking, synthesis, pattern searching, and creativity!
It's ironic, then, that many instructors want to use technology tools to block student access to technology so that they can continue to deliver tests designed for a pre-technology era. It's the pedagogy and the assessments that need rethinking. Yes, it's often more work to determine what students think rather than test what they have memorized. Computers can grade multiple choice tests, but not opinion papers! We still need humans for that!