What if…

I remember being a student. Waking up early, catching the bus, waiting for the morning bell to ring, filing into a classroom where the teacher closed the door behind us, only to open again for occasions such as bathroom breaks, lunch, and recess, until the end of the day, where once again the door was opened. I remember being scolded for talking during class, spending recess inside with my head on my desk for trying to observe what others were doing on their assignments, and trying to memorize a bunch of names, dates, and facts for recall at a later date. Sound familiar? I bet if we were to survey a variety of people, of all ages, they would be able to relate to these recollections. Not that these events are all bad, many times I deserved more than just a loss of recess, and all that memorizing had made me appreciate my memory even more, even though it is quite short. Nonetheless, many teachers are following the same path. I have had this conversation with a colleague of mine, and both Jeff and I believe it has to do with a level of comfort. We grew up, as did our parents, with this same model. We were taught in a similar fashion to that of our parents, and by most accounts it has seemed to work. After all, look at me… I made it, so why can’t the millions of others, why can’t my children?
Times have changed. Education, for the most part, has not.
Students have changed.
For the past fifteen years I have taught middle school students. In my short time in education, I have seen a dramatic change in students. Students are no longer attending school because they want to. They attend school because of some extrinsic force, such as that of a parent or a law. What would happen if this trend were reversed? What if the force that made students attend schools became intrinsic? What would happen if students came to school motivated to learn, with a desire to work together to accomplish a task, to seek out the advice and wisdom of professionals? What would happen?
Do students really need to learn and memorize vast amounts of content when they can find it on their phones faster than we can find it in a book? Or should we be developing critical thinking skills in these students by allowing them to direct their own learning, allowing them to collaborate, to solve, to design, to build, to fail and try again?
What if schools change?
What if teachers change?
What if?


~ by Dean Phillips on September 16, 2010.

6 Responses to “What if…”

  1. Wow – would love to sit and discuss this with you. Most intriguing. Especially the last paragraph. Any student can find out that the signing of the Magna Carta was in 1215. But does that fact enable them to understand what the Magna Carta actually was or why it came about? The same for our Declaration of Independence. Or the 2nd amendment to our Constitution. Of course the students can look it up, but will they understand the true meaning without the guidance of a teacher that is non-biased? One might argue that finding a non-biased teacher is impossible. And I agree. But, just having a lot of individual factoids available on your phone does not mean one understands the whole picture.

    Absolutely, you should be developing critical and logical thinking skills – I do not think that the typical classroom is teaching this and one reason is that the typical average teacher does not possess the knowledge to teach these skills. Note that I said knowledge and not capability. They simply are not trained to do this. Students need to be taught how to function in the 21st century and the old 20th century methods and what was taught then is not going to work. However, 2+2 will always equal 4. Don’t forget the basics!

    • I completely agree with you that the most important ingredient in education is the educator. I would also agree with you that some base knowledge and facts need to be learned. The ability to read and write is an essential element in all forms of education. As I understand your argument about learning and facts, does a student really learn the and understand the whole picture, or is the student able to commit information to short term memory, recall that information for an assessment of some sort, and then dump that information never to be revisited. If educators shift to a different method, one that allows more flexibility for the learners, would that content be understood more or less? Would that content be retained for a longer period of time? Don’t get me wrong, I do not have the answers, just lots of questions. Thanks for the comments, Mike. As always, I appreciate your feedback.

  2. I certainly do not have the answers either. But, it seems to me that some of the uses of technology, while making things “easier”, are not forcing the students to exercise their brain and to think for themselves. Smart Boards are great teaching tools – letting a student use a calculator to figure out 45 x 67 does not really teach the student how think for himself when the technology fails nor does it give him any understanding of the relationship of numbers to one another. In the example above, the student should be able to instantly round up the numbers to 50 x 70 and know that his answer cannot be more than 3500. If he mis-enters the numbers on the calculator (double types the 4) will he be able to recognize he made an error or will he blindly trust the technology and believe he has the correct answer even though it is much greater than the range of numbers the answer should fall in.

    One school actually sent the students home this summer because the servers were down. That, in my not so humble opinion, is not acceptable. Technology as a tool is useful – but it must not be allowed to be the only means and students need to be able to function without it. Let me give you a personal example from 25 years ago. That is about the time that I got speed dial on my home telephone. My best friend was #5 on speed dial. One day my car broke down and I went to call him from a pay phone – of course his number was not #5 on that phone and I could not remember his phone number. Ever since, I try to not rely too heavily on technology and try to keep the brain exercised. USe it or lose it 🙂

  3. I do think your argument is valid, we should all be prepared for the worst. But do we really need to avoid using technology for the fear of its failure? No doubt we need a plan B, but how many of us have a team of horses ready in case our vehicle doesn’t start? We need to move to the adoption stage and realize that many of these tech tools are going to play a major role in the future. Should we avoid them for fear of them failing, or do we adopt them and become proficient in using them? I still agree that we need a base of knowledge, but I also think that exposure to these new ideas and technology can only benefit our students. Everything in moderation.

  4. I am not at all implying that we should avoid the use of technology. The point I am trying to make is that we are, at times, too reliant on it and we let it take over ours powers of intelligence and memory.

    A perfect example would be a person that has his calendar electronically stored on his laptop. If his laptop crashes or gets stolen, I would wager the person would not be able to remember what his appointments for the following day or week would be. The person is using technology as a replacement for his memory. And because of this, he is slowly losing the ability to remember.

    I agree that technology is the way of the future and we should embrace and use it – but we also need to keep our minds sharp enough to operate when it fails us – and it will always fail us at some point – usually when we need it the most.

    Bottom line, I believe that if you let someone/thing else do most of your thinking for you, you will lose some of that ability yourself. And someone needs to remain smart enough to be able to develop the next generation of technology. We can not just be a society of “users”.

  5. Dean, what a great blog. I’ve only been teaching for four years, but I have seen a change in my students from year to year. I’m like you, I loved to go to school when I was growing up. I wanted to learn. It seems to me some students only come to school because they have to. When they do come, it seems like the worst thing in the world to them. Education has changed, but so has the home lives of many of our students. While working in a inner city school, there wasn’t a driving force for students at home to make them want to come to school to learn. There wasn’t always someone there to push them to make themselves better.

    I also agree we should be teaching critical thinking skills to our students today. Students do not have to remember facts and figures when they go to the internet and instantly find 100 websites with the information they need. By teaching those critical thinking skills, our students will be able to do things on their on in school and hopefully become a integral part of society.

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