Wednesday, May 8, 2013

So I've been thinking a great deal about education lately and I decided to do what all my students are doing.... blog about it. I was one of those people, about 15 years ago, who was daunted by the idea of just turning on the computer. The I began using it bit by bit in my teaching practice. First, I started a Moodle for my AP Art History class. I found images online and made PowerPoints-no more slides for me. I  posted homework and asked questions of my students, to which they responded online. They were not nearly as impressed as I was-being on the computer was second nature to them. A few years later, I went to work at a laptop school and my knowledge grew exponentially! We were encouraged to be paperless. We corresponded with parents, teachers and students via email. All my students took notes on their laptops-that took a little getting used to, but I found that I liked it. They could look something up during a discussion and it only made the class richer. It forced me to move around the room and they got used to me being behind, in front and in the middle of the room checking that they were on task. Being at this school changed how I worked, taught and thought.

I was talking to my students last week about how thinking has changed because of the internet. I know that my brain works differently. I don't remember little details or dates-I look them up. I write differently. I wrote my masters' thesis by hand. Notecards divided up into piles. An outline written from the piles. Sections hand written and then physically cut up and moved around and pasted back together--with glue! The final product was typed. On a type writer. Now, by contrast, I sit down to write and it feels like a brain dump. Then I go back and reread and cut and paste to move things around--no glue needed, just a click of the mouse. The way my brain approaches writing is just different. I see the same approach in my students when they do an in class essay on the computer. There are few outlines in the room, but students are busy writing from the moment you let them begin. They go back afterwards and organize, rewrite and rearrange.

So what does all this mean? Our students' brains are different, the structure of the world is different and we need a new paradigm for education.  Why teach content and rote memorization if they can pull their phones out and look up the information? Some students are good at playing the "school" game. They can get good grades and pass the tests, but to what end? When you talk to students now about their education, it is often seen, at least where I teach, as a means to an end: getting into a good college. But what happens if you 'do school' well, you jump through all the hoops... then what? Do you graduate from college prepared for what's out there? Judging by my own children and thousands others coming out of college now, the answer is no. So, how do we prepare students for a future world--or even for the present one? What skills and abilities do they need to go out and make a difference, find meaning in their pursuits and survive and be successful in today's world?

Innovation education experts have been looking and identifying these skills and there are many good books out there on this topic. As a teacher, I think we need to help students discover what they are interested in and why what they are learning matters. This doesn't mean we get rid of content. Students need to be exposed to all kinds of disciplinary knowledge, because how do you discover what you are passionate about if you don't know about it? We need to tweak how we teach. We need to help students pursue what they are interested in with more open ended assignments that allow students to shape them to fit their own areas of interest within a larger topic. This doesn't mean a free for all, just a rethinking of how assignments are framed.

One of the things I notice about students today, is that they are uncomfortable with a question that does not have a right answer. They want to know if they are right and if they are getting the "A." Give them an open-ended question, and some of them are frightened. How can they figure it out if they don't know what you, the teacher, wants them to produce? Assignments that give parameters but don't have only one answer force students to think for themselves. And these assignments leave room for students to be individuals.

Students also don't know why they are learning what they are asked to learn. Often, they cannot see any connection to their own lives or the import of acquiring this knowledge. If the material is not relevant, they won't remember it. If they don't use it to do something significant, they won't remember it two weeks after the test. Since so much content is available online, why not teach students to ask questions and do research about a topic that they can use in a meaningful way? Why not let students try to make a difference in the world now? As one of my students said the other day, 'I'm alive now!'

So, that's just my first stab at this. Coming soon, my thoughts on how important it is to make things, to take things apart and to play. Please let me know what you think.