Monday, September 07, 2009

The state of education today

In 2008, Business Week ran an eight-part series by Don Tapscott, the author of Grown Up Digital. In the series, he argues how digital technology has affected the children of the baby boomers, a group he's nicknamed the "Net Generation."

Though the entire series is intriguing, I find the Nov. 30 article particularly relevant to our needs. In it, Mr. Tapscott describes a speech he delivered to a group of university presidents:

"The prevailing model of education, I said, made no sense for young people
today. This model revolves around the sage on the stage, the teacher who
delivers a one-size-fits-all, one-way lecture. This model, designed in the
Industrial Age, might have been a good way to condition young people for a
mass-production economy, but it makes sense neither for young people who have
grown up digital nor for the demands of this digital age."
What amazes me is how similar it is to the following statement McLuhan made in the 1969 Playboy interview:

"Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past
technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes
power. The generation gap is actually a chasm, separating not two age groups but
two vastly divergent cultures. I can understand the ferment in our schools,
because our educational system is totally rearview mirror. It's a dying and
outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data
totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation."
Who would have - or better yet - could have imagined that 40 years later, we'd be having the exact same debate albeit about the first Internet generation instead of the first television generation?

Few, if anyone, foresaw how pervasive the Internet would become when it was first introduced - yet here we are today devoting countless hours trying to figure out how to best educate children who literally grew up online.

Just as McLuhan said that the division between the first television generation and those educated beforehand was more a chasm than a simple generation gap, I would argue alongside Tapscott that the same could be said of the division between today's youth and even my generation - which witnessed the explosion of the Internet as we were graduating from high school in the mid- to late 90s.

Consider this: Until my sophomore year in high school, I was using an electric typewriter to prepare term papers. My half-brother, on the other hand, has to my knowledge never used a typewriter. When he graduates from Garland High School in May 2010 he'll have spent his entire academic career preparing presentations and term papers using a computer. He was preparing Power Point presentations (elementary school) at an age when I was expected to present posters or overhead slides, if I wanted extra credit. And the time he has spent in any library is negligible compared to the years I devoted to the Corpus Christi Central Library - where in the late 80s/early 90s, I used a card catalog system to research everything from the anatomy of wolves to the history of China before I reached middle school.

Don't get me started on encyclopedias. It was a huge deal when my mother forked over who-knows-how-much for our family's first and only set of World Book Encyclopedia's - yet I have never once seen my half-brother crack an encyclopedia or even mention using one, for that matter. There is not - nor has there ever been - a set of encyclopedia's at my dad's house. That's partly because what my mother considered a major investment in her children's education was made almost completely obsolete by the time my half-brother started school.

The problem this causes in education is that many - not all - teachers - have yet to realize just how expansive this generational chasm really is. They look out over a roomful of students who have been online since birth and have no clue how to engage them.

In the Business Week article, Tapscott describes how the academics reacted when he questioned why it is taking so long for the educational system to change. One educator (whose age wasn't disclosed) blamed the problem on his/her colleague's age: "Their average age is 57, and they're teaching in a 'post-Gutenberg' mode."

"Post-Gutenberg?" another president injected. "I don't think so...Our model of
learning is pre-Gutenberg. We've got a bunch of professors reading from
handwritten notes, writing on blackboards, and the students are writing down
what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model—the printing press is not even an
important part of the learning paradigm."
Unfortunately, the university president's assessment that many teachers are still following a pre-Gutenberg model remains right on the money. While this style of teaching is fine for many - but not all - nontraditional (i.e. older) students, the methodology simply doesn't serve the younger "Net" generation. This is because they have grown up to believe, rightfully so, that their education is in their hands and that the teacher-focused, one-size-fits-all, methodology is archaic and doesn't fit their lifestyle.

Luckily, many teachers are beginning to change their ways. As an education reporter at the Dallas Morning News for nearly five years, I witnessed first-hand how classrooms are moving toward becoming more "Net-generation" friendly. Lectures still have a place in the classroom, but teachers are encouraging more group interactions and fostering conversations rather than one-way dialogues. They're also embracing the Internet as much as their superiors allow by using blogs, Wikis, and social networking applications to connect with students.

All in all, education seems to be moving in the right direction - just not nearly fast enough. With technology continuing to advance as quickly as it does, educators will continue to be hard-pressed to keep up with the latest and greatest technology. My only hope is that they try - for our (my) children's sake.


John Kay said...

Thanks for bringing your educational journalism expertise to this posting. I, too, thought that McLuhan's description of the state of education in 1969 could have described most years since then. In 1969 I entered the first grade in Mobile, Alabama. I see myself as a student who could have benefitted from the changes that he recommended. Your half-brother sounds like he will be ready for U.T.D.

kristalbrook said...

My favorite teachers were the ones who encouraged dialog and didn't rely on the overhead transparency for lessons. I think teachers should embrace new technology but keep in mind that a good conversation is still a great way to learn. I AM grateful that I don't have to use the "Reader's Guide to Periodicals" for research anymore.

Jax D. said...

I like you am curious about the generations that come after. I also though am curious about the ones in the middle that seem not to be talked about here. What about those of us who moved from making overhead slides to making the computer slides? I see those of us growing and adapting to what we've read. We are like languages created. We're evolutionary in this sense as well. Where are we going next? I do agree though there are many parallels to be drawn with the TV generation before us and the Internet generation we see now.

Gary said...

Bravo. Well written. I hear from teachers all the time who complain that they must be more entertainer than teacher. I contend they don't get it. Gen Y has grown up digitally; they expect more; they learn differently. Teachers must adapt. I'm one who believes that the video game generation should, in part, be learning through immersive video games. How about that for change in how we teach? And, hell, why shouldn't education be entertaining? That translates to fun. And most of us will spend more time on fun things than we will on un-fun.