Education needs to change!

I have been looking at what students are doing today as compared to what they were doing fifteen years ago. I have also been talking to teachers about this topic too, and they are suggesting similar themes as I am seeing. Essentially, the students seem nicer kids, but their work output is lower.

Why is this, do you think? At this point I am going to make a couple of suggestions, and if you, dear Reader, agree, then OK, but if you don’t please say so at the bottom in Comments. If you have anything else to say, please don’t be shy, state your ideas and why you think these are important.

The students in High Schools are now all Millenials, and Millenials are different. As a group, they are far more likely to be tolerant of differences in other people. Intolerance is not acceptable to the majority of Millennials – mostly. The traditional gender issues and, I have noted, sexuality issues are not generating the attention or heat they used to. Mostly, religious issues are ignored, unless someone provokes a deliberately negative response with an “in-your-face”, hard line action or talk. Race too is sliding into the background, Millennials seem to be a lot more accepting of “the other”. Skin colour and eye-shape are not as important with the majority as they used to be.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still your die-hard racists and anti-LGBTQ’s out there, but they are not given the credibility or creedence they used to be. Millennials often treat the “anti’s” with scorn and derision, mostly – but they just seem to be getting fewer. Hard to tell, but the oldest Millennials are still only 18 years old. We will see if they can maintain this kind of equanimity when they are in their thirties.

A major area of difference is that the kids today are far less likely to accept the drivel their parents did. We push the idea that “good education means a good start and a good life”. Millennials are far more cynical than that. Too many of them know that no matter what education they get, unemployment is still the biggest option of their life.

Millennials know that not all students can get into University, so seem to be destined for the scrap heap before they finish High School. Most of those kids who know they can’t get into Uni are the ones who are disengaged, “dis-incentivised” (if there is such a word) before they get going in the workforce. Too many city kids spend too much time in menial jobs, underemployed, underpaid and find they just cannot get ahead. Too many country kids do not have the opportunities to find part-time employment that is not seasonal work.

I know that working in a fast-food joint looks good on a resume. Studying through Year 12 and working shows personal commitment and time organization skills that should always be recognized. Unfortunately, when Year 12 is finished, too many people stay in those menial jobs because they have no other job to go to.

So it is in those areas were Education needs to take a serious look at itself. How to re-engage the disengaged, how to provide hope for a brighter future to students?

I suspect one way to do this is to stop pushing the line “good education means a good start and a good life”. Instead, rephrase to something like, “we have no idea where life will take you, so we want you to be prepared to go anywhere.” I know that a lot of Teachers right now will be screaming “This is what we do already!” But do we actually say that to the kids? Probably not. That is the first place Education should change. Stop building dream castles for students and look more to the reality of their future lives. Change brings uncertainty, so prepare students for continual uncertainty.

Another way in which Millennials are different is their acceptance of technology. There have been very few students who just refuse to accept new technology, some, but very few. So how can Teachers use this to their advantage?

This is far too big a topic to go into in any detail here, so I am going to stick to a few highlights and hope I cover the major points.

Teachers have taken new technologies and tried to adapt them to the classroom. The move from slates to paper, from powdered and mixed ink, replaceable nibs to ball point pens, were taken with alacrity. Television and video came in and replaced 8 and 16mm film and projectors. (I am always amazed at how rapidly that TV went from being a “wonderful new education tool” to a widespread, mass entertainment, household accessory.)  Digital technologies though, are different.

Digital devices have been around now for thirty odd years, and in that time, I suggest, they have become the automobile of education. A tool of dramatic impact, only just as destructive as it is beneficial. As computer literacy improved, I suspect general literacy and numeracy has declined. I can’t prove that statement, but I am sure someone else can1. There is a genuine link there, certainly, so this leads to us hearing  how schools are failing to teach kids how to read. Reading is a completely different format now, it is txt, or emojis, or a subtle unspoken language, each with their own rules of grammar.

One Teacher complained how kids don’t use full stops. For Millennials, a full stop at the end of a sentence is an anger symbol, kids know it, but adults don’t. So insisting on including an anger symbol at the end of a sentence is going to turn kids off, not teach them good grammar. That teacher was amazed, actually, when I told her about it, but it hasn’t changed the way she is trying to enforce grammar in her class. What we are not doing is recognizing there is a widening gap between the formal classroom language and informal chat, both of which have their own legitimate place in language, their own legitimate grammar. There has always been a difference, but now it is entirely due to digital technologies.

Whole conversations can be carried out in a mix of emojis and txt, but only on their phones. What kids are doing is bringing that informal language into the fore, which means Education is just not keeping up and there is insufficient explicit differentiation between them in the classroom. Teachers could try an exercise of translating a passage of text from a book into this NuSpeak, see what results they get. Or translate a NuSpeak piece of text into formal classroom language. Like, what does this mean?

Emoji Story

The issue I see is that digital technologies are not readily adapting to the classroom rules, the formal education structure, the classroom itself. So, in an effort to do better, perhaps we could ask the question of “How can we better adapt the classroom to the digital technologies?”.

There are a lot of ways we have tried, and each has met with varying degrees of success. This post on Moodle.org from Chris Kenniburg from the Dearborn Public Schools is an excellent article on what the Dearborn Public Schools have done with Open Source. His followup post is a also well worth the read. Unfortunately, Chris’ observations are cutting quite close to the bone. We have all seen these situations, yet we don’t complain or do anything about it.

We have to look for and embrace new ways of using technology to advance learning, rather than looking at traditional teaching techniques to advance the use of technology. Stop trying to teach the students how to use their technology, but rather get out of the way and let them teach themselves. We can concentrate then on what they use their technology to learn.

We hear a lot about critical thinking skills, but we spend so much time on basic understanding of broad curriculum concepts we very rarely, if ever, get to the point of undertaking a critical thinking exercise. For example, Maths spends its time on  Remembering and Understanding,  sometimes to Applying, rarely to Analyzing, and never to Evaluating and Creative. There is just no time. The demands of the Australian Curriculum are so heavy there is barely enough time to cover all the content and no time to look at anything else.

It look like quantity over quality. What that means is we don’t get to explore the higher order thinking skills we want kids to have. So we have to change Education to suit this need. Without such change, our kids and our country will pay for it.

About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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