I recently (and belatedly) watched “The Wire-The Complete Series” on DVD. It was, to say the least, depressing. However, it got me thinking about why the institutions on which we rely for the very fundamental skills that will help people thrive have been left to swing in the wind. Season four focuses on schools, through the eyes of four eighth grade boys at Baltimore public school. Due to a demand for “better test scores,” these students are learning nothing relevant to either their current or future lives, and thus school becomes a way to waste time until they can get back out to the corners.
So what can teachers do to change this? In the grand scheme of things, unfortunately, individual teachers are subject to the same ridiculous test score mandates. However, as technology changes the world in which we live, a change in schools is coming as well. And that change will validate men like John Dewey and the constructivists.
The use of technology demands a constructivist approach. As anyone who has spent even a few minutes online can tell you, doing work online promotes exploration into one’s own mind. The internet is not an “Answer Device,” it is an “Exploration Device.” While one might start by merely looking up a fact, the sheer volume of information available online causes people to follow up on those ideas, ask more questions, and explore the ideas they come up with over time. Progressive educators referred to this process as “learning by doing,” and while some in education have sought to discredit this style of learning, the advancement of technology has shown that this approach is not only effective, but is becoming the standard among young people. Students spend a significant amount of time online and this is how they are learning.
So how will this change education? Well, as we enter a time period in which no student has ever lived without the internet, the way people think is changing. Today, there is a generation gap that may be bigger than any one in recorded history, but over time that is going to change. Corporations and companies are going to demand the types of skills that are necessary for modern business. And to meet those demands, school administrations throughout the country are going to have to change. Learning will have to incorporate technology, and in doing so, will have to shift to a system that is more about individual student questions rather than rote answers provided by an instructor or Board of Education. Simply put-the institutions that now exist as the arbiters of quality education are going to become inadequate and antiquated. Into that gap will come tech-based skills. These skills, however, are built upon the type of learning advocated by men such as Dewey and the Progressives. The concept of “Learn by Doing” falls right in line with the future of tech-based education. Students have the ability to “do” whatever they need to online; the pursuit of their own interests, guided by able educators who can help them navigate the ocean of information online and through web 2.0 tools will result in a sea-change for American education. That change will not come through sweeping legislation (a la NCLB), but through the slow attrition of non-web raised individuals from positions of power within Boards of Education as well as the general population.
Training tech-savvy teachers should not simply be considered a “nice trait to have” or a minor value-add. Training teachers to become tech-savvy will literally shape the nature of national education throughout the next several generations. As teachers feel less empowered by what seems to be an overemphasis placed upon standardized testing, they need to be aware that the opportunity to take back the classroom is right in front of them and no one knows it. Technology-based education will allow teachers to not only guide and shape the information they learn in their individual subjects, but also how they learn. As the nature of learning shifts, these students will change how they feel about learning and, when they have children and are looking for quality schools, they will look for schools that teach their kids in the same way they were taught. Parents will begin demanding the type of Progressive-style education that technology demands, and the system will see a change for the better. The best part? Because this is happening slowly and the vast majority of the country is enthusiastic about the power of technology, those who adopt technology in education have a once-in-a-millenium chance to create real change under the radar and without the inevitable red-tape and bureaucratic dogfights that come with attempts to change policy. Teachers can literally change education one tech tool at a time.
I embraced tech because I enjoy it, sure, but more importantly: I embraced tech because of its potential for social change. In the face of those who want to return education to the factory system, by which students learn less but their stats look better, adopting tech-based curricula is a stealth weapon flying in the face of the Regressives. While students today, like the four boys in “The Wire,” are stuck in a system so test-obsessed that it cannot see the forest for the trees, there is hope. However, teachers must be willing to adopt momentary discomfort in order to see the long-term benefits of technology to education. If they adopt early, it will be teachers who shape the nature of education, not bureaucrats. The future of education demands it.