We need schools to be different
As Clay Shirky has noted, we currently are living through ‘the largest expansion in expressive capability in human history.’ We no longer live in a world where we passively receive information that is broadcast out to us by large, centralized entities. Instead, we now live within multidirectional conversation spaces in which 12-year-olds can reach audiences at scales that previously were reserved for major media companies, large corporations, and governments. We all now can have a voice. We all now can be publishers. We all now can find each other’s thoughts and ideas and can share, cooperate, collaborate, and take collective action. Time and geography are no longer barriers to communicating and working together.
In this new information landscape, formerly-dominant institutions are being forced to rethink all previously-held assumptions. For example, music companies are struggling to survive in a market where the model of wholesale album purchases and top-down advertising and dissemination is replaced by a granular system of individual song sales and peer-to-peer marketing and distribution. Similarly, the emergence of digital, multimedia, hyperlinked texts – and accompanying e-readers, tablet computers, and smartphones – is challenging our very definition of what constitutes ‘a book’ and is destroying traditional publishers’ and distributors’ revenue streams. Television, radio, magazine, newspaper, and movie/video companies are seeing their market share erode year after year as we increasingly turn to online – and often user-generated – information channels to learn and be entertained. Our entire information landscape – which is what schools are purportedly teaching students to master – has been changed irrevocably.
We also are witnessing the early adolescence of a vastly different global economy. For instance, the rapid growth of the Internet and other communication technologies has accelerated the offshoring of jobs from the developed world. Complex corporate global supply chains locate manufacturing work wherever costs are lowest, expertise is highest, or necessary talent resides. Geographic or product niche monopolies disappear in the face of Internet search engines. Micro-, small-batch, and on-demand manufacturing techniques facilitate personalized and custom-order production. Whatever manufacturing work remains in developed countries is high skill, is high tech, and, more often than not, requires greater education than a secondary diploma. The low-skill industrial system that was the backbone of the developed world’s economies in the previous century is increasingly a bygone memory.
Like manual work that is non-location-dependent, knowledge work also is frequently done cheaper elsewhere. Service jobs are increasingly fungible, able to be located anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection. Ongoing workflow and final products are exchanged at the speed of light via e-mail, instant messaging, and other corporate networking tools. The same technologies that facilitate our personal social conversations also facilitate interconnected global commerce. As was done in previous decades for manufacturing work, the next two decades will see many complex service jobs broken up into component parts. Once these tasks are disaggregated, they will be done by lower-skilled workers who can do these discrete components of the overall work, facilitated by software. In other words, many high-paying service jobs will turn into globalized piece work. Since the service professions represent over three-fifths of America’s economy, the impacts of this are going to be quite significant.
We’re also realizing that work that previously required humans now regularly can be done by software. If the Industrial Revolution was about replacing humans’ physical labor with machines, the Information Revolution often is about replacing humans’ cognitive labor with computers. A large number of workers are discovering that their work, their skills, and their jobs are not as indispensable as they thought in a technological, hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy. Radical transformations are everywhere we turn.
Of course these changes also have resulted in dramatic impacts on learning. Students and educators now have access to all of the information in their textbooks – and an incredible wealth of primary documents – for free. They have access to robust, low cost or no-cost, and often multimedia and interactive learning resources (texts, images, audio, video, games, simulations) that can supplement, extend, or even replace what is being taught in their classrooms. Via collaborative Internet-based tools such as blogs, wikis, videoconferencing, and social networks, they can learn from and with students and teachers in other states or countries. They also can quickly and easily connect with authors, artists, business professionals, entrepreneurs, physicians, craftsmen, professors, and other experts.
Students and teachers now can more authentically replicate (and actually do) real-world work through the use of the same tools and resources used by engineers, designers, scientists, accountants, and a multitude of other professionals and artisans. They can share their own knowledge, skills, and expertise with people all over the world. They can find or form communities of interest around topics for which they are passionate and they can be active (and valued) contributors to the world’s information commons, both individually and collaboratively with others.
Essentially, we now have the ability to learn about whatever we want, from whomever we want, whenever and wherever we want, and we also can contribute to this learning environment for the benefit of others. The possibilities for learning and teaching in this information space are both amazing and nearly limitless, but right now this learning often is disconnected from our formal education institutions.
If it is difficult to overstate the technological disruptions that are occurring around us, it is equally difficult to understate the lack of progress that most schools have made in response to these overarching societal transformations. The reluctance of school systems to significantly alter existing pedagogical and organizational practices has long been catalogued. Unfortunately, these trends continue today. For instance, while students increasingly are self-directed learners and active technology users outside of school, their learning work inside of school – particularly for independent, technology-suffused, higher-level cognitive activities – has not changed much. As the Consortium for School Networking has noted, “educational mindsets and school cultures do not yet align learning to the realities of the 21st century.”
This is true even in our numerous 1:1 computing environments that now exist. Although we have pockets of success here and there, for the most part we still are implementing a 20th (and sometimes 19th) century model of education despite the demands of our 21st century society. If you look at the basic learning and teaching work that occurs in most of our classrooms, it is still primarily transmissive: students passively receive information from the teacher or textbook or Internet or software and then regurgitate it back to show that they have ‘learned’ (and the teacher has ‘covered’) the required low-level facts or procedures. While this may have been fine for an industrial society, this model of schooling is woefully inadequate to prepare graduates for the more complex demands of our new information and economic landscapes. If every other societal sector is finding that transformative reinvention is necessary in our current climate, schools shouldn’t expect that they somehow will be immune from these changes. We shouldn’t pretend that these revolutions aren’t going to affect us too, in compelling and often as yet unknown ways. And, yet, if you look at what is happening in most classrooms on most days, the learning and teaching work that is occurring looks incredibly similar to that done many decades ago.
All of this has been a long run up to basically say that – if we truly care about preparing kids for life and work success – we need schools to be different. If economic success increasingly means moving away from routine cognitive work, schools need to also move in that direction. If our analog, ink-on-paper information landscapes outside of school have been superseded by environments that are digital and online and hyperconnected and mobile, our information landscapes inside of school also should reflect those shifts. If our students’ extracurricular learning opportunities often are richer and deeper than what they experience in their formal educational settings, it is time for us to catch up. In other words, schools’ knowledge work and workforce preparation should match the needs and demands of our time.
As you can imagine, these changes are incredibly complex and the challenges that face us today as school leaders are tremendous. Somehow we have to reinvent learning and teaching and schooling, often in direct opposition to parent and community mindsets about what school should look like (hint: like it did when they were kids). Somehow we have to shift our schools’ overwhelming emphasis on low-level knowledge work into something that better meets our graduates’ needs to navigate vastly different information and economic spaces. Somehow we have to balance creating schools of the future with policymakers’ attempts to further reify schools of the past. And the toughest part of all of this is that we don’t even know what many of the answers should be. But we at least should be having the right conversations and asking the right questions.
There are a lot of different things going on in schools and they’re all important. But remedying the relevance disconnect between school and society is the most important educational and equity work of all. We have a moral imperative as school leaders and policymakers to face these challenges head-on and try and create new futures and possibilities for the children and adolescents that we serve.