The Big American Problem

The future is already here; it is just unevenly distributed.  – William Gibson

Disclaimer: I’m here at the NewTechNetwork 2011 Conference in Grand Rapids, MI, surrounded by educational brilliance and teachers deeply invested in best practices for 21st Century Learning, and the following is an irrepressible rant.  We can fix education, we can regain education preeminence in the world; it only requires we pay attention to what we know.

We have a Big American Problem… the achievement gap is just one symptom of a growing reality: traditional school has become more about schooling than it has about learning.  When we measure learning, what we see is the consequence of what children learn in spite of what we do to them more than what they learn as a result of our efforts.  When we bring children into our classrooms, we expect them to learn flawlessly regardless of the talents, issues, world views, and feelings they bring into that same space.  They can all learn, but the system we are sustaining for their benefit is not meeting their needs.  An exciting, scary world swirls around them 24/7 and they seek to interact with it in every way possible – that’s their irrepressible job one as kids – yet the place they go to prepare them to run this world, our schools, demands they “power-down” just to get through the day because the adults around them can’t see any compelling reason to keep school connected to the way the world really works.  “Adults” include all of us: those who decide how many dollars go into the system (the entire voter base), the teachers who protect their association memberships at all costs, and community groups who don’t care to understand the connection between instruction and technology.

Unlike industrial-age children, today’s highly mobile and wired kids each encounter life in an incredibly non-standard fashion.  Some children wake up to a broadband networked smart phone on their nightstands in their bedrooms, while many lack bedrooms due to parental mobility or homelessness.  School systems use the word “equity” in their programming efforts while the fundamental societal inequity, the exploding digital divide we see among our students, is the last item on the agenda because it requires real money to address.  The education technology investment failure along with our obsession with “fixing the education failure” by incrementally slashing funding is bearing its predictable fruit.

Children are essentially adaptable, and they astonish us with their ability to accommodate every lame idea adults have on their behalf.  We measure their “performance,” but what we really, truly are seeing is a picture of their ability to adapt to a set of behaviors we demand of them.  To the degree those expected behaviors are actually something useful for the culture into which they are maturing we hold the moral high ground for demanding they accommodate to it.  To the degree those behaviors are demanded for the sake of demonstrating compliance to memory tasks or ritualistic demonstrations of irrelevant rigor, we erode the foundation of any high ground we may otherwise claim.  Unfortunately, we long ago stopped asking the questions necessary to keep content relevant to what is real in the world, and the kids have found us out.  The king struts down the street with no clothes.

Whether or not we like to hear it, the kids continue to ask “Why are you teaching me this?”  If they find out you (in your role of teacher, parent, administrator, or Common Core Standards author) react negatively to this question, they will adapt to your wishes and shut up, but that doesn’t stop the question in their minds.  And because they are connected to each other (the average 13-18 year-old sends 3300 text messages per month), they are asking this question collectively. We sit here in the west and regard the sheiks, dictators and mullahs of Arab nations being brought down by their connected young people in the current Arab Spring uprisings, but our smugness belies our own national attachment to a formulation of education that is not authentic or even very useful.  It also belies our ignorance of the growing rumble among young people who are not getting what they know they need.

So why should we be surprised that children are voting with their feet as they increasingly seek out online education, and parents are voting with their dollars to find alternatives to good ole American comprehensive secondary education?  Because of our collective fixation on test numbers, class rankings and weighted GPAs, as a “system” we have utterly abandoned our mission of preparing students for their world and left it to them to figure it all out for themselves.  They are doing exactly that and we ignore their collective dissatisfaction at our peril.

To my educator readers: Start rattling your cage. Annoy your colleagues, and seek out those who agree that your students also live in your connected world (even more fully than you do).  Make your practice relevant.

To the public: Listen to the children.  Invest in them.  Acknowledge that they just might know more about what they need than you do.  Sure they need mentoring and guidance to know what’s smart and relevant, and that we can provide.  But controlling the digital air they breathe because we think we can?  Good luck with that.


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