Disruptive Technologies, Ivory Towers, and Literacy in Education
I recently asked one of my eighth grade classes, “Why do we have school? What’s the point?” The most common (serious) answer was, “To prepare me for a better, more successful life.” That seems to be a reasonable answer, but when we dig a little deeper it becomes more complicated. What is a better life? What does it look like? What skills will the children need and how will they use them? These answers are no longer simple in today’s world and they hold some insight into our future roles as educators of tomorrow’s adults. As is often the case, perhaps some clues about our future can be gathered by examining the purpose and role of education in the past.
The continuing role of education shifted early in the 20th century coinciding with some emerging and maturing disruptive technologies. A disruptive technology is a term coined by Clayton Christensen. It is “an innovation that creates a new market by applying a different set of values, which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtakes an existing market.” Disruptive technologies are the “game changers”. Important disruptive technologies in the early 20th century were the model T Ford and mass production, airplanes, nuclear power, and rocket flight. These technologies helped move our national economy from a primary (agrarian) economy into a secondary manufacturing economy. This shifted the role of education.
Schools now needed to prepare students for several levels of education. We still needed agricultural workers, but now we also needed a large manufacturing work force. There was also a need for bright people who would innovate and sustain the emerging technologies. Schools were still the repositories of knowledge. Students came to school and teachers dispensed knowledge in their classrooms. The best students absorbed the knowledge at the rate it was dispensed. Less gifted students absorbed less quickly. This model of education actually served the U.S. quite well because there were readily available jobs in a growing economy for every level of education a student might attain. Agricultural jobs were plentiful for those with less education. Manufacturing jobs were available for average students receiving a high school diploma. Good students advanced to college and found jobs developing and innovating in fields such as science, manufacturing, and aerospace industries.
Information in the mid 20th century was still stored in books and dispensed by teachers in school. The definition of literacy did not change, but was extended to a higher level. The literacy standard was extended to one’s ability to read, write, and compute on the high school to college level. College degrees were desirable and held by the most educated segment of the population.
This model of education was successful for a long period of time, but it is necessary to look closely to begin to understand why. In these examples and models of education, the students in school knew why they were there – they knew what “preparing for a better life” meant. In the early part of the century, students could see how basic reading and writing could improve their lives. In the manufacturing age, students could still see the need and outcome of various levels of education. They knew the answer to the essential question, “Why am I in school?” They needed to absorb knowledge at a level that satisfied the requirements for work at various levels in the economy. Literacy at this point was still the ability to read and write. Teaching was still essentially dispensation of knowledge kept safe in ivory towers.
The late 20th century saw our nation move into a tertiary economy that was more service based. Agricultural jobs became less common. Careers and “good jobs” required at minimum a high school diploma and preferably a college diploma. Jobs and careers were centered on manufacturing that was essentially sustaining innovations from previous decades. The tertiary service sector provided services and support for those underlying manufacturing jobs. Two major changes in the end of the 20th century have led us to the current dilemma in education that we now face.
One significant difference today is a result of the tertiary, some might argue quaternary, economy of the U.S. today. As an economy moves from one economic sector into another, the jobs at the preceding levels tend to diminish, disappear, or get outsourced. We have seen that occur in the U.S. over the past couple of decades. Agriculture is big business – there are few family farms and associated jobs. Manufacturing has been outsourced to foreign countries with cheaper labor – reducing the number of jobs available. The reduction in agricultural and manufacturing jobs has created a situation where the national workforce either needs specialized skills for the upper economic sectors or low skills for minimum wage jobs. This economic shift has coincided with some specific disruptive technologies that have had a tremendous impact on education.
The late 20th and early 21st century has seen the development of disruptive technologies such as personal computers, the world wide web, cell phones, blogs, digital and video imaging (YouTube). These technologies and our national economic shift have created a need for a complete paradigm shift in education. We must change our way of thinking about education. These new technologies have completely changed our access to information. Information is no longer kept and guarded in the ivory towers of our institutions of education. The towers have been torn down and the combined information of the world is now just a few clicks away in a handheld mobile device. Along with this technological change, our students no longer know why they are in school – the goal of their education. Think about the past; students in the past always knew the answer to the essential question, “Why am I in school?” They knew they would work on the farm, get a job at the steel mill, work for General Electric or NASA, work for IBM. They knew they needed to go to school and engage the process whereby teachers delivered the information necessary to meet the career goals of the student. The goal was visible and tangible.
Students today must be prepared for jobs that do not yet exist. They don’t know what they are going to do. They also know how to collect information; they can Google as well as an adult – maybe better. Our students today are digital natives and are comfortable and confident in their digital world. The problem is that they confuse gathering facts with acquiring knowledge (that’s why they can’t see cut-and-paste as wrong). The teacher’s role now, whether we want to admit it or not, has changed forever. Students can no longer be consumers of facts. The teacher must now become the person who guides the students as they actively create new knowledge from easily available information. The teachers of today also must help students find a purpose for their education. Teachers must help students ask the essential questions such as, “Why am I in school?”
These changes have had a profound impact on the meaning of literacy and the role of the teacher in the classroom. Not too many years ago, a student would spend 50-95% of their time in a classroom reading a textbook. It has been estimated that by graduation, a student would have spent 10,000 hours in class reading from a textbook. Literacy instruction was obviously focused on reading. The goal was to compile an ever-growing accumulation of facts from the printed word. The goal of literacy instruction today is very different; we want to help students construct knowledge. Information today comes in a variety of mediums. We must teach them to construct knowledge and make sense out of all the inputs from today’s world – books, TV, video, internet, lecture and lab activities.
We no longer dispense information. The information is readily available. We must help students define the purpose for their education that is currently missing. Once purpose is established, we have to guide students in how to construct knowledge out of the mass of information available. A colleague once compared learning today to “drinking from a fire hose” – the information in today’s world comes at us quickly and relentlessly. This shift is traumatic for the students; a fact that few appreciate. If we are honest, education in the past was at the lower level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Students simply absorbed facts and perhaps learned to apply them. Today, by asking students to define essential questions and construct their own knowledge we have thrust them into the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. What we must appreciate is that we have to teach students a new set of skills for how to construct knowledge.
Teachers have to change their mindset. We no longer “deliver” information. We have always believed that if we were a good enough teacher – if our delivery was good enough – the students would “get it”. Now our classrooms are more subtle; we provide learning opportunities. Technology has been an asset in this area. We now have generally agreed upon national standards. Many states have standardized curriculum. CSCOPE is a “living” curriculum that evolves and improves constantly thanks to our information age. Some see this change as an opportunity to put less skilled teachers in the classroom. There is a view that we should take exemplar lessons and scale them to a large audience. This as the allure of the online environment; take a great lesson from a great teacher, video tape it and make it available to a large audience. The person in the classroom becomes a proctor that doesn’t require the skills of a traditional teacher. There are those that believe engaging software is the answer. The argument is that the hard work is done for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must not be deceived by technology. Technology is a tremendous resource that makes the information of the world available in every corner of the planet. Technology has truly “flattened’ the world – we can connect with people across the globe as easily as someone across the room. The illusion is that technology can teach – that the tool can replace the teacher. Technology makes information available. It can make information more palatable and provide interest. The student must still create meaning.
Uniform curriculum and readily available information frees the teacher to do the hard work of helping students learn how to learn. I know when I was a student, no one taught me what to do with information – how to create meaning. Teachers stood in front of the class and delivered. Some students “got it”, others didn’t. Delivery by an online instructor doesn’t change the situation. We now have to teach students how to “absorb” information and construct meaning. We have to teach students how to learn – teach them what to do with the information they gather or receive. That is and has always been the goal of literacy strategies. If we want students to absorb information and construct meaning – learn – then we all must become literacy teachers and coaches. Students can find information on their own (with our guidance). What they cannot do on their own is put the pieces together in a meaningful way. We must also help them find purpose for their education – it is no longer clear. We have to help children once again learn how to question and wonder. If we can help students define purpose and construct knowledge then we have laid a foundation for project based learning that can be meaningful and exciting – but most classrooms are not there yet.
Too many classrooms today are still teacher centered. It is not entirely the teacher’s fault. Schools today need to make real efforts to provide their teachers professional development in coaching literacy – not just ELA teachers. Every content area needs to come to grips with our changing role as educators. Teachers must see that literacy strategies are not “one more thing” that teachers do, but instead a skill we must teach students to use for themselves. We have to start helping students learn how to learn.
Teachers today need professional development in teaching critical thinking. Once again we have to realize that critical thinking is not something teachers do – it’s something we help students learn to do for themselves. All of those higher order thinking skills we crave so badly for our classrooms are not created by the teacher – they are a product of the questions generated by students. We have to become models of inquisitive learners. We have to bring excitement and curiosity into our classrooms and teach our students how to regain the inquisitiveness they once possessed. Classrooms have to “flip”. We need our schools to be places where the students instead of the teachers ask the questions – and teachers help them find the answers. We must truly become the “guide on the side” as we teach literacy – the construction of knowledge – and help students learn how to find their own answers to the questions they bring to school.
In fairness, there have always been outstanding educators who have done the things suggested here. I have never meant to imply that schools have not had exceptional teachers that have taught critical thinking and helped students learn to construct knowledge. I will however make the claim that they were the exception in the school and not the rule. I will further forward the opinion that few in education understood what they were doing that was in fact so exceptional.
The paradigm shift we are facing today necessitates that those exceptional teachers of the past become the teacher in every classroom today. I believe we have teachers who have the will and dedication to become those exceptional teachers. For that to happen we need to recognize the need to teach new skills to our teachers to prepare them for their new roles. Being “smart” is not enough; knowing a lot of facts is no longer enough. We must help teachers in the 21 century make the transition from a dispenser of information to a guide that helps students construct knowledge. We need to recognize that teaching today is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. There are also incredible and exciting possibilities awaiting the students in classrooms that have great teachers.