“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Henry David Thoreau, 1854
I was reminded of the above quote from Walden while reading Diana Senechal’s thrilling cover story in the new issue of the American Educator. Diana is a familiar figure to readers of this blog, but she arrives on the broader stage of education thought with her essay, “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.” At one level, it is a skeptical look at the “clamor for newness” that marks education reform generally and the specific focus on “21st century skills.”
Far too often, the 21st century skills argument carries a tone of urgency, even emergency: We no longer live in a world of books, paper, and pen. Children grow up surrounded by digital media. They can communicate with peers around the world; they can find obscure information in seconds. Yet they are unprepared for the jobs of today. We still treat them as passive recipients of knowledge; we still drill them on facts that they could just as easily Google. If we do not act now, we will lose our global competitiveness—so everyone who cares about our future should jump on board. Employers need people who can create, solve problems, work together, use technology, and think critically. We must make our students critics, innovators, and team players; we should teach them to communicate in the broad sense of the word by infusing their coursework with blogging, recording, filming, texting, collaborating, and tweeting.
But Senechal’s purpose is larger, and she’s not merely raging against the schlock of the new. The root of generations of ed reform fads is the assumption that schools’ primary objective is “to meet the demands of the day,” she writes. And that assumption must be questioned.
At its fullest and best, education prepares us to be with others and apart, to enjoy the life of the mind, to survive and prosper, to bring up new generations, to act with integrity and conscience, to pursue useful and interesting work, and to participate in civic and cultural action and thought. If schools try to be up to date all the time, then they are reduced to chasing fads and obeying the whims of the market. Part of the schools’ work is to help prepare students for their future occupations, but they do not achieve this by scurrying to meet employers’ demands.
Critics will be tempted to dismiss much of what Senechal has to say as a mere defense of traditional curriculum and teaching. But they do so at their own peril. Creativity and innovation, the oft-cited goals of contemporary education require knowledge and practice, she observes. “When we take them too lightly, we encourage and even celebrate shoddiness. Mediocre creation abounds, as does false innovation,” Senechal writes. She illustrates this with a particularly pointed anecdote:
Once I attended a professional development session where we were told about the power of the Internet as motivator for students. The speaker cited the example of a student who, as a result of a blogging project, had become excited about poetry and started posting her own poems on the school blog. I took a look at the poems that evening, Googled a few lines, and saw that all but one were plagiarized—not from first-rate poets, but from websites that featured sentimental and inspirational verse. Why was this not caught earlier? Anyone paying close attention to the poems themselves would likely have suspected that they weren’t hers (the language was an adult’s, and hackneyed at that). The presenters were genuinely excited that the Internet had motivated a student to write; perhaps they chose not to judge the poems lest they interfere with her creative process. This is the danger: when we value creativity (and technology) above the actual quality of the things created, we lose sight of what we are doing and why.
Diana’s piece reminds me that education, and especially education reform, tends to be thick with people that – there’s no nice way to say this—simply don’t much care for education. It is a means to an end, something to serve the “larger” goals of economic, political, or social progress. Senechal reminds us that not only is this a dispiriting way to view education, but ultimately, it’s a self-defeating one.
When the frenzy over 21st century skills passes—and it will—students will see that their opportunities depend largely on their knowledge. Many will graduate with blogging experience, but those who can write a strong essay on a Supreme Court case will be better prepared to enter the fields of history, law, or journalism. Many will have online science portfolios, but those who have studied calculus, read parts of Newton’s Principia, and can prove Kepler’s second law (for example) will be much better prepared to study physics at an advanced level. …The ability to make a YouTube video or podcast will mean little in the long run, if the other things are absent. Moreover, those technologies may be obsolete in another few years, but literature, science, languages, mathematics, history, music, art, and drama will stay.
Ultimately, Diana’s piece is not a rebuke, but a challenge to rise above mindless fealty to the “claims of the present” and “seek out excellence, nurture it, defend it, and live up to it.” To make change, but to do so thoughtfully, she concludes, “may be the most daring education reform of all.”
Brilliant stuff. On a day when most of the education world will be examining the latest NAEP scores, and using the data — the data! — to defend or decry various policies, programs and “theories of action” it is good to be reminded why we get out of bed in the morning. Or why we should.