While students were wending their way back to school post-Thanksgiving Break, we faculty were doing “professional development”, in this case, the first of three sessions with Charles Fadel. The big question posed for this particular session was “what is the implication of technology on already stressed minds?” particularly since our world is increasingly interdependent (and fragile: just look at Ebola or IS as “stressors”). Much of what we spent the day on made me think and question to the point where I felt it was necessary to take a step back to see if my questions were relevant later on. And you know what, some of them were/are.
First, the takeaways. Aka “the good”.
Fadel asked us to think about the word relevance with respect to education. What is relevant today? Can we still teach the way we did and the things we did? Can “old” still be relevant? Looking at different subjects, we need to do a deep dive into them and ask what about each subject actually matters? why does it matter? And – most important – who determines this? students? faculty? parents? So much of our lives is now automated (eg, Google Translate, or other translation apps making foreign language acquisition irrelevant, or easier, but perhaps leading classes into deeper dives into cultural understanding or the literature written in that language) it’s worth thinking about what we’re doing in a school.
We’ve been told that virtual reality is the Next!Big!Thing! but what does that mean? Do we need it? Can we integrate it? and why would/should we? When we take our cues from tech leaders we need to remember to have thoughtful discussions about exploration and integration, not just expeditious implementation. If we don’t address the negatives, we give ammunition to the naysayers! We also need to remember that much of what’s being developed is by ASP boys/men and Silicon Valley startups, not by people who work with a diverse population of students.
So, our mission as an independent school with resources should be to buck the system and to teach students that it’s ok to not always do things, to not always buy into prevailing wisdom but to question things and find new ways to make things relevant, useful, worthwhile, even if it means sticking with the old. Fadel acknowledged that all this tech is a vast social experiment and we don’t know what the end results will be, if this will ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing.
At bottom, we need to determine what are the essentials: what do students really need to know? and then ask how we can best teach those essentials.
Now, the questions. Aka “the bad/iffy”.
I’m always curious about so-called education experts who have little to no experience in a school as a teacher or administrator, or whose experience predates the rise of the internet. Fadel falls into the former category, and his first few slides, in which he cited PISA as an area for concern (yes, but… we’re not a small, homogeneous country with a mandated unified curriculum and the results are an amalgamation of every school in the US, from high achieving independent schools costing thousands in tuition to low income public schools with students who may not even speak English as a first language or who may have learning issues independent schools can turn away) and VUCA as our “watchacronym” (we’re an independent school, not central command at NATO!) didn’t allay my concerns. It was also curious to me as a librarian that he never cited his sources or research, even when alluding to the work of Alan November or danah boyd. When consultants come to say Thou Shalt, my response is Why? Shouldn’t change be part of a collaborative community conversation?
That aside, the bigger question for me was what about the ethics of all this: are we perpetuating privilege when we talk about these things? just because we can do something does it mean we should? There’s a digital divide (read this!) and experiential divide that is widening – I think of the students my nephew and cousin teach, students virtually given up on by society and hoping to avoid jail/irrelevance/hopelessness by getting at least a high school degree or GED, and then I look at the students I work with and wonder what we really mean when we talk about educating students for the world to come. Will my cousin’s students get in to college, something my students take for granted? And if not, will exploding the curriculum, teaching the “essentials” and then deep diving into other topics help them as they work in relatively menial jobs? Or are we mandating for the type of education where a segment of HS students take basic classes and then do vocational training the rest of the day while the rest get to get a “real” education? And what about the sustainability of all this? Shouldn’t we think about climate change, resource limitations and energy issues before considering implementing technology programs that have equipment that require updating/upgrading every few years?
What the next two sessions will look like is unknown. They’re in June, and until then, I’m suspending judgement about whether this was useful for long term change. The questions that he asked and that he (unintentionally?) raised will perhaps be answered before then.