The $64,000 Question

Posted by Butch Owens on May 9, 2009

Again and again we hear that we must get students ready for the 21st Century.  Yet,  here we are nine years into the 21st Century and we’re educating students the same way we’ve been doing it for years.   We’re doing a pretty good job; in fact, we could probably continue the status quo for the remainder of our careers with fair results on measures such as test scores, college entrance rates, and graduation rates.   The downside of continuing with our present way of doing school is, of course, that our children—and they are our children—will be totally unprepared to compete in a globally connected society.

What do I mean when I say “our present way of doing school?”  I’m talking about our current preoccupation with constantly testing students’ accumulation of knowledge, without ever stopping to consider if the knowledge we’re forcing them to accumulate will be of any use to them.  Consider this:

If it’s easy to test, it’s easy to digitize.

Hank Rubin, president of the Institute for Collaborative Leadership, heard that remark made at the release of the 2007 PISA study.  It piqued his interest enough that he contacted the person who said it: Andreas Schleicher, the study’s lead author.  Says Rubin:

…in subsequent correspondence with Schleicher, I confirmed the deeper meaning of his observation: if you can ask a person a question for which we know there is a limited number of appropriate responses, then we can teach a computer to run through those same responses and select what evidence tells us is the most correct response. In other words, if you can test it then you can delegate the task, knowledge or skill to a computer! The implications are profound: why in the world will we need to invest education dollars in preparing students with knowledge and skills that will be the domain of computers by the time they are ready to enter the world of work?

The $64,000 question is, “What will students need to know to be successful in the future?” For starters, we must ask, “Is this something that a student can access in a nano second with a web search which yields thousands of references?”

I can’t count the number of times a day I do a quick search on the web to find the answer to a question.   It would seem very archaic to only have one textbook sitting here at my desk to look up needed information.  Yet students in our schools face this challenge daily due to limited access and our tight filtering policies.  It’s not until they leave school that they have unlimited access  to the rest of the world.  Until we find an answer to access, we will continue school as usual.

But wait!  The answer to the $64,000 question has changed since I started writing this post a couple of days ago.  I was operating on the assumption that when we want to know something, we make a quick search for the answers we need.  Not necessarily, it seems; the answers may find us on their own!  Puzzled?   Take a look at this TED Talks video and you’ll see what I mean.