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.


3 thoughts on “The $64,000 Question”

  1. Butch, We have a hard time writing a three year tech plan because we often say things like”how would I know what technology will look like in three years?!?!”..imagine 10 or 15 or 20 years from now…I can’t. And without knowing what the tech will offer, it is difficult to determine what today’s students will need to know. I think the TED video is a great example of what is down the road for us and what we can barely imagine…I love the end of the video when he draws a watch on his hand and when the person he meets has information about that person projected on his shirt…watch out!

  2. Tim,
    I think the bigger issue at this time is how we can open up our systems to allow students and staff the same access to information they have at home while they are at school. A recent article highlighted how the current administration in Washington has embraced Web 2 tools and social networks to collaborate and disseminate information. The restrictions put on schools to qualify for funding etc make if very difficult to provide access for students, even using their own hardware. The bright spot is that with the new phones, open networks etc, students will not have to go through the school’s network to access information.

  3. It’s kind of you to quote my TC Record article … I’m so pleased that it’s given me a chance to meet you! For those who can’t open the article, the thoughts expressed there were summarized from an early white paper you can find at
    Critically, I think your $64,000 question belongs in the preservice classrooms in which the teachers who will be preparing preK-12 learners during the decades ahead are being prepared today. tlandeck is right in noting that the technological (and entire instructional) context of these students 10-15 years from now is unknowable …
    I want to invite you to, a new blogsite for 21st Century Schools of Education: a quietly emerging initiative which we hope will help shape schools and colleges of education during the decades ahead.
    Keep up the good writing …

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