Monday, December 18, 2006

Rip van Winkle and schools

Posted by Picasa A recent Time Magazine lead story begins with what it calls ‘a dark little joke exchanged by teachers with a dissident streak: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred year snooze and is of course utterly bewildered by what he sees’. ‘Every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when finally he walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school”, he declares. “We used to have these back in 1906”’

American schools, the article says, ‘aren’t exactly frozen in time, but considering the pace of change in other areas of life, our public schools tend to feel like throwbacks. Kids spend much of their day as their great-grandparents once did.’ ‘A yawning chasm (with an emphasis on yawning) separates the world inside the school house from the word outside.’

In New Zealand Rip would find primary school very different. He would be confused by children working independently, or in groups, on projects with teachers assisting as and when necessary. However in New Zealand secondary schools he would feel at home.

The Time article believes that we should move away from the current national conversation on literacy and numeracy and closing the achievement gaps .What is required, they say, is a ‘big conversation’ about what students will need to thrive in the 21st century. Such a conversation is important to ensure an, ‘entire generation of our children will not make it in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad, or speak another language other than English.’

Evidently there is to be a ‘high powered’ report to be published in the US this month which outlines a ‘blueprint for rethinking American education from pre-K to 12 and beyond to better prepare students to thrive in the global economy.’ In a remarkable consensus this report reaches a key conclusion:‘We need to bring what we teach and how we teach it into the 21st century.’

As in New Zealand, the US is aiming too low with its current emphasis on literacy and numeracy. The mission of the NZ Ministry of Education is currently to 'reduce the disparity in students' – or to close the literacy numeracy gap. As important as these are, the articles says , they are but ‘foundation skills’ - a meager minimum –utterly necessary but by themselves insufficient.

Today’s economy demand not only high level competence in traditional academic disciplines but also what might be called 21st century skills. Here’s what they are’, according to the article:

Knowing more about the world. Kids are global citizens now ...and they must learn to act that way’. If this applies to small town America it is more important to geographically isolated New Zealand! ‘Students need to be sensitive to foreign cultures.’

Thinking outside the box’. Increasingly new jobs put an ‘enormous pressure on being creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos.’ It is reported that American schools have become ‘less daring during the (current) back to basics climate’…’kids must learn to think across disciplines, since this is where most breakthroughs are made’. ‘It’s interdisciplinary combinations –design and technology, mathematics and art.’

'Becoming smarter about new sources of information in an age of overflowing information and proliferating media, kids need to rapidly process what’s coming at them and distinguish between what’s reliable and what isn’t'. Students, it is quoted, need to know how to manage it (information), interpret it, validate it, and how to act on it.’

Developing people skills EQ, or emotional intelligence, is as important as IQ for success in today’s workplace.’ ‘Most innovations involve large teams of people’. Another quoted expert in the article says, ‘we have to emphasize communication skills, the ability to work in teams and with people from different cultures.’

The question the article asks is can our schools ‘originally designed to educate workers for agrarian life and industrial-age factories, make the necessary shifts?’ The upcoming report mentioned above will argue that, ‘it is only possible if we add new depth and rigor to our curriculum’ and…’if we reshape the teaching force.’

Too much of current education is ‘old school memorizing’ which now ‘seem faintly absurd’ even if Rip would find them reassuring. Much of this information is now available at a key stroke. The focus must be on ‘the most powerful and generative ideas’ rather than ‘rushing through a mind numbing stream of topics and subtopics in attempt to address a vast range of stare standards.’

Depth over breadth and the ability to leap across disciplines are exactly what teachers aim for’ in a school seen as a positive future oriented example. Students working on projects that naturally integrate concepts from a range of learning areas, it is suggested, is a means to achieve future learning attitudes and skills. Teachers are to be seen as ‘project managers’ infusing content from a range of subject areas into the student activities. By this process students ‘learn to apply to apply academic principles to the real world, think strategically and solve problems.’

Many New Zealand primary teachers, long used to integrated ‘project based learning’, doing fewer things well, will find this reassuring but it may inspire secondary teachers to think hard about the ways they work with their students. Through such projects the ‘goal is to teach kids to be discerning consumers of information and to research, formulate and defend their own views’. Such schools teach key aspects of information literacy.

The article warns that we ‘assume this generation was so comfortable with technology that they know how to use it for research and deeper thinking but if they’re not taught these skills, they don’t necessarily pick them up.’ A read through students projects soon shows that much of student so called research is ‘cut and paste’ courtesy of google!

Used wisely, the article continues, there are a great range on line resources for teachers and students to call upon. In the 21st to become ‘life long learners, students will, for many, be dependent on their ability to access and benefit from online learning’

‘Teachers’, the article concludes, ’need not fear that they will be made obsolete. They will however, feel increasing pressure to bring their methods – along with the curriculum- into line with the way the modern world works. That means putting a greater emphasis on teaching kids to collaborate and solve problems and apply what they have learned in the real world. Besides research shows that kids learn better that way than with the old chalk and talk approach.’

And through such learning students learn ‘to show respect for others as well as being punctual, responsible and work well in teams.

These are some things old Rip would recognize.

As for us in New Zealand the ‘new’ revised draft curriculum could, if implemented, ensure New Zealand students are well on the way to becoming future citizens.

Interesting to note that the phrase ‘key competencies’ were not mentioned once in the article?


Anonymous said...

While, on one hand, those in authority say we a have world class system and then say, we need to develop a true 21stC system, we stand in 'mediocre-land'.

We need the 'big conversation' in NZ - or a real challenge from the Ministry to re-structure secondary schools, to develop the sense of urgency needed to transform our schools.

Perhaps the Minister's 'new' agenda of continuing the Peter Fraser vision by developing 'personalised learning' will spark the revolution?

My thought is that old Rip van Winkle will find secondary schools famiiar for many years to come!

They are the ultimate change resistant oganisations and parents seem to like them that way - or the 'ones' with the power.

Anonymous said...

Doctors from only a few decades ago would find hospitals beyond them - secondary teachers from the 1950s would find school almost unchanged.

Anonymous said...

Secondary schools are frozen in time!

Anonymous said...

We need this 'big conversation' about education ( and where our country is going) urgently! It is too important to leave it to those who always profess to know best for us!

Anonymous said...

Even as schools are changing slightly, it's important to keep having a conversation about what skills students will need in the twenty-first century and reevaluate how we're teaching students to prepare for that new world.

Here's a film version of the Rip Van Winkle goes to school story...

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Mathew