Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kids These Days: Thoughts on Change and Teaching

I have mentioned before that I consider Google+ an important part of my PLN.  It is an honestly intellectual space for me where I get to converse with great teachers from all over the nation  (and sometimes outside the nation) about education, what education is, what it could be, what I would like it to be, and how it could get there.

Inspired by discussions I've taken part in on G+, I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about students. Even in the sacred space of Google+, among some of the most forward-thinking educators I have ever met, I sometimes see the words "kids have changed."

They are some of my least favorite words.  Mostly because they represent a generational "us vs. them" mentality, and partly because I don't agree with them.

My kids, my students, are much like I and my friends were when I was in high school.  They are at an age that is both dependent and independent.  They worry about how everyone else views them but don't want anyone to know they care about that.  They think about the future but their experience is limited so they spend most of their time thinking about themselves.  And that's okay because they are just now at an amazing point in their lives, a point of self-discovery, the precipice of adulthood and self-actualization, when they learn who they are and who they want to be.  Teenhood is a self-indulgent and exploratory time of life, and it has been that way since we stopped expecting people to begin work and raise families before they turn twenty.

Kids haven't changed.

The world has.

Just last week, I wanted to tell another teacher that I really like his Twitter icon.  I tweeted him the complement in Latin.  It's cool to get communicate with someone in my language of choice, but that's not why I chose to write him in Latin.  It also happens to be our common language--he's from Spain.

The world is getting smaller and technology--specifically the internet--is the reason.  It connects people regardless of national borders or distances between households.  It's all around us: smartphones, tablets, laptops--try going somewhere without seeing at least one of these electrical devices.

And it's pretty much omniscient.

I can't remember the last time I had a question I couldn't answer via Google.  Most likely my students can't remember a first time. 

That is the difference between our worlds.  Right there.  When I didn't know something growing up, I had to either find a book or ask someone, usually an adult.  Teachers were often a source of any knowledge that I could not find easily on my own.  Today, my students pull out their phones when they don't know something.  They don't need an adult to play "fount of knowledge" because they have a real fount of knowledge few humans could compete with.  My students can find out much more about the Romans online than I can hold in my head. There is a constant flow of information online, ever-updated and upgraded, and it's amazingly accessible. 

I'm not necessary any more.  Teachers have become obsolete.

If I subscribe to a traditional theory of a teacher's place in education.  Which, fortunately, I do not.  There is no reason, in a society that is becoming increasingly technology-savvy and in a world where information is available at the touch of a button, to continue viewing teachers in such a limited way.  We should not be arbiters of information but guides, co-learners, helping our students and ourselves learn to utilize information now that it is so readily available.

There is a sort of artificiality to the way schools are run today.  My friend, Justin Schwamm, hit upon the same idea in yesterday's post on his blog:
"Both schools and textbooks function ‘as designed,’ but the design is obsolete, and so is the underlying paradigm (knowledge is scarce and must be transmitted from expert to novice)."

Knowledge is abundant.  So, when schools and administrative sources try to fit students into an obsolete and flawed paradigm, built on a system designed to filter the "good" students (students who sit still, take notes, study, and test well) from the "bad" (anyone who does not fit the previous description) and to train future  factory workers (bells, isolated work stations, absolute authority), they are going to chafe and rebel.  And many teachers, who honestly don't understand the source of the resistance, begin to blame "kids these days" and their "overabundance" of technology, instead of looking at the redundancy of a program that only offers a resource students already can get more easily, more quickly, and more concisely.  

So what do we do?

My opinion is that we need to rethink education.  Figure out what our goal is.  We claim that we want every child to succeed, then we measure success by a means that is definitely not adjusted to the needs of every child.  We claim that we want our children to want to learn, then shove them into static formations and practice a basic memorize-information-regurgitate-information formula that interests no one.  We claim we want to prepare kids for life in today's world, then feed them knowledge and refuse to train them to think for themselves and work cooperatively and creatively (easily necessary 21st century skills).

I myself want every child to succeed, and I want my kids to want to learn, and most of all I want them to become life-long learners who know how to seek out the knowledge they need and utilize it to create, to solve problems, and to organize.  I would love to see a system that cares more about teaching children to use their smartphones in a way that is constructive, instead of a system that tries (and fails) to discourage kids from using the tools that they have and that make sense to them.  I want a system that celebrates failure, as long as it's failure that leads to learning and future success.  I want a system that supports chance-taking and pushing yourself academically more than getting a good grade and taking tests well.

Unfortunately, even though I work for and with great people, and enjoy where I teach in most ways, there is just not that kind of flexibility where I work.  It's not my administrators' faults.  In order for kids to succeed and get a job, they have to go to college.  In order for them to go to college, they have to graduate.  In order for them to graduate, they have to succeed on a variety of tests.  If we don't teach to the test, our kids suffer the most in our current system, and I'm not willing to sacrifice them to make a point.

So, for now, I continue in my position of "fount of knowledge."  I hope someday to have a new title, "co-learner," reflecting a role that is cooperative instead of authoritative.  I hope someday all kids will feel valued and supported instead of filtered out of a system that was not built for them.  I hope then, at that point, no one will still be saying "kids these days" except to celebrate student achievements.

But right now, we can talk.  Most of my ideas were spawned or inspired by some really great conversations on Google+, where we encourage each other to seriously discuss education, from all angles.  Talking about these sorts of things helps us understand our own thoughts and our own opinions more clearly, or sometimes exposes us to possibilities we never really knew were there.  Join the discussion.  The more we talk, the better chance we have of being heard and making a better place.  Or at least helping someone think, whether they agree with us or not.

Change is coming.  We can fight it or we can accept it, change ourselves, and become better than we were.