This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/
and the end of this newsletter.
Quality of Our Educational System
"Try to learn something about
everything and everything about something." (Thomas H. Huxley; English
The authors of this newsletter are both longtime teachers of preservice
and inservice teachers. We are both avid readers of the research and
opinion literature in our fields, and we both enjoy discussing
(arguing) about topics such as how well our educational system is doing.
As we look back over the years, we see major improvements in certain
aspects of our educational system. For example, substantial efforts
have been made to integrate our schools, better serve minorities and
underserved populations, better serve students with various
handicapping challenges, better serve women, and so on. Nowadays, far
more students go on to post-secondary education than in the past, and
the percentage of women seeking such higher education is now
higher than the percentage of men.
On the other hand, we are aware of the steady stream of arguments that
students in the United States don’t score as well on international
comparisons as we would like, that only about two-thirds of US students
who enter the ninth grade graduate from high school in four years, that
large numbers of students who enter college are not very well prepared
and must take remedial courses, that scores on various national
assessment tests in the US have been rather flat over the past thirty
years or more, that our students are weak in critical thinking and
problem solving, and so on.
Finally, it is important to notice that students are developing a range
of computer-related skills that many of their parents lack. Mostly this
is done through informal education, learning by themselves and from
each other. (How are you at using your thumbs for rapid text messaging
on a small handheld device?)
Learn Something About
Everything and Everything About Something
The basic idea underlying the quote from Thomas Huxley seems sound. A
good education has both breadth and depth. The breadth helps one to
interact with a wide variety of other people and to function well in
the day-to-day requirements of life in a particular society. The depth
allows graduates to have an area of (relative) expertise in which they
can perform much better than many other people.
The quote from Thomas Huxley begins with the word try
. If you are a
Star Wars fan, you probably remember Yoda’s statement to Luke
Skywalker: “No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” Over the
years, educational leaders, politicians, business leaders, and others
have “tried” to improve our educational system. As suggested above, we
can find a variety of successful and unsuccessful examples from their
efforts. Education leaders, politicians, and business people seem to
have no end of old and new proposals.
Meanwhile, the world has been changing. In the Science, Technology,
Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) areas the pace of change has become
quite large and is still increasing. We have had an information
explosion. The challenges of learning something about everything and
everything about something are impossible to meet. We have divided the
totality of human knowledge into an increasingly larger number of
narrower and narrower specializations, and people spend their lifetime
working toward a high level of expertise in a very narrow area and
working to maintain their level of expertise in comparison with other
experts in the narrow area. (And, of course, there is the standard joke
about such a narrow expert eventually knowing everything about nothing.)
Dealing with Change
The education systems throughout the world have addressed the changing
world in a variety of ways. Some have experienced considerably greater
success than others.
Moreover, a number of different measures of improvement and success
have been developed. We know that different countries develop different
measures of educational improvement and success. What is deemed
important in one country or region may well be deemed less important in
other countries or regions.
Tony Wagner (2008) is a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of
Education and co-director of the Change Leadership Group. In his work,
he distinguishes between students gaining competencies (knowledge) in
various disciplines and students developing habits of mind. He quotes
our colleague David Conley:
The success of a well-prepared college
student is built upon a
foundation of key habits of mind that enable students to learn content
from a range of disciplines. Unfortunately, the development of the key
habits of mind in high school is often overshadowed by an instructional
focus on decontextualized content and facts necessary to pass exit
examinations or simply to keep students busy and classrooms quiet.
Throughout his book, Wagner stresses seven Survival Skills that he
feels need to be major drivers in a modern education.
- Critical thinking and problem solving.
- Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.
- Agility and adaptability.
- Initiative and entrepreneurism.
- Effective oral and written communication.
- Accessing and analyzing information.
- Curiosity and imagination.
Notice that none of these are discipline specific. Wagner argues that
each discipline-specific course should be a vehicle for helping
students to develop these interdisciplinary habits of mind. To learn
more about habits of mind, see the work of Deborah Meier, such as the
2004 interview http://www.pegasuscom.com/levpoints/meierint.html
Wagner also emphasizes the importance of study groups formed outside of
the classroom, and of collaborative problem solving. He repeatedly
refers to and discusses the work of John Seely Brown (2009) in this
area. Brown has a doctorate in computer and communication sciences, was
Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for 10 years, and is a
world-class leader in educational reform.
Brown’s video presentation includes an emphasis on students organizing
and actively participating in study groups. He provides examples of
research supporting this as one aid to significantly improving
education. Nowadays, such study groups may include face-to-face
meetings, but may also consist of students located around the world.
Key aspects of this approach to education is the sharing of ideas and
points of view, and asking hard questions that require deep and
carefully reasoned answers.
Wagner makes extensive use of a “learning walk” in his work with and
research into schools. In a learning walk of a school, he and a
superintendent or principal make unscheduled visits to a number of
different classrooms in a school. Wagner tries to pick one of the best
schools in the district for this learning walk. Typically, a classroom
visit lasts 10 to 15 minutes. In that short period of time, Wagner is
able to gain considerable insight into the rigor of the content being
taught and the methodologies being used. The book contains numerous
examples of teaching focusing on lower-order skills and memorization
for tests. The school administrators that accompany him are invariably
surprised (disappointed, embarrassed) by what they witness.
Wagner provides compelling evidence of how the No Child Left Behind
assessment system is driving our educational system in a wrong
direction. Even in the high school Advanced Placement courses, the
instruction places a great deal of emphasis on preparing for the
test—including intensive memorization of facts, and learning and
practicing strategies for scoring well on the test. This is in sharp
contrast to focusing on critical thinking, problem solving, written and
oral communication skills, and learning to make effective use of
He is particularly critical of the multiple choices testing system so
widely used in the United States. While any testing system will lead to
teaching to the test, multiple choice leads to the teaching of
strategies and content that are quite specific to doing well on that
kind of test.
Wagner is also quite critical of our teacher education and school
administrator education systems. He provides numerous examples of major
flaws in these systems. Many of the courses taught in these programs of
study have the same flaws he finds in our precollege education system.
Both the content and the assessment lack authenticity. (Learn more
about authenticity at http://jonathan.mueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox/whatisit.htm
Wagner and Brown both argue that our education systems (including the
people who staff them) are mired in approaches that are long out of
date and do not adequately prepare students for responsible and
productive adult citizenship and lifelong learning in our rapidly
Brown, John Seely (2009). John
Seely Brown lecture on learning in the
digital age. (1:16 video.) Retrieved 6/1/2010 from
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Leadership Group. Retrieved 6/6/2010 from
Provides access to a number
of Tony Wagner’s articles.
Wagner, Tony (2008). The
global achievement gap: Why even our best
schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need—and what
we can do about it. NY: Basic Books.
About Information Age
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