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Appropriate 21st Century Education:
Have Schools Become Historical Museums?
Kathie F Nunley, EdD
My son takes trombone lessons from a man who lives 20 miles away. It’s
a bit far to trek every Monday afternoon, but I do it because my son
very much enjoys playing trombone in his high school jazz band and Mr.
Bailey was the closest trombone teacher we could find.
Mr. Bailey has been teaching trombone and trumpet for many years, but
most of his income comes from his musical instrument repair business.
If you need your clarinet re-corked, or an ultrasonic cleaning of your
flugelhorn, he’s your guy. The area band teachers refer their students
to Mr. Bailey and he has had a steady business for decades.
On our drive home last Monday, I pondered whether Mr. Bailey would
still have a viable business if schools disappeared off the planet
tomorrow. Were it not for school bands, how many clarinets, trumpets,
flutes and flugelhorns would there be in our section of southern New
Hampshire? A hundred years ago, when town bands were quite popular,
perhaps Mr. Bailey could have survived without the school band
programs. But today, I highly doubt there would be enough to support
Mr. Bailey’s instrument repair business.
How many other industries today would be nearly extinct if not for our
school system? Our schools have now become museums of sorts for many
things once commonplace in our daily lives. Sadly, the world inside
school has become so far removed today from the world outside of
school, that it has become a foreign land that young people find
increasingly difficult to participant in successfully and
A Contemporary Classroom
To get a sense of this, we need only look at this year’s school supply
list for a local elementary school:
30 number two pencils
small bottle of Elmer's glue
pencil cap erasers
one packet of Post-it notes
one box of Kleenex
one box of colored pencils
one package assorted colored construction paper
one package: manila drawing paper
one pencil case
one Mead cursive writing tablet
three spiral notebooks
one black-and-white composition book for science
one red pen
one package of lined 3 x 5 index cards
a pair of safety scissors
five pocket folders with brads
loose leaf 3- ring notebook
three packages wide ruled notebook paper
2 boxes of 24 crayons
It amazes me to note that with the exception of the Post-it notes and
maybe the missing Big Chief tablet, the list is almost identical to the
one I had when I attended elementary school, way back in the 1960s.
When I walk into an elementary school today, I also recognize the
physical environment of the classroom. There is a large analog clock on
the wall, colorful bulletin boards constructed out of butcher paper and
cut-out construction paper, individual laminated student desks with
work storage areas in them, wooden chairs, sitting on a linoleum floor,
a whiteboard with the alphabet written in cursive running across the
top, a wooden teacher desk in the corner with a computer on it,
bookshelves lining one wall filled with a variety of children's books,
a large basket in the corner with playground equipment such as rubber
balls and ropes.
Other than the fact that the chalkboard has been replaced by the
whiteboard and the teacher’s desk now has a computer, the classroom
looks very much like it did when I was in elementary school all those
many decades ago.
How is it that schools have managed to remain somewhat fixed-in-time,
while the rest of society kept moving? Possibly because schools have
always been centered around literature and the printed word, while
society has moved on to the use of alternate narrative forms.
The written word was valuable for hundreds of years because it was the
most stable and durable format we had available for recording ideas and
information. Today though, we have alternate narrative forms that
equal, if not surpass, the advantages of printed literature.
Unfortunately, the concept of integrating alternative literary devices
has instilled fear rather than excitement in many educators. Thus we
cling to our old dogma.
The Chasm Between School and Home
If I reminisce back to my early grade-school years, I recall that
anticipating the first day of school was an exciting time. I would
eagerly gather my school supplies together. I would carefully arrange
my pencils in my pencil case, insert it along with the lined notebook
paper into my 3-ring binder, and it all made me feel part of the
grown-up, real world.
For I saw all these objects used by the adults in my world. My father
used a pencil and slide-rule to calculate loan rates and noted them in
a spiral notebook. My mother wrote lists and letters on lined paper
using a ballpoint pen. Our house was full of often-used hard cover
books such as encyclopedias, cookbooks, science books and an assortment
of reference books. The teller at the bank would carefully write my
small deposits into the paper passbook I carried in and out with me. I
would often accompany my father to the main Chicago public library
where he would peruse the stacks while doing research for one of his
projects. In other words, the tools used inside my school matched the
tools I saw used outside my school.
My choices for amusement back then were simple too, and what little
disparity existed between school and home favored school. Our house had
one color television set which sat in the living room on a TV cart. We
had our choice of three channels to watch -- game shows in the morning,
soap operas in the afternoon, the nightly news at 6 PM, and a variety
of different programs in the evening. Once a year, a channel ran The
Wizard of Oz, which was always a much-anticipated event. If I wanted to
talk to a friend in town, I could call her on the corded telephone
attached to the kitchen wall. If I wanted to visit with a friend who
had moved away, I wrote a letter.
Obviously our lives and homes today are very, very different. Nearly
all of our students have their own personal laptop, iPad, or at least
share a family computer. The majority of them stay in touch with their
friends either through social networking sites or by texting on their
personal cell phones. The idea of going to the library to do research
would seem ludicrous. In fact, it is the opinion of most students that
if it cannot be found on the Internet, it is not worth looking for.
Most of us rarely pick up a pencil and paper and the idea of using them
to write a letter is a distant memory.
Television networks now run programs 24 hours a day with seemingly
thousands of channels. Visual and auditory entertainment is available
within seconds with the touch of a button. Access to information and
entertainment is almost unlimited and instantaneous.
Close the Chasm
Forty years ago schools were an exciting place to be. It was the place
that we could go to meet and chat with our friends. Books filled with
information were stored in a library just down the hall. Technology
meant that if you were lucky, there would be a filmstrip to watch
during social studies class. And if you were really lucky, you got to
be the chosen student who would sit beside the projector and flip the
filmstrip to the next frame when the record player sounded the tone.
Teachers were a wonderful and appreciated source of information. The
pictures in the textbooks provided us with a way to see our world, and
even a brand-new box of 64-count crayons was an exciting possession.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a box of 64-count crayons
or a teacher’s lecture can no longer compete with the excitement of
video gaming, graphic-arts software, and media technology.
And yet somehow we feel justified in expecting students to be excited
about signing off of their computer games, leaving their media-filled
home, taking the music ear-buds out, pocket their cell phone for the
next hour, and sit at the same laminated desk used by their
grandparents. Then pick up a pencil, get out a piece of lined notebook
paper and listen to a teacher talk in front of the room while the big
analog clock stares down to remind them how long it will be until they
can leave and go back home, where the amusements and information are
Our challenge as educators is to embrace our shifting role from
sage-on-the-stage to coach-on- the-sidelines. We need to accept the
value of alternative ways of communication and the fact that we are no
longer the sole, nor perhaps even the best source, of information. We
need to rethink how to utilize the variety of media available today,
which equal or exceed traditional ways to communicate the ideas of a
culture and the knowledge of a society.
We must let go of the old dogma, lest we go the way of the dinosaurs.
Resources and Further Reading
DeAngellis, T. (2011). Is technology ruining our
kids? Not according to public health researcher Michele Ybarra, who
outlined why, in general, there is little cause for alarm. Monitor on
Psychology, Vol 42(9), pg 62.
Gabriel, T. (2011). More Pupils Are Learning Online,
Fueling Debate on Quality. New York Times. April 5.
Keengwe, J. (2007). Faculty Integration of
Technology into Instruction and Students’ Perceptions of Computer
Technology to Improve Student Learning. Journal of Information
Technology Education, Vol 6. pg 169 - 180.
Kolpfer, E. et al. (2009). Using the Techology of
Today, in the Classroom Today: The Instructional Power of Digital
Games, Social Networking Simulations and How Teachers Can Leverage
Them. The Education Arcade, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Available in pdf at: http://education.mit.edu/papers/GamesSimsSocNets_EdArcade.pdf
Markey, P. & Markey C. (2010). Vulnerability to
violent video games: A review and integration of personality research.
Review of General Psychology, Vol 14(2), 82-91.
Rosen, L. (2011) Poke Me: How Social Networks can
Both Help and Harm our Kids. Presented August 6, 2011 American
Psychological Association National Convention, Washington, DC.
Kathie F. Nunley Kathie F Nunley is an educational psychologist who delights
teachers from around the world with her practical and inspirational
solutions to the challenges of today's diverse classrooms. Her popular
seminars and workshops combine classroom experience with her current
research. A noted speaker at state, national and international
conferences, Dr. Nunley is the author of many books and articles on
teaching in mixed-ability classrooms including “Differentiating the
High School Classroom” (Corwin Press). Her work has been used by
institutions and publications around the globe, including Family Circle
magazine, ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Canada Living, and the
Washington Post. She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method
of instruction (http://help4teachers.com)
and the founder of Brains.org. She has spent over 15 years as a
classroom teacher in both urban and suburban schools. Her website: http://brains.org.
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