The Time Warp of Education: Teaching to the 21st Century Student in a 1950’s Classroom

Close your eyes. Imagine a classroom with desks in perfectly straight rows, children sitting – hands folded – at attention, books stacked in a neat pile on the floor, and a teacher at the front of the room writing important information on the board.

Sounds like a classroom from the 1950’s, right? Unfortunately, this is what many of our 21st century classrooms still look like, despite significant advancements in technology and student expectations.

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A 1950’s classroom. Photo credit: community.imgur.com

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A 21st century classroom. Photo credit: community.imgur.com

Education reform has been a hot-button issue in the media for many years and I recently read a TED Q&A with fellow blogger, Will Richardson, that confirmed many ideas I have about the state of education and educational reform.

In his interview, “Why School?  How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere,” Richardson answers several questions about why schools must change the way they teach, what’s at stake if they don’t, and how the educational system can implement technological and societal changes in a more productive way.

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Photo credit: blog.ted.com

Richardson begins with the claim that, “schools were built upon the fundamental premise that teachers and knowledge and information were scarce.” This premise illustrates what education looked like at its conception: the teacher – the gatekeeper of all knowledge – had to fill the students head’s with knowledge because they were the only resource available.

Unfortunately, we as educators are no longer the gatekeepers of all knowledge as we once were, but rather we have been ousted by a web-based search engine, known most commonly as Google.

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Google logo. Photo credit: http://www.google.com

To our students, Google is not just a tool, or a website, or a means for finding answers – it has literally become a verb and many teens of the 21st century Google more than they breathe. I am not longer regarded as the most knowledgable in my classroom, that title is now claimed by Siri.

Richardson makes the stark observation that, “student’s in the K-12 system have never known a world without the internet.”  I myself, though young, can remember education without the internet (grades K-4) and though I now teach in a society that treats the internet more precious than air, notice that education still has not adapted and we all want to know why.

In the real world, we as educators want our students to solve problems by whatever means necessary, but in the classroom we want them to not use the internet or any other “cheater” sources we deem a hinderance to their learning.

This is a disservice to students everywhere.

We live and work in a society that is constantly changing, so why is the preparation for entering that society the same as it was 50, 100 or 150 years ago?

Unfortunately, this reform is going to be a painstakingly slow process – it always has been.  I recognize that, as Richard puts it, “the next 10 years are going to be exceedingly difficult for schools to navigate the gap between maintaining the traditional curriculum that reformers want and providing the learning opportunities and literacies that kids desperately need today…”  But that doesn’t mean we do nothing and just hope we one day get there. That method hasn’t worked yet.

So what do we do?  We adapt, we change, we advance.

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Open concept classroom. Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org

With all this technology at our fingertips, there is no reason our classrooms should stay frozen in time – nothing else in our society has.  Classrooms need to be dynamic work spaces, not lecture halls; teachers need to be facilitators of thinking, not gatekeepers of information; and students need to be problem solvers, not just Googlers.

Schools must change if they wish to survive – we cannot keep preparing students for a world that no longer exists, but rather we must prepare them for a world that will exist in the future.  As Richardson notes, “…at the end of the day, just as we’ve seen with many other institutions, old thinking simply cannot prevail.  This isn’t optional.”

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