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The Rise of the Machines

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I like to imagine what could come to be if we continue on the same on-line loving trajectory.  I know people who only watch news on YouTube clips.  They never read a newspaper.  I think getting a daily paper as one of my epic fails as an environmentalist.  I could easily read most of it on-line, but nostalgia keeps me forking over thirty-something dollars a month to be able to do a Sudoku, with pen on paper, before my tea’s ready in the morning.

But I digress – if more and more people start to get their news and general information on video, how important is reading?  Is it possible we’re becoming more of an oral tradition with symbols replacing words, and videos replacing essays?  I can watch Ginsberg read his own poem on-line, so I don’t have to read it.  And it’s better that way.  We have taped books already. Maybe we could have authors, or celebrities, read the books on a video – or get many people to read and act out the parts with props, and then we won’t need the books at all any more!

No, books won’t disappear. This is Not the End of the Book, with bibliophiles Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, explains the many reasons why not, including that it’s difficult to read an iPad in the bath, and, I’d add, or on a long outback camping trip.  The book is like the spoon or the wheel, they say; it cannot be improved.  But it won’t stop people from trying.  You can still read a 500-year-old book, but you likely can’t play a 30-year-old 8-track cassette.  I read the book on a recent camping trip, and it got me thinking about many aspects of the Futures Forum course.  Random thoughts follow and some of my views in one paragraph contradict views elsewhere (“I am large…”). Opposition is welcome in the comments.

On Reading Recent Articles vs Traditional Texts

In the Futures Forum course we’re supposed to be teaching students for tomorrow.  Some teachers are having students do most of the required reading on-line.  Instead of the standard practice of a collection of short stories, a novel, an independent novel, and a little Shakespeare, some students are reading just one independently-chosen book and some articles of interest.  It seems to suggest that the classics and traditional readings are less important to impart than allowing students to discover their own interests.  This is an old debate:  which matters most, the community or the individual.  I tend to lean towards the side that suggests students will discover their own interests on their own time and read short on-line articles with little help from us, but if we don’t introduce some good literature along the way, they might never encounter it otherwise.

And will they learn to manage sustained reading, keeping track of many characters over a few hundred pages, if we don’t get them to practice that skill in our classrooms?  They need to do it a few times and get the rewards of getting to the last page in order to want to do it on their own, and they might need to get to the end of a few books in school before one hits them as really worth the journey.  There are few jobs where reading a novel, or Shakespeare, is ever necessary, but the skill of sustaining thought over time has myriad applications.

On Teaching for the Future

We don’t know what tomorrow will be like.  We’re just guessing.  Getting students perfecting computer skills could be the worst idea possible.  We could run out of affordable energy to run computers in every workplace, and paper will make a resurgence.  Or we could run out of trees and have to learn how to carve words in stone!  Who knows?  We can’t count on computers working like they do now or even existing twenty years from now.  Students need to be able to search for information on-line for the immediate future, but they also need to be able to use an index in the back of the book and know how to find a book in a library – skills that have been used for hundreds of years.  If we throw out old skills for new, the kids could be in a sorry state, and culturally we will have lost something.  And, who knows, maybe the most important thing kids today need to learn is how to grow and preserve their own food.  We can’t teach for tomorrow because we’re utterly clueless about what tomorrow might look like.

In Not the End, Carriere says “Aircraft manfacturers are currently working on planes that will be ready in twenty years, but they are built to run on aviation fuel that may no longer be available” (55).  Are we doing something similar by “teaching” practical applications for Twitter and Facebook in the classroom?  We’re still not really teaching for the future, but for today.  Twitter could go the way of MySpace by the time these kids hit the workforce.

We come to that idea of preparing students for the world of the future with the best of intentions of course.  When I was in school, I learned how to type and take shorthand and prepare reports for a boss, but there are few secretaries today.  I can also thread a projection machine.  Learning those skills didn’t detract from my education.  It was valuable practice learning a skill.  It taught me to learn how to learn at the very least.  The things I need to know for my job this fall, all the technology I’m to teach the kids, didn’t exist ten years ago.  They couldn’t have been taught in a high school to prepare a future teacher for the work world. It’s likely the specific technological skills a student will require as an employee isn’t possible to develop with our current technology.

At the last FFP meeting, someone said, “It’s a step backwards for them to use an index in the back of the book.” We’re making assumptions about what will be here in the future and what won’t:  i.e. computers will take over and books will die off so it’s no longer important to know how to use an index. But maybe we’ve got that backwards.  Are we falling into the trap of believing history runs in a straight line, always progressing, always getting better, when we know from history that it runs in cycles.  Things improve, then they get worse over and over again.  Things develop, then they sometimes disappear.

For centuries, what kids learned in high school was everything they needed to know for life.  That’s no longer the case.  People have to adapt to on-going change.  Adapting isn’t something we need to teach; it’s something we naturally do whenever it becomes necessary.  We’ve adapted to on-going on-the-job training.  But there are some lasting skills and content kids need from high-schools.

We need to teach those few skills that will always be useful.  My background’s in philosophy.  After high school years spent reading as fast as I could, philosophy profs trained us to slow down.  Read a sentence, look up words you don’t know to make sure you really understand it, then think about whether or not you agree.   The last part is the most important.  Critical thinking will always be a useful skill.

Cultural literacy will also always be useful: having a bank of common, traditional books in your memory so literary allusions make sense.  Culture is created by what we collectively choose to keep or dismiss.  If we keep it all and just use what’s on-line as our culture, then we know nothing – the details without the context.  We don’t want to be burdened with a selection process, but without one, we’re a collection of individuals without a shared memory.  Choosing books in schools that everyone had to read is a significant means of selection that affects us well beyond learning literary devices.  Individual filtering means almost 7 billion separate encyclopedias of knowledge which prevents common understanding, and meaningful discussion between people can only take place on the bases of shared knowledge.  (Although really it’s closer to 2 billion people on-line – the “haves.”)

An understanding of human nature and the global dynamics will always be useful.  These are concepts often unwittingly taught in arts and humanities courses, and are necessary to develop regardless where the world takes us.  Technology?  Not so much.

On On-line vs Textural Sources

Teaching on-line research skills is vitally important in schools today for sure.  Unlike a library, there isn’t an intelligent, dedicated teacher on-line amassing the collection.  It’s rogue.  Hence much of it is mistaken or out of context.  There are no fact-checkers and the hierarchy used by search engines is based on self-imposed tags not accuracy nor excellence.  Kids need to know how to tell what’s real and what’s crap.  That’s a new skill needed not for the future, but for right this minute.  Sometimes it’s difficult for teachers to determine what’s real on-line also.  Many believed an American guy to be a lesbian woman in Syria.

In Not the End, Eco suggests having students find 10 different sources for one piece of information to compare, then they’ll see how Wikipedia is typically cut and pasted from another source.  Have them look for any discrepancies and which articles are likely the most accurate, and the most primary sources.  (67)  I suspect students would hate such a tedious assignment, but it could be a worthwhile means to an end.

We’ve got some students reading reviews of analysis of writings instead of reading the primary documents themselves – or reading a tweet of a review of an analysis of a book.  They’re getting information thrice removed, watered down, and potentially misinterpreted.  And it makes them lazy.  They could fail to develop the ability to interpret works if they don’t take the time to read and think about the original source on their own.  Reading on-line make it far too easy to cheat.  If a kid gets stuck at a boring bit, they can just google a summary and skip the rest of the book, yet feel like they’ve done the work.  Back in the day, using Coles Notes held a pretty strong negative stigma.  It would be embarrassing to get caught.  Today, students source similar on-line help-sites on essays claiming it’s more efficient, and therefore wise, to avoid reading entire books.   This is a wrong turn that needs correcting.

On Testing Their Memories

If we can access all information via google, do we need to remember anything anymore?  Einstein didn’t know his phone number because it’s a waste of effort to remember something you could look up, and he was pretty smart, right?  If everything can be easily found in a data bank we can keep in our pockets, then what IS really useful to remember except maybe some random trivia that might impress or entertain people?

But all learning is remembering.  If I tell you the name of our Prime Minister, and you’ve forgotten ten minutes later, then you haven’t really learned it.  So if we stop worrying how much kids remember (no tests or exams), aren’t we really saying we’re not going to concern ourselves with how much they’ve learned?  How do we understand the rash of books on mnemonics now?  People want to remember.  They want to know things.  The question for us is should they leave high school knowing the major players in current politics, or do we leave it up to them to decide if that’s worth the energy to learn?

On “This is All Brand New”

As far as I can understand it, the Futures Forum philosophy is that students should direct their own learning so they’re more likely to take ownership over it.  They have as much freedom as possible to choose to do assignments, with suggestions of due dates, but nothing solid and no late deductions.  We can follow the bare-bones of the curriculum, and there’s been frequent gleeful commenting on what’s NOT legislated (Shakespeare, the number of books read, etc.).  Some insist the technology is merely a tool we’ll use to get them to buy-in to the process, but others seem completely taken with the computers as an end in themselves – that one’s still a bit fuzzy for me.  I know which side I lean towards, but I’m not sure it’s the popular side.  There aren’t any tests or exams.  Students do projects of their choosing.  They can make a film to show understanding of a concept rather than write an essay.  Lessons aren’t taught to the entire class, but to individuals as needed and/or requested.

This is reminiscent of Montessori  which came from a long line of thinkers, in particular Rousseau, Montaigne, and Erasmus.  And don’t forget the Hall-Dennis Report with schools with no walls or Outcomes Based Education which never really got off the ground here.

This is where I buy into the idea.  I can use the technology to augment the practice, but having individuals study what they most desire make a lot of sense to me – with my guidance that is.  I’ll be reading Shakespeare with them, as a group, but allow them to go their own way with it once we’re done.  The focus of the text is something they can choose, but not always the text itself.  I’m going to endeavor to rescue a cultural literacy in decline.

BUT the problem with this philosophy of education is that we’re using an open model within an education system of some significant limitations with respect to marks, class size, and curriculum.  Montessori methods work well if the end result is a pass/fail, or in a system in which students write entrance exams to get into university.  In our classes, after a semester of open-ended work, we have to assign a specific number to the student – three numbers actually, one for English, Civics and Careers.  Another serious limitation that disables the philosophy is the ratio of 30:1.  In Emile, Rousseau advises a single tutor teach a boy whatever the boy is interested in learning about each day.  The lessons are guided, of course, but always focused on the student’s current passions.  Great idea!  But with 30 kids, there will be times we all have to learn one thing at one time regardless of their passions.   They can’t play Civics Mirror until we finish Act II.  Finally, to do justice to a student-directed concept, the student should really be allowed to learn anything during the class time, not just the three subjects at our disposal.  If a student’s current passion is biology, then they could be bored to tears in my class forced to do something within the limits of the curriculum.  This could be seen as a balance between a rigid and an open system, but it could also been seen as a watering-down of the hoped-for educational ideal.  When the leaders tell us to blow it wide open, it’s not really possible within current constraints.

A common problem with this philosophy, which came out as I discussed this project with neighbours, is that if students are allowed to follow a student-directed program, what’s to make them do their boring job when they get into the workforce.  One neighbour lamented that these kids will come to work for her, and whine if they’re asked to do something that doesn’t interest them.  And, let’s face it, much of the work day of most people is spent doing stuff we don’t really enjoy (not teachers of course).

I’d counter this argument that people are differently motivated at work than they are in school.  I had a student once who was late every day and generally unmotivated during class.  He seemed unlikely to keep a steady job.  When I met up with him years later, he was doing very well at a company, never late and working hard all day because otherwise he’d be fired.  Being sent to the office for a late slip is a punishment of little consequence (and effect) relative to being fired.  If keeping a job means doing work of little interest, people will do it particularly if at least part of their job is enjoyable. People don’t have to enjoy work to do it.  But we want to foster a love of learning in students in hopes that they’ll keep reading and developing once they leave us.  It’s an entirely different model with different reinforcements and different goals.

A Final Concern

The world has dramatically changed while the education system is largely the same.  We waver between open and closed, but we haven’t really addressed the crises in our world – some very real potentially growing trends that affect employability and our ability to thrive.  The biggest change over the past few decades is the loss of jobs for people without a post-secondary education.  In the 80s, people who struggled in school quit to work in a factory or on a farm.  Now farms are factories, and factories are overseas.  We might think we’ll stop the struggle if we offer a student-directed model, and it’s true we might catch a few kids that would have been lost otherwise, but a difficulty with learning, thinking, and memorizing affects the job search regardless how much they might enjoy this one grade ten class.  As a kid in the 60s, mine was the only mother who worked.  Now it’s the norm.  Add to that the huge workforce gain when China and Russia joined the capitalist machine, and technology that ensures we can produce more with less labour.

It’s clearly not the fault of education that kids can’t find jobs.  This isn’t a problem we can solve in-house.  If our goal is educating students so that they can all find gainful employment, then maybe, as civics teachers, we should ignore concerns with bias and teach them to be socialists who want to reduce the workweek to 30 hours.  And we have to teach them to petition the government to raise minimum wage again or implement a guaranteed basic income so we can live on fewer hours of work.  This has happened several times in the last couple centuries, and maybe it’s time it happens again.  There’s little education can do for the masses if there aren’t enough places to fill in the sectors that cater to those with weaker academic abilities.  And there will always be those with weaker abilities.  Gardening and preserving food really might be the best thing to teach to ensure future success.

As long as we lose farm work to machines, and labour to other countries, we will have an increasing unemployment problem.  Regardless how much we strive to get a computer in every kid’s hand, and develop within each of them a love of learning, it won’t ensure their employability.   But it’s a nice try.

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About Marie

I never use this blog, but it's my Wordpress default. Check out my current blog: http://apuffofabsurdity.blogspot.ca/

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