This country has only half a strategy for upgrading the skills and the knowledge of its young people and the schools in which they learn. The new pressures for achievement are somewhat improving performance, and schools. But mandates and regulations will not be enough.
With nothing but an effort to improve conventional school, this country would not be able to do what it urgently needs to do. It would not get all children to learn. It would not develop the skills and capabilities needed by an economy shifting toward knowledge work. It would not be able to improve productivity in that increasingly knowledge-based economy.
We need to develop different models of school. This will require a major effort at innovation, which will require action by state policy leadership. Both public officials and private organizations should now make the search for new forms of schooling the top priority for the next stage of education policy. Compared to this the issues internal to No Child Left Behind, however intensely debated, are of second-order importance.
Great potential for making school different
We have a coincidence of need and opportunity. New technology is appearing just as the old technology is reaching its limits. One person who listens closely to young people catches the need by saying: “Most adults do not appreciate the degree of frustration, disappointment and anger in students today about what they experience in school.”
Young people today — described by some as “defiantly inattentive” to teachers talking — want to be interested, challenged. Seeing what students today are “not buying,” innovators will look for models of schooling that offer features not now available. Sony’s transistor radio was better and successful because it made radio for the first time truly portable. Happily, there are also opportunities now to offer the equivalent of “portability” to students stuck in conventional courses.
Most schools now have computers; most are connected to the Internet. The issue today is use. Most is “type one” use, adapting the new technology to present-day school — much as, early on, cinematography was used to film stage plays. With laptops students take notes; teachers keep records. The opportunity to change school really opens up with the “type two” applications in which school is adapted to the characteristics and the potential of the electronics — applications of the sort appearing now in the adult world outside school. In contrast to conventional school, these offer flexibility of time and place. The interaction between teachers and students can actually improve in the online and on-the-phone relationship.
No one can now foresee all the ways digital electronics will impact learning and schooling. But we know we are in a revolution when we see the cell phone becoming a portable computer, able to access the internet and the Web. Clearly one potential is to customize learning for students; to move away from the obsolete batch-processing model of high school.
Young people know the technology
Everything we hear suggests that young people would like to pursue what interests them and to learn through the study of real-life applications. The new technology can be organized to permit this, either as coursework or as project-based learning. Customization does not mean letting students study whatever they wish. It means individualizing the way they learn and perhaps the pace at which they learn, with teachers building on students’ individual aptitudes and motivations to move them toward what the standards require them to know.
This new conception of school makes adults uncomfortable. But clearly the day is gone when the best or the only way to put young people in touch with knowledge is to send into their classroom an instructor with books under her arm. School should let students explore the enormous resources now available. Young people today are skilled with the technology, move comfortably in the digital world. We might be surprised how many would move toward math and science if high school let students pursue what interests them in these fields.
It is hard to believe digital electronics will not affect education as profoundly as it has other activities that involve the storage and manipulation of information: newspapers, magazines, books, film, video. Should districts really be prohibiting the possession and use of digital devices in school — or taking advantage of this technology?
Ted Kolderie is senior associate at the nonprofit Center for Policy Studies and co-founder of Education|Evolving, a joint venture of the center and Hamline University. This article is adapted from a new E|E report, “The Other Half of the Strategy: Following Up on System Reform by Innovating With School and Schooling.” [PDF]
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