Monday, August 25, 2008

Does Congress REALLY Back 21st Century Learning?

so asks Bill Ferriter at The Tempered Radical. The short answer is no, they don't. What Congress supports is Congress getting re-elected and in that motivation you see why they are willing to spend $50 million, such a paltry sum, to back a research center to reinvent American Education for the 21st Century. All this proposal is can be summed up by two words, "Electoral Politics." This Congress, like all Congresses, is very poor at pro-active work and proposals. Congressional leaders look at the need to be re-elected every couple of years so they need a "program" aimed at "education" with 21st Century in the title. This way they look like they are doing something, but really aren't. So they do what Congress does best, Public Relations and spending money.

"Reinvent American Education for the 21st Century," what ever that means, is a poorly defined goal. As Bill pointed out, no one, including Congress, can define what 21st Century Learning is and what it entails.

What it does not entail is fancy technology in the classroom. As I just recently said, adding technology to the classroom does not improve education unless you have a solid foundation outside of technology. Technology is, in military terms, a force multiplier. If you don't have the force in the first place, what you end up with, is a picture that looks like this:

21st Century Education= Educational force x Technology.

If Educational Force= 0 (a poor curriculum or poor teachers for example), then your have

21st Century Education= 0 x Technology.

Any math teacher will tell you, if you multiply anything by 0, your result is 0. It won't matter how much you spend on technology if you don't have the foundation of solid pedagogy, strong texts and deep understanding of both learning and subject matter. If you have those, technology can provide a bonus, but it is not a substitute.

Ferriter cited this study by the NEA of teacher attitudes toward technology. Citing some interesting results in which teachers expressed satisfaction with the availability and training on software, Bill asks:
How can we possibly see change when the practitioners closest to the problem seem blind to the need for reform and unready to embrace student-centered learning experiences facilitated by new digital tools?

What many teachers fail to recognize is that 21st Century learning is about far more than cash and computers.

It's about learning, unlearning and relearning. It's about finding connections between diverse subjects. It's about communicating and collaborating---and managing the massive amounts of information generated in a world where publishing is possible for everyone. It's about setting one's own pace and pursuing one's own passions.
Indeed, but don't expect to see any real changes in teh next few years, and you will not be able to attribute any to this new Congressional initiative, assuming it is enacted into law.

When will you see changes, you might ask? When the older generations of teachers are replaced by teachers who understand technology and connections in their own lives, who are facile with the management of information, who can see the link between say soccer and georgraphy. In short, I don't think that you can sit here, at the relative dawn of the 21st Century and say what 21st Century education will be. Such hubris is sure to be properly rewarded.

My fear for this Congressional intiative is that it will be a $50 million boondoggle, incapable of actually finding something new, of pushing the envelope and worst of all, become a source of grants and funding for every person out there who thinks they have the silver bullet for education.

If there is one trait I want to see in 21st Century Education it is this: I want our policy leaders to be open. Open to change, open to new ideas, open to the concept that they don't know everything or most of anything, open to the idea that just because it was always done one way, doesn't mean it is the best way or the only way, open to the idea that you don't have to have a Ph.D or Ed.D. to come up with a quality way of educating kids.

Openness, networking and networked solutions (not computer networks) is going to change education, not from the top down, but from the ground up.

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