How different should 21st century learning be?

Monday's??EIA Communiqu?? linked to a lecture Scott McLeod gave to the NEA entitled, "Teaching and learning in an era of disruptive innovation." McLeod's lecture is a dire warning that schools of today--where students sit in desks, in rows, doing lots of "seat" work and absorbing information in teacher-directed classrooms--are not preparing our children for the 21st Century.

McLeod's main point is a familiar one, though with a 21st century tech bent. In short, he argues that the schools of today were designed to educate massive numbers of students, the vast majority of whom were going into manufacturing or agricultural, not creative, jobs. McLeod argues that we must rethink curriculum, pedagogy, and schools in order to better prepare students for the kinds of creative jobs they'll need to compete for. (Though, he offers no concrete examples of what, exactly, he's proposing.)

The heart of Mcleod's argument is that this kind of teacher-directed learning was born in an age where knowledge was concentrated in the hands of a few and where those few had to impart that knowledge through these traditional means to students. Now that information is ubiquitous, and literally everyone has access to means of communicating with potentially thousands, even millions of people, we need to change schools, curricula, and teaching to adapt to the changing technology and ease of access to information of all kinds.

This argument isn't new. It's??the all-too-familiar argument that it's more important to teach children "where to find information" than??it is??to encourage "rote memorization" of names, dates, facts, and figures. The thinking goes like this: memorization of facts and figures=bad. Critical thinking=good. (As if the choice were binary??and the two mutually exclusive.)

McLeod's argument probably resonates with even more people today than it has in the past. After all, with the advent of the mobile internet, students now have instant access to a wealth of information on just about every topic under the sun.

The problem, though, is that Google is only useful to the truly educated.

I am someone who walks around with Google in my pocket. And I use it. Frequently. Unfortunately,??I only maximize the power of this new media when I'm researching subjects that I know intimately. For subjects I know very little about, it does little more than give me a quick overview.

For example, I know nothing about cricket. But, a quick trip to Wikipedia tells me the basic information I need to know about the sport. It does not, however, make me an expert.??Cricket experts can no doubt debate rules and how the game has changed over the years. They can make interesting comparisons between it and other sports and have heated debates about teams and strategy. They can only do this because they know a TON about the sport. Sure, some of that information was likely gleaned from the internet and other new media, but the most important thing is that they have acquired a depth of understanding of the subject that allows them to harness the true power of the information they find on the internet and elsewhere.

I would argue, therefore, that it's more important than ever for schools to ensure that all students have built a solid foundation of knowledge in history, literature, mathematics, and science. Without such an education, we are ill-preparing students for the rigors of the creative work 21st century jobs demand.

To be sure, there are probably a host of ways to deliver this content. Some methods more traditional, some student-centered, some through online learning, some through books. Focusing on??how we deliver the information, though, distracts the conversation from the essential question of??what information we need to ensure all students have to best prepare them for the 21st Century. And pretending that technological advances somehow make the acquisition of that base of knowledge unnecessary seems like a silly distraction from this critical debate.

-Kathleen Porter-Magee

Photograph from Library of Congress
Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute