Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Changing education for our future

I understand that basic skills--reading, writing, and math--are a necessity. But I also believe that our world is rapidly changing and we need to adjust our education system accordingly.

When I was growing up, it was a big thing for everyone to have a set of encyclopedias. I loved going to my grandma's house and reading her Childcraft encyclopedias. I can remember my parents debating over whether they should get Worldbook or Britannica. I used to make fun of my brother because he would spend hours in the living room reading them. Twenty five years ago, encyclopedias were an important source of information. But information is accessed very differently these days.

Today I can't imagine having to travel to a library during open hours in order to pull books and write down information, hoping to get what I need so that I don't have to go back if my research takes a different direction.

No, instead, I sit at home on my couch--doesn't matter if it's 2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.--and search for specific terms that immediately give me access to the information I need. Or...I "follow" different education tweets on Twitter that send texts to my phone so that I can access articles instantaneously and in real time.

Despite the wealth of information at our fingertips, our school systems are set up in ways that still expects kids to learn by sitting in a classroom, facing forward, and listening to a teacher using one, authoritative source--a textbook.

So, it's exciting for me to hear that there are now 10 states working with the Arizona-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or P21, to develop 21st century skills including critical and creative thinking, becoming technologically savvy, and working well with others.

E.D. Hirsch, a well-known writer about "cultural literacy" has written books about What Every American Needs to Know. In his opinion, kids need to learn his list of items before they learn P21 skills. I disagree. In his book, there are 63 pages of small print of "what literate Americans know"...many items of which I don't know. But what I do know is where and how to find information when I need it (a P21 skill).

Maybe we should learn from the UK, who has plans and proposals to overhaul the primary school curriculum.

Proposals would require:

• Children to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information and forms of communication. They must gain "fluency" in handwriting and keyboard skills, and learn how to use a
spellchecker alongside how to spell.

• Children to be able to place historical events within a chronology. "By the end of the primary phase, children should have gained an overview which enables them to place the periods, events and changes they have studied within a chronological framework, and to understand some of the links between them." Every child would learn two key periods of British history but it would be up to the school to decide which ones. Schools would still be able to opt to teach Victorian history or the second world war, but they would not be required to. The move is designed to prevent duplication with the secondary curriculum, which covers the second world war extensively.

• Less emphasis on the use of calculators than in the current curriculum.

• An understanding of physical development, health and wellbeing programme, which would address what Rose calls "deep societal concerns" about children's health, diet and physical activity, as well as their relationships with family and friends. They will be taught about peer pressure, how to deal with bullying and how to negotiate in their relationships.

The six core areas are: understanding English, communication and languages, mathematical understanding, scientific and technological understanding, human, social and environmental understanding, understanding physical health and wellbeing, and understanding arts and design.
I don't believe anyone is advocating for taking away basic skills. But I do believe we need a better understanding of what opportunities exist for providing kids with a multifaceted opportunity to gain information.

Maybe they won't access the information E.D. Hirsch or I think is important. They may discover something that we never thought to tell them.
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