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Why School? TED ebook author rethinks education when information is everywhere.

Posted by: Jim Daly

The Internet has delivered an explosion of learning opportunities for today’s students, creating an abundance of information, knowledge, and teachers as well as a starkly different landscape from the one in which our ideas about school were born. Traditional educators, classrooms, and brick-and-mortar schools are no longer necessary to access information. Instead, things like blogs and wikis, as well as remote collaborations and an emphasis on critical thinking skills are the coins of the realm in this new kingdom. Yet the national dialogue on education reform focuses on using technology to update the traditional education model, failing to reassess the fundamental model on which it is built.

In Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, educator, parent and blogger Will Richardson challenges traditional thinking about education— questioning whether it still holds value in its current form. How can schools adjust to this new age? Or students? Or parents? In this provocative read, Richardson provides an in-depth look at how connected educators are beginning to change their classroom practice. Ultimately, Why School? serves as a starting point for the important conversations around real school reforms that must ensue, offering a bold plan for rethinking how we teach our kids, and the consequences if we don’t.

Why must schools change how they teach? What’s at stake?
Schools were built upon the fundamental premise that teachers and knowledge and information were scarce. That is no longer the reality. Now, as so many more of us gain faster and broader access to the Web, all of those things are suddenly abundant. That means that the traditional role of school, to deliver an education, is quickly becoming less and less relevant. If we continue to see schools as the place where our children go to master a narrow list of content, knowledge and skills that were originally defined almost 150 years ago, we risk putting those kids out into the world with little idea of how to take advantage of the explosion of learning opportunities that now exist. The problem, however, is that most “reform” efforts are aimed at simply doing what we’ve been doing better, almost exclusively in the form of raising test scores. But doing “better” on measures that don’t account for this huge shift we’re in the midst of is the absolute wrong emphasis. Instead, we need to think very differently about the experiences, outcomes, skills and literacies we desire for our kids when they come to school.

Every generation seems to think its students are different. How are today’s youth different in terms of how they gather and absorb information?

Students in the K-12 system have never known a world without the Internet. No question, some kids have had more access than others, and that digital divide is something that we must address with more focus. But for the vast majority who have access, information and answers are a Google search away. They expect to use their technology to get their answers…except in school. In school, we ask them all sorts of questions that they could answer with their phones or laptops, but we don’t let them. So, I think the biggest difference is that our children are connected to people and to knowledge in ways that no other generation before them has been. We have not fully realized all of the ramifications of that, and in large measure, those who oversee our education systems have not yet begun to understand that this is a much different time for learning.

With so much information out there, it seems that finding information is easy but assessing it is tricky. How important are critical thinking skills?
Critical thinking skills around information have never been more important. For all of the value that comes with individuals being able to publish freely and widely to the Web, the huge potential downside is that we haven’t developed the literacies that are required to make sense of all that unedited content that’s out there now. In the scarce world, almost everything we consumed was edited or checked by someone else. Now, each one of us has to have the dispositions and skills to edit the world as it comes to us. Again, this is a huge problem for school systems that were designed for a different time, and it’s an even greater challenge since few if any assessments that we give kids ask them to make sense of an abundance of unedited media and information.

What can schools do to implement some of your ideas?
It’s a difficult moment for schools and the administrators and teachers who  in large measure care deeply about kids but haven’t fully understood or acclimated to this moment of abundance we find ourselves in. Most policy makers and businesspeople are focused on finding more and more efficiencies in the system, and they see technology as a way to “deliver” that traditional education to get “better” results needing fewer and fewer teachers while making greater and greater profits in the process. The next 10 years are going to be exceedingly difficult for schools to navigate the gap between maintaining the traditional curriculum that reformers want and providing the learning opportunities and literacies that kids desperately need today, opportunities that few outside of education are asking for. I think the first step is that educators have to reexamine their own learning practice and move toward becoming more networked and connected themselves. It’s hard to have meaningful conversations around change in a 21st Century sense if you’re coming at it from a 20th (or even 19th) Century lens.

The educational process is pretty slow-moving and sclerotic. Do you have hope that these changes will be made?
I have hope because I see more and more individual classrooms that are beginning to understand what abundance means, places where teachers and kids are getting connected, doing real, meaningful, beautiful work for real audiences that help students become true modern learners in the process. I have hope because every one of us knows that amazing relationships and amazing learning happens in those real life places we call school, that they are an important part of our communities and histories. And I have hope because, at the end of the day, just as we’ve seen with many other institutions, old thinking simply cannot prevail. This isn’t optional. The fact is that schools are not going to go away in the near term for a host of reasons. But what we do in schools, the way we answer the “Why School?” question will change. It has to. The more that each one of us begins to get involved in the process of answering that question, the sooner and more effectively we’ll make the changes our kids are waiting for us to make.

Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere is part of the TED Books series.

Comments (55)

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  • Marty Woods commented on Sep 17 2012

    For years, the big downside to traditional schools is lack of innovation. The bureaucracy could possibly be addressed with vouchers- this would take away the centralized funding of a monopoly school district.

  • Ivan Webb commented on Sep 16 2012

    In discussing developments like this it can be useful to think about what questions we are answering.
    Clearly many new things are possible as described by Will Richardson.
    In taking advantage of them we need to be able to answer two more questions. Given the fact that they are POSSIBLE
    - What is DESIRABLE(and to whom)?
    - What is FEASIBLE (and for whom) given their current constraints (e.g., time, energy, existing policies, practices, expectations,…?
    So what is possible for teachers may or may not be perceived as desirable and feasible for teachers and other stakeholders (administrators, government, families…)
    In order to be fair we must not fall into the trap that “nothing is impossible to those who don’t have to do it”.

  • commented on Sep 16 2012

    Reblogged this on The Red Phone and commented:
    The education system has been need of a complete overhaul for some time now. I believe that it needs to be looked at from a backward planning perspective. When I enrolled in college I was not the traditional 18 year old student. However, many of the students entering right out of high school had to be put into remedial learning classes to bring them up to the college level. I always thought that was the purpose of K-12 education. Unfortunately, on a large scale K-12 is failing to provide students with the basic essentials to enter college. Moreover, critical thinking has been removed from K-12 learning. It focuses on teaching you what to think and not teaching you how to think. The difference is you are taught facts and specific equations and for every student’s exam there is only one right answer to each question. When you are taught how to think, you understand that there is always more than one way to complete a task. Your mind expands a bit more when you learn how to critically think. If we re-introduce critical thinking in the school system I believe that the young minds of the upcoming generations will be able to better solve the problem and they will tell us how to best educate them.

  • commented on Sep 16 2012

    Reblogged this on Whirlwind of Thoughts.

  • Diana Dwamena commented on Sep 16 2012

    Agree with previous comments that education seriously needs rethinking, not only in terms of critical thinking skills around information but also how it is managed and delivered to learners, and at all stages of engaging in learning, not just with the young. Providers of information for learning need to consider personalization and filtering of that information at point of use, which requires a better understanding of the needs of individual learners. Is this the point at which we start to think that two individuals in the same class need to receive the same information in different ways? In so doing would we provide some with advantages over others?

  • Mary Klinger commented on Sep 15 2012

    The push for educational reform is justified but we must not make the mistake that is the norm in education. We must not throw out everything from the current system and jump 180 degrees away to a whole new system. Instead we must be eclectic, holding on tight to what does work in education. This includes the development of a caring community, interactions among those with different opinions and ways of thinking, measuring progress toward specific goals and reaching into high levels of thinking.

    The first goal of education in America, from the days of Thomas Jefferson, was to preserve democracy (in our republic, actually). Socialization is part of that, including the exposure to norms and civilized citizenship, as Nina explained. I believe it is important for our society that our children learn the power of working together with others. A country of independently driven citizens may not be able to rally around a common vision. If our children have highly individualized educational programs, will they learn to share, to adapt or to care for the needs of others or will they only sustain energy and enthusiam for their own personal pursuits?

    So, I agree, some things are learned better in a brick and mortar school. Chemistry labs, music ensembles, the art of discourse, problem solving and innovation are better in a group. Perhaps we are reaching a place where we need to decide what should be learned in school and what should be learned on our own. Research shows the critical factor of feedback in learning. The biggest concern I have, as an educator, is how learning outside of school would be measured and scaffolded. As any teacher knows, some students are not as productive on their own as others. If students do not do homework now, would they do homework assigned by a computer? When I think of my grandchildren who are just beginning to enter public schools, I wonder how education will change for them. I do see that education is in a period of change, but I caution that we do not abandon what works in the search for what is new.

  • commented on Sep 15 2012

  • Ofer Nave commented on Sep 15 2012

    Richardson is obviously trying to communicate a necessarily controversial message here, but it’s frustrating how much he’s beating around the bush with his overly-gentle approach. He talks about how schools fall short, and how they can improve, rather than questioning whether schools are necessary at all, or perhaps even actively psychologically harmful.

    I suppose I should support his relatively inoffensive approach, since that’s what makes it possible for him to get an article on TED.com, a feat not accomplishable by the real hard-hitters of inconvenient truths such as Stefan Molyneux of http://freedomainradio.com/ and Brett Veinotte of http://schoolsucksproject.com/. The mainstream public isn’t ready for that kind of honesty…

  • Nina Smith commented on Sep 15 2012

    Education seriously needs rethinking, but in a bit different way than suggested by the author. HOW must be made more important than WHAT, as noted by previous comments. Also, socialization is much bigger phenomenon than just learning to get along with other kids – it is about adapting the values and norms of the culture, transferred to the next generation via formal education.
    Learning how to choose the relevant and important information from the data we are showered with is essential. Media, environment, peers, teachers and parents are all sources of this constant flow of information washing over our students. Choosing wisely is the trick for becoming successful in life. How are your children or your students taught about making well informed choices? Or are they left to figure it out by themselves? This seems to be the case most often, when the emphasis of teaching is in content, not in learning how to connect and/or use it. I agree wholeheartedly with the importance of critical thinking – but to foster it we must ask more open ended questions, and ditch the assessments with just single one correct answer, because the knowledge is dynamic by its nature, and cannot be measured by exams that are not flexible.
    Changing the focus from teaching to learning makes a huge difference in education, and we really need this paradigm shift to empower students to learn. But, only the means we transfer information has changed (from books and speeches to electric media), learning itself remains the same: it is still both individual and intrinsic. Teachers can make learning much more effective by skillfully facilitating their students learning.

  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    When teachers start asking questions that can’t be found on google, those questions for which they themselves might not have the right answer, or for which there is no right answer, that´s gonna turn the current set up on its head. Not only will teachers, professors and academics in general lose some of their authoritative status but evaluating learning will become even more involved and cumbersome than it currently is, in terms of metrics, but more importantly in each individual teacher´s ability/capacity for observing changes not only in their students behavior but in their thinking.

  • J Bang commented on Sep 14 2012

    Er, um, information has been “everywhere” for a long time. They are called libraries. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Obtaining information over the internet just lowers transactions costs.

    • Brian Lynn commented on Nov 13 2012

      The transaction cost is exactly the problem. Most kids don’t voluntarily hang out at the library unless they were forced too. Even if they did they’d need an adult with them (for the younger ones), and it’s a hassle to physical transport yourself. Even for adults today, we’d get irritated just waiting for a Youtube video to load…imagine that for kids.

  • Richard Skoonberg commented on Sep 14 2012

    Schools teach many “hands on” skills that require practice and feedback. These include: writing, foreign languages, lab sciences, mathematics, sports, drawing and painting, theater, and music. These are all very difficult things to learn on one’s own, even when there is motivation. All these skills require practice and feedback from a teacher. Another important skill set that is often learned in school through school activities is leadership. There are some things that can’t be truly learned through e-learning or the internet.

    We need to consider the question, “what is learning?” as opposed to just information delivery and instruction. Conditions need to be created for the possibility of learning to take place. Schools are often the place where the conditions require for learning are in place. Think– science lab, an art class room, a music room with instruments and music–a place for learning. This is where school succeeds and the internet and e-learning fall short

  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    Reblogged this on @Uri Shavit and commented:
    Good thinking !

  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    Reblogged this on lyndsey ruble.

  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    Reblogged this on Red Paint Blog and commented:
    The man makes some good points, but I immediately had two questions.

    1- Wiki?? Seriously?? We are prepared to use Wiki as a source to replace schools? I don’t even let my daughter quote Wiki as a source in her 7th grade papers. Sure, I recommend that she search it, but only to get the list of sources on the bottom of the page.

    2- Education is only one function of schools. The other important function is socialization- teaching one how to deal with different personality types. I’ve known a few home-schooled kids and while they were very well read and educated they were also sadly lacking in the basic social skills. They just had no experience in being a part of a huge, varied community.

    Let’s face it- we all learned who we are and how we deal with the nastier type of person in high school, not when we got into the business world.

    • Mark Pavlichuk commented on Sep 14 2012

      Regarding 1) :
      Yes, skepticism for ALL sources is healthy, and remembering the source of a “fact” as well as the fact itself should be a habit developed early. Richard Feynman famously complained about how dismal textbooks were, and in general I’d say Wikipedia compares favourably.

      Regarding 2) :
      I’d have to say I’ve had the opposite experience, although I’m a product of what would be considered a normal education. I’ve had homeschooled friends from isolated areas (eg. school of the air) as well as from very small country schools. They seem to have much less need to conform and appear (at least to me) to be more authentic and comfortable in their own skins. They also seem less afraid to have an opinion which is refreshing.

    • Marie-Helene Derry commented on Sep 20 2012

      Point 1: I don’t think the author was suggesting we replace schools with Wiki, which is why he discusses the changing nature of the information available and the greater need for editing as you research because anyone can get published these days. This has always been necessary to some extent because who ever the author, they will have a certain measure of bias/personal opinion. Look at history books for example which rarely mention the achievements of women or minorities to such an extent that as I did my own reading I was astonished to find that there WERE any!

    • Marie-Helene Derry commented on Sep 20 2012

      And point 2 (sorry accidentally posted before I finished) What is this mysterious huge varied community you refer to, that home educated children are excluded from? The unnatural clumping together of 30 or so individuals in a class who may have nothing in common except they are approximately the same age? Home educated children (such as mine) meet with friends of different ages/creeds/religious beliefs etc on a daily basis, to play, study, have educational visits and socialise. And spend more time than the average schooled child in the much wider and varied real world community, shopping, going to the library, joining clubs, volunteering etc. We learn ‘social skills’ from those around us and our families, are we to believe you were a complete ape before you got to school? School was cooked up to keep the children of the masses subservient and make sure there is a perpetual work-force. How do you suppose the human race ever carried on and evolved before school? We were ALL home educated before it was even invented.

      We learn how to deal with ‘nasty people’ when we are self assured and have confidence, not by spending our childhoods being pushed down stairs and having our lunch money stolen.

      If my child was going on a long trip through the desert where they will face starvation, drought and hardship, would it be better to feed them up and make sure they are prepared or starve them so they know what to expect?

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  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    Reblogged this on Red Paint Blog and commented:
    The man makes some good points, but I immediately had two questions.

    1- Wiki?? Seriously?? We are prepared to use Wiki as a source to replace schools? I don’t even let my daughter quote Wiki as a source in her 7th grade papers. Sure, I recommend that she search it, but only to get the list of sources on the bottom of the page.

    2- Education is only one function of schools. The other important function is socialization- teaching one how to deal with different personality types. I’ve known a few home-schooled kids and while they were very well read and educated they were also sadly lacking in the basic social skills. They just had no experience in being a part of a huge, varied community.

    Let’s face it- we all learned who we are and how we deal with the nastier type of person in high school, not when we got into the business world.

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  • barrie singleton commented on Sep 14 2012

    What is taught can be changed; inherent institutionalization, cannot. In nature, school is a defensive strategy for fish. School dominates the formative years of every child. Those years should be given over to developing as a competent individual; it prevent this by its very nature.

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