Education, Lessons Learned In Combat

Balance, Obscenity, and Our Future Citizenry

In his book Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to transform Schools with Digital Media, Mark Warschauer, a professor of Education and Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, writes of the need to teach “21st century skills” alongside content in schools; that the “separation” of these two in schools and classrooms is potentially harmful to our future global citizenry. He points to the work of Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, economics professors at MIT and Harvard, respectively, who co-wrote the titillatingly-titled book The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (Princeton University Press, 2005). In it, they write of the two areas in which future workers are expected to be proficient: “expert thinking” and “complex communication.” According to Warschauer, the first area refers to “the kind of advanced pattern recognition and problem solving that comes from deep knowledge and expertise in a particular domain,” while the second involves not only the acquisition of specific content knowledge, but also the ability to write about and/or explain it efficiently and effectively. He goes on to cite the model developed by John Bransford, an internationally-known expert in human cognition, and his colleagues (2009) called the “Dimensions of Adaptive Expertise,” one that illustrates the relationship between specific skills and content knowledge and students’ level of inquiry and innovation:

Source: UCSF School of Medicine
Source: UCSF School of Medicine

The danger in favoring the development of 21st century skills over content knowledge (or vice versa) in schools, Warschauer writes, is that the future will be full of either collaborative “problem-solvers” who know too little about anything to actually solve problems, or content “experts” who, when faced with an unusual situation or deviation, will have no idea how to adapt their thinking to it. In nursing terms (as my husband is a medical professional who works with nurses on a regular basis), we’ll be stuck with either nurses who can work well with others but make dangerous errors in their practice, or nurses who aced their nursing exams but who become perilously stuck when a new situation presents itself differently from the existing protocol or case studies.

As I read the first few chapters of Warschauer’s book, I was reminded of what happened in my school when, two years ago, we began to look at how to incorporate more inquiry-based learning into our students’ daily classroom lives. As is what often happens in education, many of our faculty and staff in essence worried that we were “throwing the baby out with the bath water” in trying to focus less on the presentation of arbitrary “content” (e.g., the workings of the circulatory system) in favor of basing our curriculum on broad questions that would leave room for student inquiry (e.g., “What does it mean to be healthy?”). Although the checklist that was developed to assist in transitioning to this shift in practice included a section devoted to engaging students in “significant content,” we found that this tended to fade into the background as teachers worked hard to engage students’ natural curiosity, develop their collaboration skills, and help them share their learning with a wider, public audience. It wasn’t unusual, upon reflection of this work, for some colleagues to throw their hands up in frustration and remark, “I’m not sure [students] are actually learning anything anymore!” Lo and behold, what we discovered was that some of what they were saying was true–that in trying to become more of a facilitator of learning rather than the more traditional (and more comfortable) role of presenter of information, some teachers–certainly not all, but some–had all but forgotten about the “significant content” piece. This was most pronounced in the upper grades, where teachers who had previously spent years teaching social studies and science content seemed almost to forget how to do so within the new framework. Instead, the baby (or perhaps the bathwater?) was tossed out the window.

As we reminded ourselves over the course of this school-wide shift (as Warschauer himself does in Chapter 2)–and continue to remind ourselves daily–it’s the balance of skills and content that develops the kind of future citizens we want to develop. Citizens who will keep our society moving forward, our economy buzzing along, and our aging selves taken care of–who are expert adapters. However, as with any calls for “balance” in education, what is needed is not repeated proclamations for it (like obscenity, many of us fail to define it but claim that we “know it when [we] see it”), but a clear articulation of what it looks and sounds like in a classroom. For that, I’ll have to do some major reflecting and get back to you.

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