I’m glad to see this question posted here. The debate over “what do we still need to learn” vs. “what can we delegate to the hive” is something I’ve been grappling with for a long time, but have never had an excuse to sit down and really work through. Luckily for my colleagues in this class (…and the whole world, I suppose), I will have come up with ALL the answers by the time we reconvene tomorrow at 10am.
In all seriousness, the landscape of learning is shifting beneath our feet. I am proud to be included (albeit on the tail end) in the generation of people who can proclaim they wrote research papers using volumes of leather-bound encyclopedias and manual typewriter. I will someday hold my grandbabies on my knee and recount stories of these “dark times” when we could only receive Wi-Fi through a designated “hot spot” and Harvard students had to travel in the flesh all the way over to Kendall Square to manually submit a cross-registrant form in order to enroll in an MIT class. I enjoy that my view of the world spans the transition into this era of unprecedented connection through technology. It allows me to communicate rather fluidly with both my BC (Before Computers) elders as well as the youths, and empathize with arguments made by both sides regarding the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of education in the 21st century.
However, with this great privilege comes great responsibility. It is increasing falling on the shoulders of my generation to decide how best to prepare the children of today to be productive citizens of tomorrow. After weighing the abstract considerations and fighting my way out of the “we’re just going to die eventually, why bother?” trap, I always return the opening monologue from the 1980 film “The gods must be crazy,” in which the narrator satires the meaning of “civilized man” and its implications on human behavior:
“Only 16 miles to the south [of the Kalahari desert, in Botswana], there’s a vast city. And here you find civilized man. Civilized man refused to adapt himself to his environment. Instead he adapted his environment to suit him. So he built cities, roads, vehicles, and machinery. And he put up power lines to run his laborsaving devices. But he didn’t know when to stop. The more he improved his surroundings to make life easier the more complicated he made it. Now his children are sentenced to 10 to 15 years of school, to learn how to survive in this complex and hazardous habitat.
And civilized man, who refused to adapt to his surroundings now finds he has to adapt and re-adapt every hour of the day to his self-created environment. For instance, if the day is called Monday and the number 730 comes up, you have to dis-adapt from your domestic surroundings and re-adapt yourself to an entirely different environment. 800 means everybody has to look busy. 1030 says you can stop looking busy for 15 minutes…and then, you have to look busy again. Your day is chopped into pieces, and in each segment of time you adapt to new circumstances. No wonder some people go off the rails a bit.” (Watch the clip here…you’ll be glad you did)
I find the two sentences highlighted above particularly striking:
- Now his children are sentenced to 10 to 15 years of school to learn how to survive in this complex and hazardous habitat. This always reminds me that the concept of school was invented to ensure that children could navigate this crazy world we have constructed. School is NOT a law of nature or even part of natural order; mammals, reptiles, algae…other living beings do organize their offspring into “schools” – except, perhaps, fish… Learning, on the other hand, is a fundamental part of the human process. We learn what we need to survive and (ideally) to thrive. Few lament that we’ve traded our hunting and gathering gear for supermarkets…why should we not trade the hours we spend memorizing Nevada’s state capitol* for a readily accessible anthology of all the world’s capitols?**
- Your day is chopped into pieces, and in each segment of time you adapt to new circumstances. Over the years, the notion of “school” became dissociated with the notion of “home.” Eventually they were completely divided into two discrete entities. Children did not always remove themselves from the “real world” so as to be taught about the real world; they only began to do so over the last couple of centuries. Finally recognizing this inadvertent divergence has helped me overcome some of the barriers to my own understanding of “learning” and also serves as a very productive framework for imagining how learning could/should/will/must look in the future (e.g. continuous, ongoing, limitless).
While my tendency to “chartmentalize” (yes, this is a made-up word and yes, I’ve already requested that Merriam Webster legitimize it with their equally made-up linguistic lordship) wants to see the world nicely dissected into categories enumerating the “should-learn’s” and “not-worth-it’s,” the world is not that simple and people are not that static. I am of the camp that we need to gut and redesign today’s school curriculum (right down to the very subjects we teach). I whole-heartedly agree with Mitch in today’s reading when he said that “for today’s children, nothing is more important than learning to think creatively – learning to come up with innovative solutions to the unexpected situations that will continually arise in their lives.” While the ultimate goal remains “teaching kids to fish,” today’s conditions necessitate that we prepare them with a more sophisticated toolset if we want them to eat for a lifetime. And there is a lot to be done.
Final thought: I sometimes think of education as a telescope – in our case, an outdated telescope. Because of our obsession with fixing the telescope, we have forgotten that the reason we created the telescope in the first place was to look at the stars. And while we were arguing about how to fix said telescope, the night sky shifted (well, technically, the earth rotated, but you get my metaphor). Before we can work on the telescope, we must return our gaze to the night sky and how we plan to explore the mystery that is our universe. I’d bet that many of the supposedly “primitive” Bushmen (with whom the “civilized man” is juxtapositioned in the film) have never stopped looking up. I think the real challenge now is how to pause long enough to have that conversation.
*It’s Carson City, by the way. And it may be interesting to note that I actually knew that from memory.
**Exception: master trivia players