Wednesday, March 21, 2012

21st century schools: moving beyond knowledge and skills

In a recent piece  in the New York Times Education supplement, former Harvard professor Larry Summers argues that:

Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. This is a consequence of both the proliferation of knowledge — and how much of it any student can truly absorb — and changes in technology. Before the printing press, scholars might have had to memorize “The Canterbury Tales” to have continuing access to them. This seems a bit ludicrous to us today. But in a world where the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures that are vastly better than any card catalog, factual mastery will become less and less important.
Summer neglects to mention a couple of other skills, besides the ability to recall facts, commonly cited as obsolete thanks to 21st century technology:

- Calculation and graphing skills (via the increasingly ubiquitous 21st century calculators)
- Penmanship (via the increasingly ubiquitous and mobile 21st century keyboards)
- Spelling and grammar (via the 21st century's increasingly sophisticated spell-checkers and grammar checker)
- Accurate note taking (via the 21st century Echo Pen)

To these I’d like to add a few more that, to my knowledge, have yet to be appreciated as obsolete:

- Reading (sounding out words, aka “decoding”)
- Writing (even via a keyboard)

After all, a person’s ability decode a language’s written form, or to encode his or her words in written form, will soon be obviated by soon-to-be-ubiquitous and mobile speech-to-text and text-to-speech apps.


- Foreign language instruction (it’s only a matter of time before Google Translate-like apps combine with text-to-speech and speech-to-text functionality, facilitating even spontaneous face-to-face interactions with non-English speakers)

It’s ironic that educators haven’t yet focused on the growing obsolescence of these last three skills, given how tedious and time consuming they are to master. Think of all the hours and hours of class time that could be freed up for higher level activities like interdisciplinary group research projects if, in particular, we didn’t have to teach kids how to read and write!

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