I recently caught up with discussions surrounding Gary Stager’s critique of Michael Wesch’s video, “A Vision of Students Today.” Gary posted his thoughts to his blogger site in the post “Are We Impressed Because College Students Can Use Google Docs?” and to the DA Pulse blog in the post “Hey Mom! Look What I Made in College!” Of all the replies to these entries as well as related posts, I found the following paragraph in Michael’s response “Clarifications on ‘A Vision'” to be most thought provoking:

But while teaching has not changed, learning has. Students are learning to read, navigate, and create within a digital information environment that we scarcely address in the classroom. The great myth is that these “digital natives” know more about this new information environment than we do. But here’s the reality: they may be experts in entertaining themselves online, but they know almost nothing about educating themselves online. They may be learning about this digital information environment despite us, but they are not reaching the levels of understanding that are necessary as this digital information environment becomes increasingly pervasive in all of our lives. All of the classic skills we learned in relation to a print-based information universe are important, and must now be augmented by a critical understanding of the workings of digital information.

The key phrase in this for me was, “…they may be experts in entertaining themselves online, but they know almost nothing about educating themselves online…..” The contention that many professors and instructors in higher education appear to be similarly ignorant about how to educate themselves in the online environment is also important to note. HOWEVER… Gary’s point that the entire higher education environment is not “out of step” with good teaching practices or with the effective uses of digital technologies to support learning and inquiry is also valid. Sweeping generalizations are always going to miss the mark in some cases. This is true of higher education contexts as in K-12 settings. Acknowledging exceptions to generalizations certainly DO exist, however, does not cancel out the utility of making general points about the predominantly content-delivery focused paradigm of higher education, as well as much of K-12 education which Michael Wesch is making in this video.

I do find great value in using videos like this one in professional development settings with in-service and preservice teachers. That was one of the main points I attempted to make in my comment to Gary’s post last week and again this evening.

I don’t read or understand Prof Wesch as advocating for student use of Google Documents, Animoto, or any other web 2.0 tool as a panacea for the challenges which face us in education. I don’t think David Warlick is making that point either. To suggest that either of them is making that point is to setup a straw man position for rhetorical purposes. Rather than argue that “web 2.0 tools are going to save us,” I understand Prof Wesch to be calling for a fundamental shift in our perceptions and expectations of 21st century teaching and learning. This is a theme echoed by many others, but well articulated visually by Prof Wesch and his students in this video, I think. My wife started reading Alfie Kohn’s book “The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards”” this past weekend, and the excerpts she shared with me also echo this theme.

The general conclusion that “education needs to change in broad terms” is relatively easy to grasp after watching this video, or many others similar to it. The most difficult question to answer, however, is “what do we do to change how we are teaching?” shared by Tim Bulkeley at SansBlogue and echoed by Michael Wesch. There are multiple answers to this question, but some of my main thoughts on this subject include the following:

  1. Address the issue of instructional TIME effectively: There is too much to “cover” and teach now, and the same 24 day is available to learners now as students had in 1897 when John Dewey wrote his pedagogic creed. Particularly in K-12 contexts, but also in higher education, we must reduce the QUANTITY of material and information studied and covered and increase the quality as well as depth of inquiry and analysis. We need to grapple directly with many of the assumptions of the educational standards movement, so we can can emphasize the cultivation of habits of mind like those of Ted Sizer rather than the focus on rote learning and simple memorization which passes for “documented learning outcomes” in many classrooms today. Memorization CAN be important and useful for learning and development, but it should NOT be considered the “endgame” for learning outcomes. Bloom’s Taxonomy should guide learning activities much more than historical precedents for learning activities. We need to do what is BEST for students and their learning inside and outside of classrooms, rather than those things which are merely convenient, easy, or traditional.
  2. Ubiquitous digital tool use: Laptops are 21st Century Pencils. Pencils are not sufficient. Yet paper and pencil activities continue to predominate in most of the schools in which I work in the midwest of the United States. We need a broad-based vision throughout our communities and legislative statehouses for 1:1 learning focusing on regular content CREATION as well as COLLABORATION. Merely dumping laptops on a traditional model of teaching and learning would be a travesty, and an expensive waste of money. Our educational system needs an upgrade in “headware” as well as “hardware,” and the former is much more difficult to achieve than the latter.
  3. Bell schedules must change: Our current system of bell schedules and discrete content areas at the K-12 level is comfortable and familiar to many, but it does not serve the learning needs of students in the 21st century. In the real world, engineers do not pause and say, “Wait! It’s time to stop using math and now start using our language arts skills. Let’s see if we can accurately diagram this sentence.” Real world learning is integrated, it is thematic, and it is always connected to existing schema / background knowledge. Facts are rarely ever remembered outside of formal school contexts (or within them for that matter) when they are studied in isolation. Only when ideas, concepts, skills and dispositions are connected with each other do they become meaningful in the minds and lives of learners. Bell schedules must change to accommodate a more integrated, thematic and truly learner-centered approach toward education.
  4. Learning tasks and assessments must become more differentiated and authentic: In the real world outside of classrooms, no one takes a spelling test. People do, however, frequently write documents for varying audiences and share oral presentations to achieve different goals. Learning tasks and assessments in schools need to change, so learners are more regularly engaged in literacy activities which have correlates in the world outside of schools. As Kate Smith said at ACTEM 2007, as educators we need to understand our role fundamentally as helping to cultivate students’ literacy skills. Too often, especially at secondary and post-secondary levels, teachers define themselves more as the purveyors of content rather than the educators and challengers of young minds. Needed educational reform involves successfully redefining who the “educator” in the classroom actually is, and the roles s/he performs within and outside the formally defined boundaries of “the classroom.”
  5. Graduation requirements must change: This probably sounds like revolutionary heresy, but I contend that our present system of “credits” required for high school graduation in the United States needs to fundamentally change. So a student has taken three years of Spanish and earned passing grades. Can they speak two complete sentences in the Spanish language, which is intelligible by a native speaker? So a student has completed courses in United States history and world history… Can they carry on an intelligent conversation with an adult about how historical precedents and events relate to current international situations like the war in Iraq or the struggle for human rights in Burma? So a student has completed a course in English literature… Did s/he read an entire book, from cover to cover, as s/he earned that passing grade in the class? We need students who emerge from our schools with demonstrable knowledge, skills, and dispositions rather than simply passing grades on a transcript. Assessments need to change and digital portfolios need to develop which genuinely reflect each learner’s current capacities for critical thinking, sustained inquiry, and effective communication.

More changes are needed, but those are some of the BIG ones that stand out for me today. Again, the key question to consider is HOW are we going to change? Acknowledging our need for change is a good first step, but by itself, is insufficient to bring about the changes we need to see both in instructional practices by teachers and professors, and in the perceptions and expectations of learning which are held more generally within our communities.

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On this day..

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  • http://dharter.edublogs.org Dennis Harter

    I posted on the EXACT same quote when I first came across this discussion. It is why students need us.

    The video also struck me as important in that it was inspiring conversation and discussion about what we teach, why it’s relevant (or why it isn’t) and what it is our students want and need (not always the same).

    These conversations can’t be a bad thing for education. And whether Gary thinks that the video is getting overly-hyped as gospel misses the fact that it is prompting people to conversations about learning.

    Should they have had those conversations without seeing a video like this…sure…but were they…I think not…or at least not enough.

  • Jim Walker

    As a special ed teacher I feel lucky because we have to write an IEP for each student that lays out a learning plan for each student. We are to treat each student as a unique learner with defined strengths and weaknesses. In addition to the usual report card a written report of the students progress is developed each quarter.
    Maybe a first step in a real educational reform is to get rid of the report card. It is as artificial as a discrete curriculum for each subject. I know why report cards are still popular, they are easy to generate and give the parents, politicians, and school leaders something to easily look at gage progress. Setting goals and objectives that have to be measured and reported on each quarter is very time consuming and can not be easily turned into a spreadsheet.

  • http://www.thestephensgroup.blogspot.com/ Tammy Stephens

    Ubiquitous digital tool use:
    Our educational system needs an upgrade in “headware” as well as “hardware,” and the former is much more difficult to achieve than the latter.

    The majority of communication in today’s classrooms is linear in nature (i.e. lecture, note taking, question/answering). So what happens when we give students access to one of the most powerful communication, social networking devices in the history of the world? Use of the tool competes with the traditional role of teacher as expert or disseminator of information. Traditional teaching methods and ubiquitous digital tool use cannot co-exist in the same environment. Either teachers will resist and marginalize their use or they will evolve evolve into a new role as a facilitator, co-learner, collaborator and designer of constructivist learning experiences in the classroom.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Tammy I think you are right: We have teachers who will be and are “reactionary” and struggle against the change / to maintain the status quo, and those who will be “dynamists” and seek to leverage the opportunities available in a changing environment. Virginia Postrel discussed these two groups in her 1989 book “The Future and Its Enemies.” I think this is a helpful lens to use when considering cultural changes in different contexts. You are right, people will either support the traditional paradigm or struggle to move beyond it. This connects to what Alan Kay says are those who strive to predict the future either by INVENTING it or PREVENTING it.

  • Pingback: Change Agency - Advocating a better education system for the 21st Century. » links for 2007-11-28()

  • http://ken-carroll.com/ Ken Carroll

    I wrote about the utter contempt I felt for this for video back in October:

    http://blog.praxislanguage.com/2007/10/27/a-vision-of-students-today-is-insipid-agitprop/

    I haven’t changed my mind.

    Ken Carroll

  • Sanford Aranoff

    I am an adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics at Rider University, active as a substitute teacher and mentor in high schools, and a retired professor of physics from Rutgers University. I have taken extensive notes from my experiences and given them to my protégés. Recently I collected them into a book. I suggest that your library purchase the book for the benefit of students, parents, and teachers…. [remaining comment content deleted by Wesley - please see the next comment (my own) for context]

  • http://www.betchablog.com Chris Betcher

    Wow, what a powerful article Wes. Thanks for writing it. AS you pointed out, it’s easy to say that “schools need to change”, but much harder to get down to the actual changes that need to be made. You’ve managed to hit on what would seem to be the key issues – reduction of content in favour of a focus on what it means to actually learn, a rethink of how a school day is structured and how we need to change the current way we break down learning into discrete boxes of content, and a redefinition of what it takes to “pass”. Some great thought provoking stuff as always.
    Here is Australia we have just had a change of government and one of the major platform issues that brought this new government to power was educational reform. Specifically they have promised to provide 1 to 1 access to every student in grades 9-12 (not sure in what form that will take, and it would be nice to extend that to all grades, but it’s a start if they can make it happen!) As you point out though, it goes way beyond just putting computers into schools and I think we have an excellent window of opportunity here in Australia right now to bring the educational debate to center stage. Combined with our other big issue – a national curriculum framework – I really hope that we can start to talk about the bigger issues behind just having the technology and to look at how we might make fundamental changes to the educational environment into which we make them fit. Your article hits on many of the issues we need to get our head around.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Sanford: Please do NOT post additional advertisements for your book to my blog. I have deleted several of your comments on other posts with this information previously, and I am leaving the start of your latest advertising comment (#7) but removing all links so you (and others) will see this note. (I’m also emailing you this request.) I congratulate you on the completion of your book, and I am sure you are eager to let lots of people know about it. The comment area of my blog is not an appropriate venue for advertising your book, however. Thanks very much for respecting this request. I certainly invite you to engage in conversations and dialog here on my blog, but please don’t attempt to use this space as a personal advertising platform. Thanks!

    – Wesley Fryer

  • http://frogmatters.wordpress.com Jeff

    May I just cheerlead you educators for a second? It’s great to see teachers being leaders on environmental and biodiversity issues. There’s a really terrific example that was announced today. The association of biology teachers is lining up with Amphibian Ark to take on the fight to save hundreds of endangered species of frogs and other amphibians. Jeff Corwin’s video thanking them, and a link to the news release, are posted on my frog blog:
    http://frogmatters.wordpress.com/2007/11/29/jeff-corwin-video-thanks-biology-teachers-for-hopping-on-board/
    This is really important. Consider the sheer, numerical power of the partnership:
    •There are 6,000 biology teachers that are in the association…
    •And let’s say each of them has 100 students…
    •And each of those students has a sibling, and 1.5 parents, and 2 grandparents, and 2 close friends — and tells them all about the crisis
    •That’s 6,000 teachers, 600,000 students, another 600,000 sisters and brothers, 900,000 parents, 1.2 million grandparents, and another 1.2 million friends — all informed, spreading the word, demanding and taking action

    Like a frog jumping into a pond, the ripple effect of biology teachers rallying behind Amphibian Ark can be transformational for this cause. So I salute the teachers, and Jeff Corwin for doing all he can to raise awareness. You’re making a huge difference.

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