Not My Reality

I was reading around this morning via the “NCTE Inbox” and found yet another piece that seems to suggest a “teaching and education” revolution that could only happen in a dream: “Coming to Terms With Five New Realities,” by Will Richardson. (In all honesty, I probably sounded like this myself around a dozen years ago.) I thought it might fun to offer counter points to each of what the author call the “new realities” or “big challenges for schools to navigate.” It’s less a description of what’s coming than a prescription for helplessness.  Here’s the list of our apparent reality:

1. “I don’t need my own children to attend a school to learn algebra or French. More than anything, I need them to attend school to learn how to learn. Sooner rather than later, we will need to redefine our value now that teachers and content are no longer scarce.”

Ironically,this is the sort of statement that many might identify as a lack of critical thinking. There’s nothing new in the idea that students go to school to learn; that’s been the central tenet of pedagogy for decades. There may well be a plethora of teachers and content, too, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a plethora of good content and good teachers. Just the opposite. The more information there is, the more students need guidance, not less.

2. “The drive to privatize education by for-profit companies and the growing emphasis on online learning, virtual schools and personalized instruction delivered via technology is threatening to make physical-space, community-run schools irrelevant. Again, while physical-space schools will remain a fundamental part of our society in the near term, the options for self-paced, highly personalized, on-demand curricula are exploding.”

and

3. “While the Common Core assessments are still in development, there is now a clear possibility of a national exam for every student, one that is now also “high stakes” for teachers and schools. Whether or not we choose to challenge that scenario and refocus our work on learning, not testing, remains to be seen.”

Education is supposed to be about empowerment. I don’t think you have to be naïve to say that “standardized testing is inevitable” and “private schools are better at this future thing” is both fatalistic and inaccurate. This sounds suspiciously like a “the public schools are going to hell” so let’s open more charters idea. We need to fund public education fully and shut down the standardized testing industry.

4. “Due to the speed with which the Web and other technologies have evolved and are evolving, current teachers, education professionals and teacher-training programs are ill-equipped to employ sound pedagogues for learning with technology or to prepare students for the technology rich, unpredictable, fast-changing, globally networked world they will inhabit.”

This one is harder to figure out. In what sense is technology “too fast” for teachers? Do we have to allow every new Apple product into the classroom the moment it is released in order to stay relevant? I think relevancy is also defined by a critical perspective– that word again– that will allow us to decide what is and what is not relevant to what we are trying to do rather than to simply embrace the messages of the market. Ironically, while the consumer products advertisers like to paint this picture of a great irrefutable techno-future, corporations are notoriously slower to adopt the latest fads, for obvious reasons: rapid, willy nilly change is expensive and disruptive.

5.”The growing ability of technology to replace both unskilled and, increasingly, skilled labor is disrupting traditional thinking and practice about how best to prepare students for careers and is challenging the view that a college degree is a ticket to a middle-class existence.”

Anyone with even a rudimentary sense of history– or, say, a grandfather who worked in the automobile or printing industry– knows that there is hardly anything new in new technologies replacing labor in certain industries, skilled or unskilled. That’s fundamental to capitalist economics, not an by-product of the internet. We manage that process– to a greater or lesser extent–through our political arrangements; we could certainly do that better. At issues is what we mean by “middle class existence.” Do we mean a life without the sort of back-breaking labor that used to contribute to early aging, disease, and death? Do we mean a life in which the basic terms of political debate are generally comprehensible? If so, that would mean that we need to make an undergraduate education free, just as we made a high school education free.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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