What to Teach is What’s Usually Missing in Ed Reform Debates

So frequently today, we read about the problems of education being about how students are taught – pedagogical theories are debated, teachers’ methods are scrutinized, and charters proliferate based on promises that they’ve found the magic strategy for teaching mastery of standards.

Unfortunately, we don’t spend enough time discussing the what of education. Generally speaking, what we teach in our schools today remains unchanged despite the host of changes the internet has ushered into this Fourth Information Age. That we are nearly 20 years into an information revolution, and schools still teach the information needed for a different age demonstrates how misguided the education reform movement is.

Curt Bonk puts it well in his latest post:

“When we can have the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in our pockets on an inexpensive flash drive, we must begin to question exactly what should be taught and ultimately what knowledge is… The purpose of education has swiftly pivoted from knowing what something is to knowing how to find out about that thing. The basic tools of knowledge discovery are now Wikipedia and other wiki-like tools, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, TED talks, online news services, digital books, and a vast array of online learning courses and modules.”

And yet, how many standards recognize this shift? Why don’t the standards require students to demonstrate they know how to navigate Wikipedia? how to use Google’s advanced search to find a primary document? how to identify the best online services for objective information about local city council candidates?

As a history teacher, I know the national standards suggested by the NCSS, NCHS, and even the College Board (AP History) are improving somewhat by recognizing “historical thinking skills.” My question is, why don’t the standards recognize that knowledge is now digital, ubiquitous, and organized in networks? Why do we still have standards built around memory of historical periods in American History, for example? Is it really more important for students to demonstrate knowledge of colonial American culture than it is for them to demonstrate they can evaluate assertions about colonial church-municipal relations using online resources?

Many traditionalists and mainstream educators would retort that such a shift in education would make us too dependent on technology. It’s true, actually, that collectively we are more dependent on the web for memory than on our brains, according to studies by Harvard professor Daniel M. Wegner’s research team. But Wegner cautions us not to fear the “cybermind”:

“Some commentators see this as the beginning of a chilling new world in which we have uploaded everything we know quite out of our own heads, becoming fools in the bargain. Like those who feared the iron horse or the electric toothbrush, though, people with this neo-Luddite view of technology are quite likely to be left behind as the rest of us rush to keep plugged in… Each time we learn who knows something or where we can find information — without learning what the information itself might be — we are expanding our mental reach. This is the basic idea behind so-called transactive memory. In 1985, with my collaborators Toni Giuliano (who is also my wife) and Paula Hertel, I wrote a paper introducing the idea of transactive memory as a way to understand the group mind. We observed that nobody remembers everything. Instead, each of us in a couple or group remembers some things personally — and then can remember much more by knowing who else might know what we don’t. In this way, we become part of a transactive memory system… Groups of people commonly depend on one another for memory in this way — not by all knowing the same thing, but by specializing. And now we’ve added our computing devices to the network, depending for memory not just on people but also on a cloud of linked people and specialized information-filled devices.”

We need to talk more about what’s in our standards, and the curriculum choices we make, as much as how we teach. The Ed Reform movement needs to pivot on the recognition that knowledge comes from our connections, and that connected-knowledge literacy is the most important thing students should master.

3 thoughts on “What to Teach is What’s Usually Missing in Ed Reform Debates

  1. I agree! The standards movement has changed so fast that we can’t get settled on one set….maybe we will get lucky with the Common Core? Also, where is the part where we allow students to study topics that they are interested or talented in??

    I am looking forward to joining you on this exciting project…and hope to learn a lot. Please consider watching my upcoming webinar on Aug. 16th with University of California – Irvine.


    Don W. Brown, D.Ed (aka drsgtbrown)


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