Teaching in the 4th Information Age

I’ve been reflecting yet again on how much has changed since I began my first day of teaching a little more than 20 years ago.

I plan to write frequently this year about how I teach history courses for this information age, not for the last. Hopefully, the writing will help me better understand what I do, and to learn how to do it better. I’m a much different teacher than I was when I started. For example, I used to do these 4 things consistently that I won’t do this year:

  1. I won’t give a classroom lecture.
  2. I won’t write notes on a board or in a PowerPoint that I expect students to copy verbatim.
  3. I won’t assign homework.
  4. I won’t give a multiple-choice exam.

How can I be a history teacher?

In 1991, I was assigned 5 sections of 9th grade Ancient History with the clear expectation that I would lecture daily, write notes on the chalkboard, and the students would memorize what I told them. They’d follow up my lecture with some reading, and take a weekly chapter quiz and monthly unit exams. I would deliver the information, they would consume it. That was standard history education for college-bound students in the early 1990s.

My students willfully obeyed me, knowing the most efficient means for them to get the information was to write down what I said and wrote on the board. I augmented their textbook, telling interesting stories – well, they were interesting to me, perhaps trivial to others – and they had little chance of tracking down whether I’d gotten the facts correct, as the encyclopedias were not quite thorough enough, and the library was hard to search. In 1991, being able to consume data and remember it made you more valuable than the next guy.

Circumstances sure have changed.

When the internet hit for real in 1994 or so (those of us who were on it before that are the exception more than the rule) I slowly woke up to the big shifts that were happening. I saw that college professors were putting syllabi, readings, and presentations online, and that it was possible to quickly search for quality historical information. Meanwhile, I was beginning to understand Dewey’s writings about learning and progressive pedagogical perspectives like constructivism. By the late ’90s I was able to get students online consistently to have them contribute to discussions and create content for their peers. My class had entered what Cathy Davidson and Robert Darnton have called the Fourth Information Age.

In 2012, being able to remember more information than the next guy is still valuable, but just barely. Today, information is everywhere, and knowledge emerges from personal and network connections. In this new age, success comes from knowing how to retrieve, curate, synthesize, analyze, and construct meaning from information, not from memorizing what your teacher tells you. Looking back on what I was doing in 1991, it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought that was education.

And yet I still see lots of classrooms every year in which teachers are lecturing and students are writing and memorizing notes for multiple-choice exams. Why? What skills does this hone? And what knowledge do we think this builds in students?

Cathy Davidson poses similar questions:

What are we doing, on a national level, to educate our kids for a new digital age? In a world where any knowledge is at your finger tips, is multiple choice really the way to be teaching kids about how to search and how to evaluate what you find? Is extreme field specialization, so crucial for a segregated and hierarchical workforce, the right way to train kids for a future that might include three to seven career changes? Futurist Alvin Toffler has said that, in addition to reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, the most important “’literacy’ for the twenty-first century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Do our schools today teach that ability to rethink one’s assumptions and try again? The way we organize our classrooms now is geared toward producing success as defined in the last century, not this one.

Many teachers have made the shift, but still more have not. Unfortunately, the standards, national exams, the movement to AP-everything, and frets over our nation falling behind aren’t helping. But we do desperately need to move toward educating our students for their future, not our past. Look for more on this from me this year.

2 thoughts on “Teaching in the 4th Information Age

  1. Is 9th grade a time to teach a speciality, or prep for a specific career? Especially if the subject it ancient history? (I’d guess most history is more or less ancient but I realize you are addressing a period). Hard to see how you can avoid a lot of rote learning — well presented– for this subject.
    George Curtis


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