Project Classroom: Transforming Our Schools for the Future

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In 2003 the iPod was a relatively new gadget for listening to music. Billboard ads showed young people dancing, iPods in hand. Few people would have pinpointed this newfangled Walkman as a powerful teaching tool.

Cathy N. Davidson, a professor at Duke University, believes that classrooms aren't keeping up with the kids. She thought, what is the untapped educational potential of the iPod? She and her Duke colleagues worked with Apple to give every entering freshmen an iPod, and then they sat back and watched as students and teachers developed innovate and collaborative ways to incorporate iPods into their work: med students could listen to recordings of heart arrhythmia, music students could upload their compositions and get feedback from other students, environmental studies students interviewed families in a North Carolina community about lead paint in their town, and then shared their interviews online, for other students to download.

No one could have predicted all the ways the iPods enhanced learning once they were in the hands of students and teachers -- and that's a central point of Cathy Davidson's new book Now You See It. In it, Davidson argues that though our lives outside of the classroom are changing rapidly, our classrooms remain stuck in an earlier era. I asked Davidson a few questions about her book and what schools can do to prepare students for a future we can't even predict.

One of the foundational facts of your book comes early on. "By one estimate," you write, "65 percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven't even been invented yet." You argue that our education system is structured to produce workers for an economy that will not exist when today's students enter the workforce. But many educators are critical that changing curricula and standards to incorporate online collaboration, new gadgets such as iPods, and video games take away from traditional learning. Why is that? What are they worried about?

First, I have sympathy with the in-the-trenches teacher who is constantly being asked to change without a good reason for change, especially when a school district gets a windfall like "free iPads" without any sound curricular motivation. I am against simply dumping technology into a school system. The point is that technology alone, without a clear redesign of the learning it enhances, is not enough. The exception to this is perhaps in a really terrible classroom where there isn't much of anything else going on. A gadget such as an iPad, in that situation, can offer a smart kid a real opening on to a new, wide world.

Second, I think one area of resistance by educators comes when we simply critique teachers for not adapting without offering them support and time for retraining and upgrading. In the business world, IBM happens to spend the equivalent of $1,700 per year per employee on retraining to help workers adjust to a rapidly changing environment. How can we expect teachers to change without similar investment in their future and in the future of our kids?  

Pedagogy is tough. To relearn one's own teaching methods requires some time out of the classroom and dedicated to experimenting and practicing new methods, with serious feedback from teacher-mentors to help. If we are serious about reform, we have to be serious about teacher professionalism and aid that process, not simply hurl critiques at "bad teachers."   

Third, I don't think we do a very good job educating teachers to understand that they have inherited an education system mostly designed to prepare students for a focused, task-specific form of attention demanded by the late-19th-century assembly line and then, later, by the similarly hierarchical and regulated corporation.

The school bell was the symbol of public education that developed in the 19th century because teaching all humans how to arrive at a school/workplace on time, how to complete a task or "subject" in a designated amount of time, how to work on a test or a project in a specific amount of time was a new way of calculating human productivity. Teachers ought to think about how much of their system has been designed to prepare students for the punch-clock world, and reevaluate their goals and routines in light of the world kids will enter:  an interactive, globalized, and contributory world.

You cannot reform the content or the method of teaching without radically changing the terms of assessment.

But, finally, it is just hypocritical to think educators can make such a paradigm shift without changing all the systems of assessment that judge the success of our teachers and students.  That's why I decided to devote an entire chapter to "How We Measure." All the methods of assessment we use for "quality" are actually metrics for standardization analogous to the punch clock, not about interactive, synthetic, and analytical thinking and problem solving. You cannot reform the content or the method of teaching without radically changing the terms of assessment. That means ending the end-of-grade tests required by No Child Left Behind. It means going beyond so many of the quite simplistic quantitative measures that ostensibly test learning but really test the ability to take tests.

I actually tracked down the archive of the PhD student who invented the  multiple-choice test in 1914, specifically to address a historical moment: the convergence of new laws requiring secondary schooling, immigrants flooding into America in record numbers, men away fighting in World War I, and women working in factories. Frederick Kelly looked at Ford turning out Model Ts on assembly lines and invented the Kansas Silent Reading Test to be the Model T of testing -- not very thorough, not deep, a test only of "lower-order thinking," but easy, sound, fast, efficient.

I am not against testing -- I am against using such a crude form of testing, one that is such a disincentive to deep interactive learning, as our national standard. That's demoralizing to teachers, parents, school administrators, and, mostly, to kids. In so many ways, our educational system is an assembly line churning out kids like Model Ts. That's not what our kids need to address the constant changes and complexities of the 21st century.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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