Time For Schools to Stop Pretending

Today’s students require a well-rounded education to prepare them for the future. We live in a world where anyone can discover the secrets of the Arctic without leaving the house, or peek at the depths of the ocean at the click of a mouse. Knowledge isn’t limited to textbooks anymore. We’re helping our students to understand new learning tools, inspiring them to become ethical citizens and engaged thinkers with an entrepreneurial spirit. The world is changing. And our approach to education needs to change with it. – Government of Alberta (2014)

Remember when school assessment activities were often about asking students to pretend they were someone or something? These days our students have the tools at their disposal to do the real work of engineers, designers, programmers, and published authors in an open, worldwide network. One would assume that the need for older children to pretend they are, for instance, writing for an external audience or making an active, informed contribution to discourse around a global issue must surely have diminished to the point of extinction as a result?

David Price, in his compelling book, OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future, contrasts the example of schools historically attempting to create the conditions of journalists with the opportunities today’s digital landscape presents us with: “Podcasting, blogging, tweeting – we are all journalists now. And it can be captivating – if you tweet it, they will come.” The Internet has grown from 12 million users to more than 2 billion users in less than 2 decades. One wonders how effectively or honestly our daily school practices have embraced or acknowledged this profound reality?

The “pretend” construct of schools is hard to shake. The need for pretension was admittedly stronger (even necessary) before the internet, but many of these habits survive in schools today in situations that no longer require such artificial approaches. It can be harder to kill old assessment activities than it is to change almost anything else in schools. This is frequently because teachers are wedded to assessments that were successful in the past. The issue can, ironically, be compounded by parents expecting to see similar work being completed by their children that they themselves engaged in at school, so they can be assured by the familiar “rigour” of school … a familiarity often rooted in pre-digital rote work and low, cognitive regurgitation, unfortunately. Hence, new ways of thinking and working are sometimes questioned as lacking the trusted rigour of yore. But the tide has turned and it will continue to.

Apologists who have tended to highlight the negative impact technology is having on the health and minds of our young people are also running out of excuses. Just this week, Jordan Shapiro highlighted how the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has dramatically altered its guidelines on screen time to reflect the reality of our world. Shapiro sums up this reality eloquently, as follows:

“Screens are now a ubiquitous part of our lives. It is a technology that has been completely integrated into the human experience. At this point, worrying about exposure to screens is like worrying about exposure to agriculture, indoor plumbing, the written word, or automobiles. For better or worse, the transition to screen based digital information technologies has already happened and now resistance is futile. The screen time rhetoric that accompanied the television—when this technology was still in its formative age—is no longer relevant.”

It requires a new way of working for teachers to navigate and master the digital landscape that allows them to make their assessments more meaningful and authentic. But since our students have access to the same tools and audience that professionals use today, we can no longer afford to simply pretend, imagine, or use learning activities that were the norm in 1975 or even 2005. Creative teachers are meeting this shift in admirable ways, but we also need to be wary of “the tweak” – the practice of taking a pre-digital learning activity and simply appending a digital nuance to it. We are in a new landscape. It requires new, not revised thinking. We can’t pretend otherwise.

As Heidi Hayes Jacobs contends: “We should go aggressively out of our way to search for better ways to help our learners demonstrate learning with the types of products and performances that match our times. If we do not do this, then we should change our mission statements to reflect the desire to hold onto the past.”