True Education is Timelessness (or “Beware of Fads”)

I’ve recently had the chance to read and analyse a text with some of my college students that got me thinking. Actually, ever since I heard about the idea of digital-natives and all that  goes with the idea of digital-literacy and the changes in education, I’ve been thinking about this topic (you can see what I think about it on this post). The text is called “The Saber-tooth curriculum“, it was written in 1939, but just as the title of this post (which was taken from the text), it remains, in some ways, timelessness.

What's the point in learning how to fight saber-tooth tigers? / Image by burgundavia on Flickr.

It is the story of an educator and the very first school curriculum there was. It all started with the idea of creating schools, and teaching children some skills tha were necessary in the lives of adults at that time. There were only three subjects, and I guess we can allude to Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind and its utilitarianism upon a first glance at the text. If you allow me to do some analogy here, the eternal question, “Why do children go to school?” has always been answered by, “To learn the things they’ll need to know in order have a successful life in the society they’re inserted in.” Maybe you don’t even agree with this answer, and I myself have some reservations, but I consider it quite a satisfactory answer to why schools have been created and why they are organised the way they are these days.

What I’ve been pondering, though, is whether we’re going in the right direction with all the pressure towards digital-literacy and the way it’s being done. Most of the things that are quite popular these days have just yet been invented; many of the things that didn’t exist in Y2K have already been created, used, and dropped ever since. We’re witnessing a time of change that is as swift as it’s ever been. Is it really our goal to teach our students how to use so many tools we find useful for our lives today? I don’t know about you, but I really don’t think what we have at our disposition these days is what will be around in the next couple of years.

It is my opinion that technology will soon be ubiquitous. It will simply be, and most computer companies are working as hard as they can to make sure computers are as user-friendly as possible. I remember I had to learn how to use Basic in order to create my own software when I was really young (10, 20, 30… who remembers the command lines?), and later DOS (what was it that we had to type, anyway? Cd/? Dir /p?). Then we had windows, and life was a lot easier with the pointing with a mouse and clicking. Even those who didn’t think too much of computers started using it. Let’s face it, the computer industry had their way. As an industry, they wanted to sell more and more computers. As long as computers were complicated to use, not many people would be willing to learn how to use them.

Changes have been happening at an ever-faster pace – just think about how long it took you to go from a touchpad to a multi-touch screen device. If we try to teach our learners how to use whatever it is they have at hand, we’re just trying to catch up with something that will always be ahead of us, and when children finally finish school, they’re likely to have to learn new things over and over again.

This is exactly what makes me wonder whether we can only prepare children for the future if we teach them how to use tech, or if we have technology available in our classrooms. I honestly don’t think it’s a matter of “only if”, but a matter of “regardless of”. Children have got to be prepared to face a world that is entirely different from the world we once knew and that was presented to us when we were children. This is the main challenge teachers ought to face.

More and more often I hear teachers and employers complaining about the fact the new generation of students and workers do not go beyond what they are taught. They can be trained, but they seriously lack any kind of autonomy and independence to face even the slightest challenging of the tasks. A lot is said about fostering autonomy and independence in education, that this is the ultimate goal of education. Are we running the risk of creating another generation of educators who, similarly to many English language teachers, are nothing but repeating a mantra without actually knowing how to do as they say? I’ve had the chance to interview my share of English teachers who seem to parrot, “I use the communicative approach in my classes, obviously!” However, upon being questioned what the communicative approach is, their answers vary (as they have) from merely talking to students to focussing on grammar (??).

We sure need to foster autonomy, and learners have got to be prepared to face the many different things they’ll have to deal with in life. If we think that by teaching them how to use today’s technology is going to help them, we’d better think twice. They’ll use technology because it’s getting easier and easier. It’s soon to be ubiquitous, as I said before. But I’m pretty much sure that the technology they’ll have to use in 5-10 years’ time is going to be far different from anything we may be able to teach them today. We go back to the fundamental question that teachers should always ask themselves before each and every class: Why am I doing what I’m doing in class today?

Learners will be trained in their future jobs, and they will have to know how to learn. This, in my opinion, is what we should be doing. We should be teaching our students how to learn, not teaching them how to use technology because it allows them to communicate with the whole world and gives them a real audience. Speaking to the world is a natural consequence, something that is unavoidable; we need to teach them how to collaborate and work together with their peers, those people who are sitting next to them in the same classroom. What we need to do is teach them the basic skills that will allow them to function in any other setting they may be inserted into. Autonomy is also taught little by little, and we’re only truly autonomous after we’ve achieved a certain level of mastery in whatever it is we’re learning.

Why do we have schools? Why do we teach? We teach because we want to see our children able to thrive in life, regardless of what they face. It doesn’t matter how skilled students are. If they do not learn how to talk to people, how to make and take criticism, how to read, understand, and draw conclusions from what they’re reading, they’ll not succeed. These are the fundamental skills that will trigger the whole system into motion. In a way, it’s a bit like going back to the “bare essentials”. Instead of trying to embrace the world, focus harder on the little things – the big things will take care of themselves.

What’s your take on that?

11 thoughts on “True Education is Timelessness (or “Beware of Fads”)

  1. Very interesting article! I appreciate your insights. I think that sometimes, teaching technology is almost counter-productive to the skills we actually want our students to learn. I teach at a Prep School University, and have taken to using technology in the classroom, simply because I cannot get my students to work otherwise. But, allowing students to constantly use technology takes away from listening to the peers, being respectful, learning how to produce something with their hands that they worked hard for . . . I believe that technology can be extremely useful in the classroom, but I also agree with you that there is a need for the “bare essentials,” and teaching our students to be good people.

    1. I can totally relate to your view that technology may, at times, be counter-productive. It’s even OK for us to use technology to reach out to our students and get them interested. However, we cannot simply assume this is the answer to all problems we’re currently facing in education. The point is exactly that – finding balance and not losing sight of the skills that are needed for learners to become life-long learners, who are going to be able to handle all the new things they’re going to be faced with in their lives without too much stress and pain. I guess our goal is to prepare students to learn things, not to train them on how to use this or that. Training is far different from learning…

      Thanks for the comments! 🙂

  2. I had a discussion with my school principal the other day and I believe he will be very happy to read your post. I teach ESL to teenagers and the school provides them with MAC laptops in grade 10.
    I think that proper technology integration has always been about maintaining a good balance between virtual and real communication. As an ESL teacher, I believe my students learn a lot about the language indirectly through the use of technology. For example, They learn many words when they play video games. I understand your argument but I think that there are “bare essentials” when it comes to the use of technology as well. A huge part of their literacy is related to being online, knowing how to locate information and use it. Being able to communicate with people virtually is part of our lives now and it will be 50 years from now. They will always need to communicate face-to-face and online, regardless of the tools used to make this communication happen. That is an essential skill.

    1. I take it, then, that your opinion and your boss’s are quite different, right?! 🙂
      I cannot argue with many of the things that you stated in your comment, but there seems to be a lack of importance given to basic skills that are likely to foster the ability to keep on learning new things once what we know has got old. This is my main concern: more and more people I talk to have been complaining about the fact that people who are just starting work do not seem to be able to go beyond what their training has prepared them to do. This gets serious when they fail to read instructions and cannot think on their own to solve problems. These are the necessary skills in education, as I see it. If students are taught this, they’re able to learn how to do anything, in the real or the virtual world – which I personally think is becoming one world only. We’re living an age of transition, and we believe we have to teach them how to live online, but I think we will be past this need in a couple of years. It’s just because we’re the ones living in the age of transition from paper to computers.
      Communication is an essential skill, but we’ve got to go beyond the mere ability to communicate. We’ve got to teach how to collaborate, work together, ask for help, and help others.

      Many thanks for the comment! 🙂

  3. I totally agree that learning how to learn is more important than learning any specific thing. As I read it, you’re defining that as working well with others. (To that definition, I’d just add good study habits:))

    However, I would add that learning the current technology is still important. It’s important because the next stuff uses skills we learn from the previous technology. What’s possible with technology now and what we’re actually doing are two different things. One of the reasons is because we (as cultures) haven’t developed all the skills we need to use the coolest, newest stuff. To wit, if the iPhone had been rolled out in 1990, it would have failed. Not just because the networks, etc. weren’t in place. People needed to build up to it.

    An example: When I was 12, I was fabulous at video games, but then I stopped playing. 10 years later, the newest Metroid game came out and with a heart full of nostalgia, I went to my friend’s house to play it. I couldn’t get past the first level. In fact, I couldn’t even get to the boss. Why? Because I hadn’t been playing for years. My friend, watching me, said that I was missing things that were obvious to him (like staircases).

    We can see this today in different cultures picking up technologies at different rates. Americans got comfortable texting later than Europeans, for instance.

    In the future, we all might get used to motion short-cuts (like making a figure-8 with your phone), but not yet. That technology exists, but people refuse to use it. First we need to learn other stuff.

    See what I mean? Learning how to learn is important, but we’ve still got to walk up the steps as a culture.

    1. Hi there,

      You’ve certainly raised interesting points, but I still think that the focus should be slightly different. I guess when it comes to companies launching products and innovation in general, it’s paramount that the people who are going to buy it are ready for it. I agree with you on the iPhone thing. However, it seems to me this is much more a matter of the technology itself being into place than the people who are going to use the technology. Phones, computers, the Internet… all these are becoming easier and easier to use. In the past(?), people really had to know how to use the computer and write the HTML tags and all that if they wanted to keep a website, you needed to keep your fingers crossed so that the picture you’d taken would look good, and you’d have to use a pay phone to call people from the streets. What has been changing, in my humble opinion, is not the people, but the technology.

      In response to your video game example, I think that the skills are there, and you actually know what you’ll have to do to be good at it. It’s now a matter of practice, isn’t it? And it doesn’t matter if you’re going to try to play games on an 8-bit NES or on an X-Box 360 with a kinnect – you do know what you have to do. You may miss a spot or two, but this is something that practice will bring back to you.

      Regardless of the cultural factor, if Americans, Brazilians, Europeans, or Japanese people were taught basic skills that would truly make them literate, they’d be all right in any kind of cultural setting because they’d have learned how to learn new things. This is the basic difference, to my mind, between training and development. If we train someone to do something, they might even excel at that, but will have a hard time learning how to do something else. If, on the other hand, we help these people develop their critical thinking skills, they’re likely to be able to learn new things much faster.

      I’m not sure I’ve made myself clear there… 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. This is a great post, Rick! Your point about the potential futility of teaching the technology in order to prepare students for their futures is a very valid one. I have nothing more to add there, exactly.

    One point I’d like to make too is that I think we, who are willing to try out technology with our students, also run the risk of focusing on teaching to the tool instead of teaching with it. I believe we need to design our lessons and find the tool that will accomplish it, rather than choosing the tool first and designing a lesson to it. It’s very easy to be enamored a newly-discovered web tool at the rate they are appearing, but like how you ask teachers about their teaching styles and a groundless response of “I use the communicative approach” is retorted, teachers can sound up-to-date by saying “I love to integrate technology into my classroom” but have little foundation as to why they’re doing so.

  5. I was at a conference these last two days, and one of the talks was on teaching gifted and talented children. The main thrust was increasing autonomy. Afterwards, I asked the man next to me what he thought. It was interesting. He said he thought it a waste of time letting learners explore something that he knew to be wrong. The example he gave was about Hamlet, and his character. He said he would cut short their investigations. I kind of get both arguments. Maybe a compromise? Would you tell someone not to put their hand in the fire, or let them do it so they’ll learn from it!?

    1. A compromise seems to be the best way out. Your question reminded me of an anecdote, also illustrative of cultural differences. Here goes:

      There was this couple who had a little daughter, who was 4 years old. The mother was American and the father was Brazilian. One day, when the mother was away working and the father was at home, the little daughter went to the kitchen and got a knife and an orange. Her dad immediately saw that and ran to the kid getting the knife out of her hands. He then told her, “If you ever want to cut an orange, ask mummy or dad to do it for you, all right?” He found the incident so amusing that he couldn’t he laughing when he told his wife the story. The minute he mentioned he’d taken away the knife, the wife asked why he’d done that. The dad was, obviously, surprised and asked for the wife’s reaction. She then said, “I’d simply have told her, very calmly, ‘dear, this is a knife. This side cuts, the other doesn’t. Be careful.” Upon hearing such a thing, the husband immediately asked what if his daughter cut herself. The wife just answered, “Well, she’d learn that she has to be careful and wouldn’t cut herself anymore.”

      This little story is used to illustrate some differences about the upbringing of American and Brazilian kids – usually to illustrate how over-protective Brazilian parents tend to be. However, I guess there’s no right or wrong way – it’s a matter of common sense, right?! 🙂

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