By Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design
So much about John Sener’s new book, The Seven Futures of American Education: Improving Learning and Teaching in a Screen-Captured World (CreateSpace, 21 March 2012), strikes me as right on and important that my first impulse is akin to wanting to take education by its figurative neck and shake it. He says things I have thought or intuited for years — and he says some things I need to argue with. He says things that educators and parents and well-intentioned politicians need to hear. Capturing the arguments of the book in one short conversation was not possible so I asked him three basic questions:
- In a world of surplus information, a surfeit of easily accessed data and analysis, is there anything at all that “everyone” needs to know?
- How can we improve education, using all of the knowledge and resources available to us?
- If learning is NOT about content delivery/transfer/absorption, how should we define it?
When I was in graduate school (long before the internet), I remember being impressed when I read in one of John Keats’s letters that he was going to spend his summer rereading all of Greek literature. He was going to read it in Greek, of course, but that wasn’t what impressed me. What astonished me was that the amount of Greek literature was so small, only 100+ years before, that anyone could read it all in a summer. My job as a Ph.D. student was to read and read and read and then to select an area or two that I would focus on. In that general area, say Victorian literature, I would again select a smaller area that I would become an “expert” in.
Graduate school hasn’t changed that much since I was there; students in literature are still required to read the classics. There is a sense that “core knowledge” is important and every graduate student in literature needs to have read certain texts which we then have in common. Those texts become the basis for scholarly conversations.
One of Sener’s questions in Seven Futures is about this “acceleration of knowledge production,” what he refers to as the “shift from a knowable to an unknowable volume of knowledge.” If there is an unknowable amount of knowledge available to anyone, how do we figure out what is important to know? How do we figure out whether we all need to know some of the same things, and, if so, how do we choose our common knowledge? It makes sense to think that this common knowledge would be the basis of an elementary education, right?
I asked Sener, “In a world of surplus information, a surfeit of easily accessed data and analysis, is there anything at all that ‘everyone’ needs to know?”
“This is a bit of a vexing question,” said Sener. “To be honest, because I’m not entirely comfortable with where my conclusions have taken me, which is this: I suspect that the body of ‘core’ knowledge which everyone needs to know is actually rather small, much smaller than is commonly believed; certainly much smaller than what is embodied in, say, the Common Core Standards or the standards for a particular subject such as math. It’s quite apparent that most adults function quite well without having command of this knowledge and have done so for quite some time.”
Sener then made a distinction between absolute core knowledge and relative core knowledge. My example of graduate school would fall into the latter — it is the basic information I had to have in order to be conversant with others in my field. But I know from confused looks I get during dinner table conversations that most people get along quite well without knowing anything about post-colonial literary criticism.
“But what about students in K-12?” I asked. “Isn’t there a core that every citizen needs to be educated?”
“To me,” said Sener, “it suggests that we need to go in the opposite direction: instead of trying to figure out how to install ever larger bodies of content in every student, we should be figuring out how to define success for each student more individually. One way in which I’ve been thinking about this lately is that education (especially K-12 education) has been steadily gravitating toward the concept of the ‘decacademic’: like a decathlete, only with academic subjects. (Maybe more like a ‘heptacademic’ actually — math, reading, writing, science, social studies, language, technical subjects.) We treat education as if every student needs to be proficient in all the main subjects. One of the bad features of this trend is that it discourages individual excellence in a particular area. Imagine if we required shot putters to be able to run a certain minimum time in the 100-meter dash. We’re smart enough not to do that in track and field; why are we being less smart about it in education?”
I also teach an advanced course in the University of Arizona Government Department — Law and Social Change. I let students focus on the issues where they would like to see change, and last semester a group of them chose education. To begin their presentation, the culmination of their research, analysis, and synthesis, they gave the class (including me) a selection of the social sciences test that every high school student in Arizona must pass in order to graduate. Most of us failed it. I did. With access to the internet, we could have all passed it quickly, but as a test of knowledge we had memorized and retained, most of us could not give the “correct” answer. Is this a problem? Not for me; not for most of my students. We have never needed that knowledge in our daily lives, and if we did need it to solve a problem or make a point, we knew how to look it up. Quickly!
I asked Sener, “Who decided that we all needed to know (by rote memory) what the proper steps are to appeal a decision by the State Superior Court?”
“Right,” said Sener, “and there are negative consequences to requiring that knowledge to control who ‘gets through’ the gate. A friend of mine was recently telling me about her elementary school daughter, who is totally into the wonders of the human body. Her daughter wants to know when she can dissect animals because she can’t wait to do it. She wants to be a doctor or a vet. But she’s not great in all her academic subjects — book science seems dry to her — so her mom wonders if she’s going to struggle mightily with doing the academic requirements of pre-med. To me this is a shame bordering on a travesty. Here is one of those rare kids who already knows what she wants to be when she grows up, and she might not be able to do it because of requirements which are ultimately extraneous to the task, the skills, and the desire?”
We have to answer these questions, Sener insists in his book, because the cyberization of education is making both the questions and possible responses more and more complex. How? Through the acceleration of knowledge production which produces massive amounts of information that can’t possibly be distilled into a single core curriculum.
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