A Response to Marc Prensky’s ‘Simple Changes’

keller80By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

It is with some humility that I undertake to comment on Mr. Prensky’s article, “Simple Changes in Current Practices May Save Our Schools.” It touches on many ideas in which I have an interest, beginning with the oil spill as learning opportunity on which I provided an earlier comment (see “Opportunities to Learn from Oil Spills“). His idea is much more bold than mine, and I bow to his audaciousness.

I concur in the concept that the words “relevant’ and “authentic” have become overused and have lost meaning. They also represent a long-ago era of education that didn’t work then. Like so much in education, moderation and balance make things work. I believe that there’s nothing wrong with injecting some relevancy and authenticity into a classroom as long as you don’t base your entire curriculum on those concepts. I’m not so sure that “real” has any more meaning than those words, however.

Teachers should attempt to mold their classes around today’s problems. Just imagine if a current event could be found on which to base each lesson plan in a course. The teachers have the problem that their lesson plans must be recast every year as new events take place. Personally, I don’t think that the time they have and the salaries most are paid will justify all of that extra work.

In the school of the future, a central organization could be helping with this extra work in a variety of ways. As long as you can avoid such a channel being used for propaganda, it would be possible to set up an organization today if a funding source were found. By tying each lesson to something that’s actually happening, you might improve the number of students who pay attention.

Mr. Prensky says, “The best, fastest, least expensive, and most easily executable solution to our educational problems is to change what goes on in our current classrooms.” This broad generalization makes a correct statement but one that requires some real fleshing out. Most methods of changing what goes on in classrooms requires some sort of training or professional development (PD).

In my experience, PD is none of “best, fastest, least expensive, and most easily executable.” The “disruptive” approach feels better just because of this sort of problem and because we all have so much frustration with how things are now. Because Mr. Prensky’s approach does not depend on technology, it need not await the arrival of sufficient technology in classrooms. That’s certainly an advantage.

The first idea is reaching students through their passions. I’m sure that the best teachers can do that well. But, can they all? If I had 160-200 students each day, I’d be challenged to do that well. It’s an idea with promise and may require some special tools and training to work well in the average classroom.

I really like the second idea. After all, didn’t Socrates do it centuries ago? Being asked trumps being told as far as learning is concerned and also in real life. Can you imagine a “question of the day” or a “question of the week?” A bit of cleverness would be required to make the questions really work, and you can find many ideas on the Internet to help out.Beginning with relaxing music, images, etc. is great. Some airlines have their tv screens and sound systems set to relaxing images and music as passengers board. Why not a classroom too? I only ask how would you get this idea into thousands of classrooms in a few months.

Worldwide peer-to-peer communication has much to recommend it. I’m not sure how it translates to greater learning in the class. How does it compare with other forms of networking?

Allowing cell phones in schools (many exclude them) and then finding educational means to employ them has found a substantial following in the educational community. How much effort is required on the part of the teacher? Will the gains outstrip the losses from texting and viewing in class?

In summary of the five ideas, I like them all but wonder how much time and effort would be necessary to get the word out and to get teachers to use these ideas. Also, the impact may be limited to small or modest gains. But, hey, any improvement is welcome these days.

The final comment regarding billions of dollars wasted really does resonate with me. The National Science Foundation has had programs for science education for decades. I’ve looked over many of the funded proposals and found many to be a clear waste of money. Too much money is spent on studies. We must have a few, but shouldn’t have so many that tell us what we already know.

How many other ideas are just sitting around waiting to be picked up by someone who can see past the “way things are done”? Mr. Prensky’s five ideas may be some. We must find a means to disseminate these ideas throughout our schools and assist in their implementation. Otherwise, they’ll just remain good ideas sitting on a shelf.

One Response

  1. One of the ways I have found to be instantly relevant without recreating my course materials every time is specific to an online format–but it need not be only used there. In my blog today (http://educationtrainingsolutions.com/wp/blog/) I wrote about exactly this in an ethics course. Ethical principles are timelss. The occasions to apply them are multiple and challenging and continually changing. Having a core to work from makes my job much easier.

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