Shaking It Up, Part 1 — A Conversation with John Sener, Author of ‘The Seven Futures of American Education’

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

[Note: This is the first in a three-part series by Judith McDaniel. Read part 2 and part 3. – Editor]

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:

  1. In a world of surplus information, a surfeit of easily accessed data and analysis, is there anything at all that “everyone” needs to know?
  2. How can we improve education, using all of the knowledge and resources available to us?
  3. 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?”

John Sener

“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.

[Read part 2 and part 3.]

8 Responses

  1. This truly is an important topic that should have more exposure in the popular press as well as in academic circles. Groups of people are now setting up standards and creating high-stakes tests that depend on understanding this issue. Based on results so far, they seem not to.

    My own specialty is science, specifically it was electroanalytical chemistry. I carried around the Nernst equation in my head because it was part and parcel of my everyday work. Looking it up every time I had to use it would have been a pain. Also, in discussions with my peers, this knowledge was assumed. The same was true of much more of my work. However, in my K-12 schooling, I had no idea I’d end up there.

    I’d have to say that K-12 education should prepare students for post-K-12 life. A certain amount of memorized material is required for that. Everyone should be able to perform basic arithmetic. Everyone should be able to read at high-school level for understanding and content. Everyone should be able to express ideas clearly in good English. That takes care of the 3 Rs. Well, not quite because communication underlies all that we do. All of the work we do in teaching and learning communication skills will pay off handsomely later on — provided that we know what to communicate.

    We should ensure that every future citizen really understands our government and how it operates. That effort requires several trips through our constitution, including historical information regarding how it came to be. Bare information is not as useful without background. This entire part of education should, IMO, lead to a full investigation of relevant history back for thousands of years. That takes care of history and civics. Oh, you should add in some information on your local and state governments too.

    Before stepping into science, I have to add that we should encourage all students to appreciate creative arts, to write, to paint, to make music, to act, to dance, etc. More is better here. In addition, a healthy mind requires a healthy body. Physical education should not devolve into “PE” and sports. It should work for every student in understanding how to maintain a healthy body through exercise and good nutrition. Good health habits can last a lifetime and make that lifetime last.

    Mathematics beyond arithmetic can go as far as algebra and geometry because those subjects train the mind in specific ways that other subjects do not. Calculus should be reserved for those going to college in technical disciplines.

    Science is special to me. It means understanding the world around us more deeply than you possibly can by simply observing. Science and its offspring of engineering and technology permeate our world today. Understanding science does not mean memorizing any particular thing but does mean having a familiarity with basic life processes, with chemical nomenclature, and with many areas of physics such as electrical circuits, forces and energy, mass and weight, and so on.

    But, beyond all of these very important familiarizations, students must understand how scientists think and be able to mimic that process, to perform scientific thinking. If they do so, then they will have what Carl Sagan termed a “baloney detection kit.” Use your search engine to look it up. It’s worth the small time you’ll spend. In all fairness, I have to say that a good history or social studies teacher can also provide instruction in critical thinking. It’s almost the same as scientific thinking but without the focus on the quantitative, and both will serve you well as citizens.

    These days,we see much demagoguery. We see a political landscape in which the best funding trumps the best ideas. This sort of thing is unhealthy for democracy. Better thinking skills can overcome the problem if only enough of our citizens could have them and use them. When you teach your students only content, you have robbed them and our society of a crucial resource.

    So, we must teach our students enough content to carry on an intelligent conversation on important matters at hand, from buying toothpaste to voting. We must ensure that our students have a familiarity with subjects considered important for an elevated involvement in society. Finally, we must emphasize thinking skills from the very logical mathematical to the more esoteric historical and the, to me, all-important scientific thinking.

    By all means, do not eliminate content. Just put it in its proper place. Also, use it in passing, so to speak, to help familiarize student with a wide variety of subjects. Finally, make thinking the core of learning.

    • Harry–I mostly agree with you, and I imagine John would too. I think like that whenever I read a newspaper and see another idiotic “interpretation” of the Constitution or what the government can or should do (or not). I think the emphasis on content is what has led to the acceptance of anything that many people hear on television or read on the internet as fact. People really don’t know how to think, to weigh, to assess judgments and opinions.

      I start my classes these days with a short video “lesson in crap detection” that Howard Rheingold (Stanford) has put up. Lesson number one has to be knowing how to be critical–whether we call it crap or baloney!

      • My personal favorite is Carl Sagan who wrote in The Demon-Haunted World about a “baloney detection kit.” Search for the phrase to learn more. You don’t have to buy the book, but everyone should. The Kindle edition is rather expensive at $14. You can get used copies for only a few dollars.

  2. When we speak of critical thinking, I sometimes wonder if we’re really not talking about imagination, the ability to wonder about the multitude of possibilities and variations, to wander outside the box or off the beaten track onto the roads less traveled by. In his definition of learning in a MOOC, Stephen Downes places a priority on students developing new or fresh ideas, not simply regurgitating what others have said. Perhaps the greatest failure of academic leaders is their collective inabilty to plant the seeds of their own undoing in the best and brightest. Instead, they nurture them to perpetuate traditions that will guarantee more of the same and, by so doing, sentence future generations to mediocrity or, worse, irrelevance.

    When we ask students to think, are we really asking them to think just like us or to show us that we’re not as smart as we think we are? For our children’s sake, I hope it’s the latter. -Jim S

  3. One of the most curious and glaring blind spots in discussions of education reform IMO is the lack of attention to the importance of content in developing important higher-order thinking skills. Current so-called “reform” is pointed in the opposite direction, aimed toward installing a large, uniform body of content in every student’s head. This has led to various absurdities such as Judith’s excellent example of expecting every student to know the proper steps to appeal a decision by the (AZ) State Supreme Court.

    Yesterday, I was listening to US Dept of Education’s Office of Educational Technology Director Karen Cator on the radio, describing how Denmark allows its K-12 students to use the Internet/Web as a resource during exams. This is the direction in which we should be heading: enabling students to learn how to access and select information, as well as deciding what information is worth memorizing. Most of us have managed to scrape by OK without even knowing what the Nemst equation is, let alone memorizing it ;-) — but that info was useful for Harry, so it made perfect sense for him to memorize it.

    Calls to improve learners’ ability to think critically and to create ideas rather than just regurgitating them have been around for many decades — for example, one of my favorite books from the 70s was “The B.S. Factor”, essentially a “crap detector” manual. My book describes the importance of “growing self-initiating learners” in this context. In fact, one of the main reasons I wrote Seven Futures was to help reframe conversations about educational reform in terms of more useful questions (e.g., how to we use technology to improve education? how do we grow self-initiating learners? et al.) instead of the relatively useless ones which currently predominate (e.g., how to get more students to memorize more facts or get higher scores on standardized tests). I hope that the book also helps people ask, and find some answers to, the question of why such relatively useless questions currently predominate in the first place…

  4. I fear that we are entering a catch-22 in learning. How can people learn to think if they cannot think about thinking. As more and more high-stakes testing comes about, more students will be forced to memorize and lose the opportunity to explore all of ways we can think.

    Our children must be challenged to think at the earliest possible age. I did it with my children and now am doing it with my grandchildren. If their schools fall down, then I am there poking sticks at the conventional knowledge in the hope of making holes for my offspring to look through and think about.

    It’s a cliché that children constantly ask “Why?” I think that it’s fun to ask them why and that helps them stretch their minds.

    • Harry, when my oldest daughter was in preschool, I remember her teacher, Miles Nakanishi, saying that it’s best to give children blank sheets of paper for drawing rather than coloring books. This way they would be free to re-present their reality rather than simply color within the lines of predrawn figures. I still have one of her crayon drawings proudly displayed on my bookshelf.

      I feel as you do, that we need to reinforce the natural creativity, curiosity, and playfulness associated with thinking at the earliest ages and continue to do so throughout the school and college experience. But this pedagogical flip would require a different sort of teacher, one who understands that thinking is a lot more important than memorizing the correct answers — even when, or especially when, the student’s self-discovered answers are “wrong.” In other words, it’s OK to be wrong when it broadens the scope of our explorations. In my mind, wrong is relative, and it’s a critical part of learning. In the sciences, we’re learning over and over again that what we thought was right is actually wrong. But the wrong was necessary to discover the right.

      Part of the experimental and scientific process is to systematically explore and test options and eliminate those that don’t pan out. Thus, the failures are just as important as the successes. It’s this exploration that’s lost when teachers insist on only one right answer (theirs), and what’s also lost is the magic of discovery or the eureka moment that lights the fire for a lifetime of what John refers to as “self-initiated learning.”

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