Monday, May 6, 2013

Thinking: the past -v- the present

I spent today sitting around in a hot and crowded office, waiting for my visa to be processed, and while there was not much to do, there was plenty of time to read and think.  I spent my waiting time reading an article in Educational Leadership called Our Brains Extended by Marc Prensky.  This was a timely article as I've been mulling around for quite a while now the thought that learners need not all learn the same thing (which is quite a radical thought in the era of standardized testing).  I supposed I've been thinking a lot about testing recently as our students have taken the MAP tests, and earlier this year some students took the WRAP tests.  I have never worked at a school that conducted these tests before, so I have very little knowledge of them, and spent quite a lot of time simply observing what was happening as part of generating data that would help us to make more accurate decisions about teaching and learning.  At the same time I've also had conversations with teachers who have expressed concern that based on results of such tests they feel their students are not where they should be in subjects such as reading.  This, of course, is no surprise to me, having worked in international schools for 25 years - when you consider that the language of the test is quite possibly the 2nd or 3rd language for many of our students, you would expect that they might not be doing as well as those who had only learned or been educated in one language, the one that was being tested.  My own experience as a parent of such children has taught me patience - somewhere in Middle School or High School my children's first language (Dutch) stopped interfering with their ability to write English.  Their teachers and I stopped worrying about their reading and writing.

The first paragraph in Our Brains Extended starts off comparing technology skills with reading:
Educators should think of technology in the same way they've long viewed reading - as a key to thinking and knowing about the world.  In fact in the 21st century, technology is the key to thinking and knowing about the world ... reading is no longer the number one skill students need to take from school to succeed.  Technology is.
The reason for this is simply that our minds are no longer powerful enough - and technology provides us with the new and enhanced capabilities that we need.  Prensky argues that this leads to is a huge impact on curriculum design:  for example should we still be focused on writing by hand, mental arithmetic and so on?  He argues that many of the Common Core standards are only serving the needs of the 20th century.  What are the implications for teaching reading, when you can scan any text and hear it read aloud in the language of your choice?  What are the implications for teaching maths when machines can calculate quicker and more accurately than humans?  In these cases, using technology is the best way to achieve something.  Prensky writes that "producing letters, reports and essays are intellectual needs of our past; working effectively in virtual communities, communicating effectively through video and controlling complex technologies are what students need to be successful in the future."

Today, before I left school for the Foreign Registration Office, I went and helped out in the Kindergarten guided maths session.  During this time students were moving between different stations, some of which involved using manipulatives, some of which involved using online maths resources (I saw that some children had abacuses they were using at the side of the laptops) and other students were working in small groups with a teacher or a teaching assistant.  Chatting with a teacher, I found out that the Kindergarten teachers decided to do guided maths in this way, after the success of trying out the Daily 5 for literacy earlier this year.  The Daily 5 involves reading to self, listening to reading (online), word work and writing, and just like the guided maths students spend 15 or 20 minutes at each station before moving on to the next.  I was impressed to see the way that these 5 and 6 year old students were able to independent make choices about how they were using technology.

Marc Prensky cautions us not to use technology as a "new way to do old things".  He writes that technology allows us to cut out something old to make room for the new things that our students need, and that technology can then be used to enable students to do powerful new things that they couldn't do before, such as posting their ideas online in order to get global feedback.  However this article also goes further - it calls for a new curriculum that eliminates separate classes for different subjects and instead focuses on effective thinking, action, relationships and accomplishments.  I started to think about this article, and the new curriculum described in it, along the lines of the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP).

  • Effective thinking: focuses on mathematical and logical thinking through stories and games.  Technology could be used to involve students in simulations to promote critical, scientific and mathematical thinking and problem-solving skills.  This emphasis on thinking in the elementary school would give students a knowledge of their own strengths and passions and would build on a foundation of reading and technology.  The focus would no longer be on subject matter, but on developing thinking skills.  When I reflected on this I thought that much of what Prensky describes could be found in the PYP, especially the development of inquiry and transdisciplinary skills.
  • Effective action: could also start in elementary school as students are presented with challenges and learn the project management skills to manage real-life problems.  This area of the curriculum would focus on developing students' skills to be proactive and to initiate positive actions to improve their communities, country and the world.  Again reflecting on this I find the PYP focus on action to be very much in line with these proposals.  I can think of numerous examples this year where students from ASB have quite spontaneously come up with projects to help better the lives of others in Mumbai.
  • Effective relationships: focuses on developing communication skills - another area that is highlighted in the PYP.  I'm interested in how Prensky emphasizes relationships in both the real and virtual worlds with a focus on ethics, citizenship and politics.
  • Effective accomplishment: would allow students to build up a portfolio of individual and group projects.  Again I reflected on how our students from Grade 1 upwards use Google Sites to develop their own ePortfolios, and how they are able to share these with their parents (and later with others) during the student-led conferences.
One of the joys I find in teaching the PYP is that there is no fixed body of content that has to be gone through each year and then tested.  Prensky writes that much traditional content would still be taught in his new curriculum, but that it would be done in a different way - learning would be more personalized and "just in time" as students work on what they need for their projects or to further their interests and passions.  He argues that strong skills in thinking, acting, relating and accomplishing are more useful for life after school than common standards for each subject, because in the future knowledge and work will be increasingly interdisciplinary.

My favourite analogy in this article was one that highlighted the importance of ditching the "old" skills that are no longer valuable or useful and using technology to do new things in new ways:
Anyone who maintains that we should continue to teach and use both the old ways and the new is suggesting that we maintain an expensive horse in the barn in case our car breaks down.
It's definitely time to hang up those saddles and put the horse out to grass!

Photo Credit: marcovdz via Compfight cc

No comments:

Post a Comment