Possibilities for Learning and Digital Technologies

One does not need to be an education researcher to know that the way we teach in schools did not change much in the last centuries. The teacher is still the authority figure expected to pour knowledge inside his disciples’ minds, and those disciples have little to no say on what is taught. This format was adopted because of specific needs of that time: the need for a skilled and obedient workforce in the industrialized world. Those are not the same needs of today’s world, when companies expect employees to act as leaders, information is widely available, and change is rapid.

This outdated model was the basis of my own experience as a student. My high-school friends used to talk about topics that made us curious, from astronomy and rockets to greek mythology and, of course, some spicy classics from brazilian literature. The problem was that we never saw school as the place for learning or discovering. In fact, I still remember the angry looks from our teachers every time we asked them “What I am going to use this for?”.We were kidsnot specialists in Education. We knew nothing about the future of the job market, the role of education in fostering citizenship, or the impact of technological advances to come in a  decade or two.  But we knew something was wrong with our educational system.

Years later, my professional experience only reinforced my belief that school did not prepare me for real life. Still, reviewing my school’s curriculum to my current needs would not be enough, as everything around me, my knowledge needs are constantly changing. What I know today will soon become obsolete. A simple shift from older content to newer content would produce students who are always behind.

As Howard Gardner (2010) describes in “21st century skills: Rethinking how Students Learn”: “trying to foresee student’s future needs is not being trendy; it is a necessity. But, of course, it is only the beginning.” His view is shared with Will Richardson (2012), when he writes “Schools need to do both: to prepare kids for old-school expectations and new-world realities alike”. Both Gardner and Richardson reflect on what should students learn. Gardner presents five key “minds” that should be developed: the disciplined mind, synthesizing mind, creating mind, respectful mind and ethical mind, while Richardson writes about creativity, persistence, and patient problem solving. And by problems he means real problems. The two approaches greatly overlap. The two authors are not concerned about how much content students absorb, instead they highlight the importance of teaching students how to learn constantly and faster – something they will need for the rest of their lives.

When faced with this reality, many educators and policymakers turned to technology and its possibilities to transform education. Technology comes with its own challenges and its own rewards. Lack of funding for equipments, deficient training for the faculty, cultural barriers, fear of the new and even the different points of view on how technology should or should not be used by teachers and students, they are all obstacles to be overcome. The unequal access to digital tools can actually incur in even larger social inequalities. The digitalization of content, for example, excludes those who do not have computers or other devices . In spite of that, as described by Thomas Whitby in “The Relevant Educator”, technology favors collaboration, allows for teachers to build their professional learning networks and exchange valuable information, enables a more transparent communication with parents (Anderson, 2014). For that, teachers need to expand their view of technology both in terms of culture since different cultures find different uses for technology and in terms of time since what is taught today has to remain relevant in future. In a TEDx called “How Culture and Technology created on another, Ramesh Srinvasan mentions a crocodile hunter from Papua New Guinea who use their mobile phones to hunt at night. Srinvasan explains other creative uses of modern devices in non-western cultures to purposes that do not immediately cross our mind when we think of technology. In addition, Whitby emphasis how skills we teach today, can be transferred from the educational setting to the world of work in the future.

Adopting technology in the learning environment goes beyond installing computers in classrooms. To realize the full potential of digital tools, we need to examine the entire educational system and identify opportunities in the light of the ever changing needs of the students and future professionals, and this is a joint effort between government, educators, parents and students.

References:

Gardner, H. (2010) Five Minds for the Future. In Bellanca, J., Brandt, R. (Eds.), 21st century skills: Rethinking How Students Learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press

Richardson, W.  (2012) Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, TED Conferences

Anderson, S.W., Whitby, T. (2014) The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning, Corwin

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