Book: Why School? by Will Richardson

World War I was an important point in the world’s history, and certainly one for Canada, both as a nation and as a nation of the world — so much so that The Great War was a major unit in the grade 10 Canadian history curriculum. Just like every other unit, there was a test at the end, to evaluate what we students had learned. To prepare I frantically poured over the class textbook and my notes, collecting important dates, places, people and events, and using them to draw out timelines.

I didn’t do well on that test; however, I ultimately cleared the class with an 83%. I credit part of this eventual success to an assignment, ironically tied to World War I. That assignment had us write a paper blog (I mean diary) of a soldier caught up in the war. Presented on tea-stained, oven-burnt paper, bound inside dirt-covered, paper-machéd cardboard covers, my diary was simply titled, “La Guerre Mondiale” (thankfully I caught a grammar mistake at the last second and added that last ‘e’ before submitting it). It detailed the desire to go home, the awful state of the trenches, loss of friends, and an impromptu sports game with both sides on Christmas Day.

In the days when Google was just getting started, well before things like Wikipedia and Call of Duty, I was researching and trying to envision what it would have been like to be in the front lines. I took the most complete picture I could piece together, peppered on WWI details and threw in my views on war and how I would feel losing my friends to gunfire. I wrote it all out. I did well.

This experience falls directly into Will Richardson’s premise in his short-length book Why School?: How Education Must Change When Information and Learning Are Everywhere (SEE: Book at ted.com). In his mind, the age of Memorize and Mumble is over. Knowledge and the ability to connect with others is no longer scarce. “If we have an Internet connection,” says Richardson, “we have fingertip, on-demand access to an amazing library that holds close to the sum of human knowledge and, equally important, to more than two billion people with whom we can potentially learn.” Why would we limit our youth’s studies to a handful of books and facts that likely leave very little long-term impression?

With an abundance of knowledge and teachers, all instantly accessible from our pockets and backpacks, there should be less focus on facts and figures and passing tests and more on processing information, determining its credibility, making it useful, sharing it with others. “In this new narrative,” Richardson argues, “learning ceases to ficus on consuming information or knowledge that’s no longer scarce. Instead, it’s about asking questions, working with others to find answers, doing real work for real audiences, and adding to, not simply taking from, the storehouse of knowledge that the Web is becoming… The emphasis shifts from content mastery to learning mastery.” Schools should prepare youth by arming them with the tools to learn, connect with others, collaborate, and even teach.

The roots of 150 years of tradition around schooling run deep, especially when most of us are products of that experience

“Access doesn’t automatically come with an ability to use the Web well,” warns Richardson. This abundance of crowd-sourced knowledge and be overwhelming, and with it comes the risk of poor information and misinformation. Schools need to adapt by teaching how to sift through information, be able to differentiate the reliable sources. Also important is how to safely connect with others in a shared online environment.

In this new age of schooling, we must go beyond the current definition of literacy: reading, writing and arithmetic. The National Council of Teachers of English, an US-based organization, have outlined what literacy needs to look like in the 21st century. This includes proficiency with technology, problem solving collaboratively, sharing and managing information, relating and evaluating multimedia, and being ethically responsible.

There remains a great value to schools, a place where children learn with others. School must remain an institution where kids become “inspired by caring adults to pursue mastery and expertise, and then use that to change the world for the better.” It’s process and execution, however, must change; quickly. “If the primary goal for school remains educating our children well enough to ‘pass the test,’ getting them to consume the ‘right’ content and store the ‘right’ answers, there will soon be better ways of doing that than by sending our kids to school,” argues Richardson. He quotes Canadian education research Stephen Downes, who said, “We have to stop thinking of an education as something that is delivered to us and instead see it as something we create for ourselves.”

In higher education, we are starting to see a shift in response to a changing economy as well as access and learning technologies. “With college costs and student debt continuing to skyrocket, and with an economy that’s leaving many college graduates making lattes at Starbucks, the traditional narrative of a four-year degree being a ticket to a middle-class life just isn’t playing out for a growing number of kids.”

Businesses are starting to see that test scores don’t necessarily translate into success; they’re broadening how they define an “education” to include the ability to solve problems in and adapt to a fast-changing world. Programmes out there like iTunes U, Khan Academy, Coursera, Knewton, TED-Ed, and other massive open online courses (MOOCs) all play a role in the new world of alternative education. Many of these initiatives offer knowledge and courses to anyone without any cost, and they are attracting millions globally. If the main goal of school is to prepare children for their future, then school must reflect this shift.

Why School? challenges the current education model and explores the shift required to modernize it for children growing up in the 21st century, as well as the many challenges that come with it. What would the curriculum be like? How will lessons be taught? How can children be assessed? What changes will there be in the role of the teacher? What can parents, teachers, educators, and policy makers do to modernize learning?

School is the only place in kids' lives that they can't use the technology they carry around in their pockets and backpacks to answer questions

I am reminded of something I noted when travelling Nepal in 2011. Two different boys, one living in a village and another in the city of Kathmandu, learned the same piece of information in their studies. “What is a hanky?” Neither child learned about germs or paper fibres. Neither knows where hankies come from or where they go. The lesson taken away was that “hankys [sic] are non-living.” I wondered, what would they do with this bit of trivia, beyond impressing adults and writing it in their notebooks (or on their living room walls)? Simply, they will be able to compare facial tissue to rocks (both are non-living) and goats (which are often living).

Nepal’s education system, which features the king of all standardized tests by which every student either live or die, is the antithesis of what North American education must become. Over the coming decades as learning in the West adapts to the ever growing presence of technology and open knowledge, Nepal’s youth will fall far behind their global counterparts. How can we ensure bright futures for children in both Nepal and in North America? Read Why School? and share your thoughts.

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