20th-century teachers using 19th-century methods to reach 21st-century students

As someone who loves technology and gadgets, and loves figuring out how to make them useful, I’ve had a long interest in how the technology of the information age could change the way people – especially children – learn.  This interest is compounded by the fact that I have two teenage sons, now in high school.  Born at the dawn of the information age (1991 and 1993), they are right in the middle of it all.  Sadly, though, my personal experience has been one akin to the quote used for the title of this post.

The quote is actually something overheard by Marc Aronson in his School Library Journal article We’ve Got the Technology: But our (sic) today’s schools ready for a radical transformation?, but is reminiscent to me of a main point of Seymour Papert‘s 1992 (yep, 1992!!) book The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.  The following is paraphrased from the opening chapter of that book:

Imagine a party of time traveling teachers from an earlier century, eager see how much things have changed in their profession a hundred or more years in the future.  They might be puzzled by a few strange objects.  They might notice that some standard techniques had changed, but they would fully see the point of most of what was being attempted and could quite easily take over the class.

In his article, Aronson gives us a quick dose of reality, reminding us:

The fact that technology makes new kinds of educational opportunities possible doesn’t imply that teachers, administrators, school boards, and college admittance personnel—not to mention students and parents—want, or even need, those new methods.

The process, Aronson says, should be one of evolution, not revolution.

I’ll leave the pronouncements about 21st-century skills and radical reform to education analysts and other columnists. For those of us who write for, teach, or work with young people in schools and libraries, the old and the new are likely to overlap and blend, not suddenly displace each other. Doesn’t that make sense? Doesn’t that sound more realistic than a vision of a completely transformed educational system? It does to me.

As much as I’d like to see an overnight change, I have to agree with Aronson that it is better to grow, over time, the educational system we want instead of trying to simply build it.  The system is much too complex to think we can figure it all out at once.

2 thoughts on “20th-century teachers using 19th-century methods to reach 21st-century students

  1. Amazingly, my kids grammar school is more advanced in this area than the post graduate environment I teach in.

    They use interactive white boards in every class, use online resources, subscribe to shared online resources that students can access from home, have class websites, etc.

    So I guess my point is that these things are happening, at least in certain areas.



  2. Joe,

    Thanks for the comment.

    There is no doubt that there is a lot more technology being used in the elementary, middle, and high-schools today and that (most) users are using this technology. My concern is more with the “methods” than the tools, as I have sat in as an observer on classes where all this great technology (interactive ‘Smart-Boards’, for instance) is being used as a simple replacement for the old technology (using the Smart-Board to write things for the class to see instead of simply writing on a chalk board).

    Of course, there are some teachers who get it. My older son’s math teacher last year would record the output of the smart board, along with the audio of his lecture, and post it on the class website before he left school for the day. A great way for the students to listen to the lecture again, and to see the context as they follow along on the whiteboard presentation. There just aren’t enough of these types of teachers out their yet.

    But we’re getting there.


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