A “cultural shift” brought about by an ongoing technological revolution is underway in the nation’s classrooms, according to social scientist and author Jennifer James, who spoke at a national education conference on April 3. If students are to succeed in the information economy, James said, teachers must lead the way by embracing new approaches to learning, including the effective integration of classroom technologies, and leaving behind processes designed for a different era.

James’ remarks came as part of a morning keynote address delivered during the second day of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD’s) annual conference and exposition in Orlando. Her message represented a call to action for educators, many of whom spent the weekend in search of ways to address a glaring disconnect between the demands of the new knowledge-based economy and the drill-and-practice mentality currently driving education in the nation’s classrooms.

“We are at a tipping point in the technological revolution,” James said. “Technology is changing everything.”

Where it used to be enough to simply herd learners through the system with a firm grasp of basic skills, James says, that approach falls short in today’s information era, where advanced skills–critical thinking and deductive reasoning, to name a few–are held at a premium.

“This human shift brought about by technological change is creating many new openings,” James explained. In order to take advantage of new opportunities, however, teachers first must equip students with the necessary skill sets.

Rather then teach the kinds of skills that schools relied on in the past, James encouraged educators to begin stressing such higher-order thinking skills as problem-solving and critical analysis.

And it isn’t just about changing the overall approach, she said, educators must rethink the very makeup of schools. Falling in line with visionaries in the business world, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, whose private foundation has donated close to $1 billion to school reform, James advocated for the creation of smaller, more intimate learning environments and increasingly diverse student bodies (See “Gates, governors: Upgrade high school“).

“Many of us have in our gut this sort of 1965 view of what education should be,” explained James. “If you walk through the halls of your schools and see nothing but mythology, then you’re suffering from cognitive dissonance.”

And schools aren’t the only places where the realities of the 21st century seem to be passing us by, she states. Many of the nation’s top education leaders, including the framers of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), also are missing the point.

“One of the reasons we have NCLB in the United States is because the group that cooked it up has no idea what they are doing,” she said to applause from the crowd. “When you don’t understand something, the first thing you try and do is measure it.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for accountability,” said James about the federal law. But teaching our kids to memorize information meant to produce higher marks on state tests is not the way to prepare them for life and work in a global economy.

“Memorization is a very low-level skill,” James asserted, adding, “I could teach pigeons to spell.”

But those types of skills don’t cut it–not anymore. Thanks to the evolution of technology, “we are changing faster than any culture ever has … and the learning curve is straight up.”

Accepting change won’t be easy, especially in schools, where the pace of technology’s advancement far outpaces educators’ ability to keep up. “When the speed of change is this fast, [educators] begin to lose their confidence,” James explained. Luckily, today’s students are genetically predisposed to the revolution. Unlike adults–many of whom must pore over technical manuals to grasp even the most basic functionalities of their Palm Pilot’s or cellular phones, “children don’t read manuals,” James pointed out. “They have new neural pathways.”

Rather then seeing technology as some new skill they have to acquire, most kids view the use of technology in school as an extension of how they operate in everyday life, which is precisely why educators must strive to integrate technology effectively within the four walls of the classroom, James said. Technology will never reach its potential in schools unless teachers first learn to embrace its use.

Calling technology “a third hand for education,” James encouraged educators to begin looking for ways technology can cut down on administrative burdens in efforts to provide more time for teaching higher-level skills. From the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, which can automatically track student attendance, to the integration of data systems intended to target the strengths and weaknesses of individual learners, she said, teachers today have at their disposal a myriad of tools that enable them to make better use of their time.

The key in classrooms, James said, is for educators to tell a good story. In short, they need to sell what it is they’re teaching. To do that, educators must build lessons that attract and enthrall a generation of students weaned on the interactivity of the internet.

The “Net Generation,” as she calls today’s students, wants short interactive lessons dispersed with, but not dominated by, the use of technology. To them, she said, technology is a tool to fuel discussion.

Unfortunately, the majority of the nation’s schools have yet to realize what their students already know.

“Why is common sense not common practice?” asked James. Perhaps it’s time our nation’s schools begin reflecting “the realities of the outside world.”

Links:

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development http://www.ascd.org