Look to the future while honouring the past

I attended three “events” this week that caused me to reflect on the state of education and just my own philosophy about things. I gained some clarity this week through a Parent Engagement evening centring around social media, a Student Success Learning Network meeting and a funeral for the aunt of a colleague. Not necessarily easy to see a connection between the three but my own pedagogical perspective changed because of them.

The first was an evening put on by our Parent Council and supported by Toronto Police as parents came together to become a bit more familiar with the different social media platforms that their teenage children spend so much time on. The mood throughout the evening was really one of concern and even fear as parents were looking for ways to track and even block their children from using Twitter and Facebook because of the problems it can lead to. I was very happy with the message delivered from Toronto Police as they talked about caution but about the need to teach the same lessons that we learned as children about appropriate language, discretion and common sense. I think this is the key to navigating a time never before seen in human history. We really have no idea about how the next 20 years will play out and how our children will be impacted by them, but we do have those common standards and values to fall back on. We cannot simply say that social media is bad and thus should be avoided. That horse has left the barn as teens are actively engaged in this medium and thus need to know how to navigate this New World. It would be equivalent to not teaching them how to swim, and then throwing them into the lake if we don’t take active measures to equip all our kids with the values necessary for success. The good news is that those values are essentially the same ones that got us through our teen years.

The second event was a SSLN that was designed to bring together teachers and administrators from local elementary and secondary schools to discuss and explore the ideas of The Third Teacher and to see what we as practical academics can do to improve the learning environment of our kids. This was an amazing session that saw people sharing ideas, and thinking seriously about what can be done now and in the not-too-distant future to make things better for their students. I think what resonated with people at this event, and truly throughout my staff this year, is that these changes really have nothing to do with technology, (although improving tech can allow for other things to occur), I would even go so far as to say that you could approach the idea of environmental rethink with a real “old-school” eye. There was a part of the discussion that had participants talking about how important it is for students to really experience things, and while virtual field trips, virtual chats and virtual experiments are interesting they are no substitute for the real thing. I could not agree more on this but I guess the key to this is to identify those “authentic” experiences that are still relevant and important. There was a time when it was necessary for students to learn how to milk a cow, churn butter and weave cotton. There are lessons to be learned in each of these activities but I doubt anyone would be pushing this to be on the common curriculum for all students. Perhaps we need to continue to rethink what authentic experiences are necessary. Do students really need to master cursive writing? Do they need to be taught how to spell through drill and practice, or can we depend on exposure to words and tools like spell check to get them there? Some real questions, but all worth asking because, like most things, 21C Learning is about balance.

The 21st Century was put into context for me at the end of the week when I attended the funeral for the aunt, (and great aunt) of two of my teachers. This funeral was a bit different as this amazing women passed away at the age of 105! Think about that for a moment: she was born in 1908! She was 10 when WWI ended and nearly 40 when WWII did! Think of how much the world has changed since she was a school girl in St. Brendan Newfoundland. Think about things like transportation, communication, politics and commerce. Think about how technology has made all these industries pretty much indistinguishable from when she was in school, and then think about how LITTLE school has changed since then. Sure, if you were to go to a school in her hometown, you would probably find a lot more tech than she would have ever dreamed of but I would dare say that a 14 year old from 1922 could navigate their way through a school in 2014. They would find comfort in the fact that student desks have not really changed that much, or that many classes still have students sitting in efficient and orderly rows. She would fit right into some tests that seek to capture her ability to memorize things and would no doubt understand the role of teacher as head of the class and holder of knowledge.

Attending this funeral and realizing the shear scope of this woman’s life gave me pause because it allowed me to see how far the world has come and to realize how far the world of education still has to go. We need to cling to the values that have been in place for generations but not muddy the waters by thinking that everything that came before is worthy of cherishing. When we help our kids make decisions about social media and communication, we need to continue to sing the chorus of common sense and common courtesy but not insist that a simpler time was automatically a better time. We need to embrace the opportunities that this amazing time in history allows and use the lessons of our youth to inform the next generation. We also however, need to be honest in our reflections to see what is necessary and what is antiquated. We need to drill and practice skills not for the sake of knowledge acquisition,  but in the hopes of solving problems. We need to simplify the environment without standardizing it. We need to celebrate our history while still looking to the future with a sense of wonder and astonishment. Why is the future so astonishing? Imagine asking that 14 year old in 1922, that question and then imagine what she would have reported!!

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