November 25, 2012

THEODORA KALIKOW: As technology changes our kids, we must change how we teach them

Theodora J. Kalikow

Thanksgiving is done! The family gathered around the dinner table, Uncle Joe and Aunt Dottie and all the unruly cousins at the card tables in the living room.

Football, turkey, pumpkin pie, post-holiday sales, parades -- all the American icons. This scene will be repeated every year. It gives us all comfort that the world is ordered and predictable.

It's like we're on the stage set of a play titled "The Way it's S'posed to Be." Out on the stage, it all looks like the same ordered and predictable world, and yet backstage the whole supporting machinery of life has changed.

Google, iPhones, Kindles, Wikipedia, iPads, online shopping, banking and bill-paying, EZPass, and on and on it goes. All made possible by the digital revolution.

The whole structure of our economy is different, too. Manufacturing has gone away or been transformed.

The car that sits in your driveway might still be made in the USA, but it has parts from China and Vietnam and goodness knows where else. It also might get 45 miles per gallon instead of 20.

Your clothing comes from places you didn't even know had factories. Our food may come from local organic sources or from Chile or California.

There are all new businesses and new occupations. Your children may be Web designers or systems engineers or do data mining for a company with a weird name.

There are loads of new companies here in Maine like PowerPay, which inhabits the new business space between when you swipe your credit card at Ye Olde Candle Shop and when the bank sends you a bill and you pay it. You didn't know there was even anything there, now did you?

Even the kids are getting to be different. They might be getting their own iPad when they are younger than 2. (Truly, don't you have one of those genius grandchildren?) They are totally connected with their smartphone and their music and their 24/7 links to family and friends.

They don't wear watches anymore because they're permanently attached to their phones, which tell them the time and where they are and what their best friend just had for a snack. If they want to know something, they Google it.

There are Apps for everything and they use them and trade them and live using them as extensions of their mental and social capabilities.

So now I'm getting to it. When the underpinnings of our lives have undergone such profound changes, why do we keep on thinking about school with the same basic models I talked about last time?

How come it's public school, private school, religious school or charter school? (Really the same basic model with different tail fins.)

How come we have tests "to hold the teachers to higher standards" or put the students in uniforms, lengthen the school day, or try a small range of other options, and how come we have been doing this for years and years while the world has been changing around us?

And how come we are so stuck, when we know that it's the definition of neurosis to persist in doing the same thing and yet expect different results?

There are plenty of people who are not stuck. They are starting trends that we'd better pay attention to. All those folks who home-school their kids are not all doing it from religious convictions. They are saying something about the state of schooling today, and what it does to their kids, that we need to hear.

The folks who are setting up magnet schools for science or art or music are paying attention to nurturing particular students' interests. The folks at Jobs for Maine's Graduates or Goodwill-Hinckley are integrating training in the jobs of today and tomorrow with the development of academic skills, and providing alternative paths to a high school diploma.

The folks at Educare in Waterville, and other groups in Rumford and Washington County, are integrating families and community into early childhood education. And how about that principal in Auburn who's giving the youngsters iPads and seeing their reading scores go way up?

These unstuck people are telling us something really important: Our current schooling model was invented for social conditions that have gone away. The model has to change. We can do a lot better and we have the capacity to start now.

Next time, I really will tell you a way.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at kalikow@usm.maine.edu

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