Our responsibility to humanity: Teach less content


Teaching | Monday, September 21, 2015

Our responsibility to humanity: Teach less content

Humanity is begging us to prepare students for the difficult digital decisions in their futures, even if schools aren't built for that right now. (Wikipedia / The College Preparatory School)

Humanity is begging us to prepare students for the difficult digital decisions in their futures, even if schools aren’t built for that right now. (Wikipedia / The College Preparatory School)

For generations, content has been king in the classroom. The more information we impart, the more students will know. Information was a commodity, and teachers were the broker.

Not so anymore.

Information is an Internet search away. We don’t even have to type it anymore if we ask Siri on our iPhones or do an “OK Google” voice search.

Our students’ future is full of decisions … decisions about how to use all that data rather than how to acquire it. Whether they know it or not, I think humanity is begging us in the education world to help students with that.

“Please,” they’re asking us. “Help kids learn how to make smart decisions so they’ll lead us into this digital age responsibly.”

In essence: Quit teaching kids so much content. Teach them how to use it.

While listening to a two-part podcast series called “Screen Time” on the NPR TED Radio Hour (Part 1 / Part 2), I was reminded of these three examples of why we need kids who can handle themselves digitally:

1. Your personal and professional life can be ruined too easily. If you haven’t heard of Justine Sacco yet, check out this New York Times article on the mess she lived through. Some poorly-worded tweets to her very few followers were circulated all over Twitter. The social media furor lasted forever. She was fired and struggled to find a job.

Humanity is begging us to help kids navigate social media and to be responsible. Often, though, schools shudder to open social media and the Pandora’s Box that it can entail.

We have to stand beside kids through their social media messes, even if we’re standing in figurative mud — or a sewer — with them. Childhood and adolescence are messy. Life is messy. And I’d rather help kids learn hard lessons with my guidance during school years than endure what Justine Sacco did in adulthood.

2. Data will make supremely powerful ideas become reality. Every day, we’re generating data about ourselves. When we shop online, when we like something on Facebook, when we do online searches, we leave a digital trail of those decisions. On the podcast I mentioned earlier, they highlighted a girl who received coupons for diapers from a big-name retailer. Not such a big deal, right? She got them two weeks before she broke the news to her parents that she was pregnant.

Programmers and mathematicians can write algorithms that process all that aforementioned data into very telling predictions. From the data we leave behind, it can identify (oftentimes fairly accurately) our disposition toward work, our sexual orientation and even whether we’re pregnant. These are powerful weapons to wield that can be potentially deadly. (Imagine releasing findings on sexual orientation in a country where homosexuality is illegal.)

Humanity is begging us to prepare kids for tricky, complicated, messy digital decisions. The ones that face society now likely pale in comparison to the ones we will face as technology improves. We have to show kids that these difficult decisions exist and give them opportunities to walk through the options and consequences.

3. Our screen time is changing who we are and how we behave. Compare interpersonal communication now to a time before the massive onset of smartphones. We’re drowning in a sea of misinterpreted text messages and social media postings. (“Was the exclamation point at the end of that sentence excitement or anger?”) Neuroscience even tells us that the effect of screens on our brains affects our sleep and our mood (and maybe more!).

Humanity is begging us to guide kids through life changes that will help us stay human without a digital device fused to our brains and eyes. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of these changes, and kids should know that they have potentially serious consequences.

What happens if we stick to the curriculum and don’t get to these questions? The United States is so fixated on high-stakes testing that we’ll do almost anything to improve our scores. What are we producing that way, though … citizens who have practice in picking answers out of multiple choice questions but can’t handle the day-to-day issues in their lives? (Let alone the complicated ones.)

Here’s the problem: schools today aren’t built for this. Education is as slow an institution to change as any.

Here’s hope, though: education is slow to change, but classrooms are nimble. A motivated, dedicated teacher can create what humanity is begging for in his or her own class. And when it works, it can catch on with others that notice it and spread like wildfire.

It’s like Margaret Mead said … “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Change the word “citizens” to “educators,” and change the words “the world” to “education.”

These three examples are just the ones that stirred me to write. Certainly, there are others, and I’d love to see what you think humanity is begging us to impart to the next generation in the comments below. And whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to see your take on this. Please leave it in a comment also and engage in the conversation.

Humanity is begging us to change course, to teach less content and to prepare students for the uncertain future world where they’re headed. Will we heed that call?

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  • Taylor says:

    In this day and age, especially considering where education and technology are going, I think that it should be required for teachers to educate students on media literacy. Whether educators want to accept this fact or not, we no longer live in a print-centric world. We have access to an endless supply of knowledge, whether it be text, photographs, or film, at the tip of our fingers. And if we want to target the “digital natives” that we now teach, then we should be utilizing these resources. Today, being literate no longer means just being able to read and write. It also means being able to understand digital media, blogs, wikis, and other new technologies that our students are using in their everyday lives. Just because our students have access to the internet and other media, it does not mean that they possess the skills to effectively analyze and evaluate the technologies that they are using or the information they come across. We need to teach our students how they can interpret and use the information they come across. We need to teach our students how to determine if the information they come across is manipulation or propaganda because students are constantly being persuaded and influenced by media. Most importantly, teaching media literacy offers a great way to develop student’s critical thinking skills while being relevant. Careers in technology are growing rapidly and will continue to grow in years to come. They will need these media literacy skills in order to prepare them for careers in a competitive global economy. Instead of teaching less content, let’s integrate these skills into all subject areas. Let’s teach our students to be 21st century learners. If today’s educators don’t teach our youth these skills, then who will?

  • Simone DeBeauvoir says:

    This is nonsense and a wonderful way to head down the path to Idiocracy. Humans need to operate from a wealth of knowledge acquired the hard way – through reading the great works and internalizing them. Then they can move onto how to use them (which, frankly, doesn’t need to be taught – it happens naturally). The idea that we can just look up facts on a screen and be intelligent is farcical and dangerous.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Simone, you’re exactly right … we do need to operate from a wealth of knowledge acquired the hard way. As a teacher who has worked in public schools for more than a decade, I’ve seen too much piled on the shoulders of students and teachers — more and more content, longer high-stakes testing, etc. We end up skimming superficially rather than digging deep, and we miss out on the opportunities to help students learn these valuable life lessons.

      I’m not sure if you have any experience in education, but application of knowledge does NOT happen naturally. Students, from young children to adult learners, often need help in applying what they’ve learned, whether in a digital realm or not.

      Like it or not, information is at our fingertips. You’re right … there’s a big difference between finding information and being intelligent. The world has changed, and knowing what to do with that information is king right now and will continue to be into the future. “The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who can’t read and write, rather those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn.” — Toffler

  • adam says:

    What does this have to do with ditching textbooks? Sounds more like we need to prepare our kids for the internet. Bad URL choice.

    • Matt Miller says:

      It’s been my intent since this site started more than two years ago to offer two things: ways to teach with less reliance on the textbook AND ways to break away from old textbook mentalities that are becoming outdated and irrelevant. You’re right — we do need to prepare our kids for the Internet, and we do that by walking side by side with them through digital work in class AND their digital lives outside of school (as well as the non-digital versions of both of those). The realities of life will be drastically different for students in the future, and it’s our job to help students navigate them.

  • Frau Davis says:

    Sure, tests still expect us to teach content, but REAL LIFE expects us to have skills. I had to deal with a mouse in my house this weekend. Maybe not a big thing to you, but it was my first time in this situation. Did I have any idea how to solve this before Saturday? Not beyond the general concept of having played a game of Mousetrap. After my initial freak out I focused: Did I see something? What did I just see? I located a primary resource: called my parents. I compared multiple sources: reading reviews of different mouse traps online. Formed a plan and executed it, with the result being the mouse is now dead.

  • Jim Carlton says:

    Nice idea, but the PARCC, SAT, ACT exams actually want students to know how to do Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Statistics, Probability, Measurement, Number Systems, Theory of Sets, etc.

    So, we have to teach the tools in detail before we can put them to use.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Jim. Sure, we can teach the tools … there’s nothing wrong with that. I think when we’re focused on just the tools (especially in the face of looming tests like PARCC, SAT, ACT), we miss out on some of our most important teaching opportunities. Also, I know (as I mentioned in the post) the education system isn’t built for this “teach less content” concept I point out in the post. We can continue to push for a more relevant education for students. Hence the Margaret Mead post … be the small group of thoughtful, committed citizens that wants to change the world.

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