"What's a locust bean?" Asks my wife while reading the back of her yogurt container during breakfast this morning. My reply, "I don't know, let me ask Siri." To my inquiry Siri replied with a long entry on the origin of and many uses for the locust bean. Apparently it is used as a gelling agent. I'm a science teacher, maybe I should know this stuff, but let's be honest, I'm not (nor could I be) the repository of all botanical knowledge that has ever existed. Besides, is it really important to my life to know that locust beans aren't actually legumes? I chuckled a bit, for this exchange only served to underline a troubling question that has been rattling around in my head for the last week or so.
In 2013 do students need to memorize discrete pieces of information? No small amount of ink has been spilled over this topic, and I have no intention of resolving the matter today. Rather, I thought I would engage in processing via writing. Sometimes things become a bit more clear to me as I write. The other day I was listening to a TED talk in which the speaker described the origins of the education system as we now know it. In essence, the system was built as a means of producing workers to fill spots in an ever expanding labor force. These workers needed to possess discrete pieces of knowledge, because it wasn't likely that they were going to be able to Google that which they needed to know. Thus our education system has existed for centuries. As a means of filling students' heads with discrete pieces of knowledge that they may or may not need to know in order to be successful in the future. When students ask why they would ever need to know a fact, most teachers reply that they just do. For centuries, our system has operated on the basic proposition that students should learn certain chunks of information because students have always learned those chunks of information. This is how it has been, so this is how it always should be.
As so many before me have said and written, the world has changed. In the age of Google, Siri, and Wikipedia do people really need to know seemingly random, disconnected pieces of data? This is a question that I am still struggling with. I think about my AP Biology course. In order to understand the immune system students must first understand the concepts of cell signaling and recognition. One topic builds on the other. But, for their future, do they really need to know this information at all? If they are going into medicine or one of the biological sciences, absolutely. Though, how many of them will actually pursue one of those career paths, and wouldn't they learn it in their premed course of study anyway? Rather I think that it might be more important for pre-collegiate/career students to understand that change in one part of a system causes change in another part of the system. This theme is one that crosses all subject areas and can be used as a basic foundation for operating in the world.
Increasingly, I am beginning to believe that teachers would serve the futures of students much better by helping them attain skills and structures for thinking rather than discrete pieces of information. As a science teacher I am much more interested in my students being able to properly investigate a question than I am about them knowing the steps of mitosis. Google will tell them about mitosis. Google can't tell them how to properly pursue a line of inquiry. To be fair, though, background knowledge is needed before investigation can begin. Extending this line of reasoning, I realize that it is exceedingly important for students to recognize overarching trends that connect together all of the small pieces of knowledge. I want students to be able to contextualize that which they learn. I want them to be able to evaluate the value of the information that they find on the internet. Science content might be a path by which I ultimately lead them towards these skills that they will use regularly in the world beyond high school, but the content may not be important in and of itself. Heresy, I know.
In the future that our students face, skills are much more important than content. Profession specific content will be learned either during the collegiate course of study or during their on-the-job training. Employers will seek employees who can ask good questions, communicate in a written or verbal format, evaluate the value of an information source, conduct good online searches, develop creative solutions to problems, work effectively in a team, and identify trends in data. Slowly, slowly the leaders in educational thought are pivoting towards this reality (Common core, the AP Bio redesign, and Next Gen Science Standards come to mind). The greater question, however, is how long will it take for the educational establishment to respond. Will we continue to maintain a death grip on our precious content for content's sake, or will we begin to see our content as a means for teaching our students things that they actually need for their future?
Obviously this is a question that I am still struggling through. If you have an opinion on the matter I would love to get a discussion going.