jasonbwatson

September 19, 2014

(Re)Defining Education

I do not like to “attack” fellow laborers in the field of Christian education. We get enough attacks from outside of Christian ed; no need to go after each other. At the same time, though, there is a need to identify and confront error when it exists, whether in Christian education, within the church or anywhere else within the realm of Christendom. Much to my dismay, yesterday I read an article in a Christian education publication that requires such confrontation. Adding to my dismay is the fact that this article was written by the dean of the School of Education at one of the leading Christian universities in the United States, which causes me no small amount of concern about what the education majors at this university are being taught.

The article begins with the question, “What should Christian education look like in the twenty-first century?” The author then states that in order to answer this question it is necessary to “consider how the twenty-first century child learns.” As part of his answer to that, he writes, “Watch a middle childhood student multitask by playing a video game, texting a friend on her phone, video chatting on her computer, and working on her homework.” The implication is that she is doing all of these things at the same time. And right there, not even a paragraph into the article, my hackles are raised. There is no reason for a “middle childhood student” to have the technology available to be doing all of these things at once. She certainly does not need all of this technology of her own. (Frankly, I do not even know what “middle childhood” means, because I do not think it is a term I have ever heard before. Since the article also references elementary students and young adolescents, I am assuming “middle childhood” must encompass ages 10-12 or so). Thus, the initial concern with this individual’s recommendations is that we are granting the notion of children having almost free reign over various and sundry digital devices, and that is a notion I think we should be challenging, not granting.

The writer goes on to state this: “These twenty-first century learners are comfortable with instant communication with anyone anywhere in the world; quick access to vast, accurate (or not) information; and the immediate ability to produce creative multisensory projects with only access to the Internet. These students interact with content and each other in a different way than students did just a decade ago” (emphasis his). Again, though, I challenge the notion that because students are comfortable with this that we therefore should educate them this way. Just because students are comfortable with something–anything–does not mean it should be incorporated into a classroom setting. Students are no doubt comfortable wearing shorts and t-shirts, lounging on their sofa and munching on snacks while they do all the various things described in the paragraph above. By no means does that mean that we should allow them to behave that way in classrooms.

Notice, as well, in the above quote, the repeated use of words that refer to instant gratification–“instant communication,” “quick access” and “immediate ability.” We live in a world that is all about doing things faster, so it is no surprise that students are used to this pace. Frankly, that is all the more reason why we should avoid automatically engaging them that way in classrooms. The attention span of many students today is shorter than this sentence. That is a problem, not an opportunity. That means teaching styles that do not conform to their “give it to me now” preferences will take them some getting used to, may even make them uncomfortable. That’s good. It is not good because I think being mean to students is fun. Rather, it is good because learning necessarily entails becoming uncomfortable. Unless I become uncomfortable with the fact that there are things I do not know there will be absolutely zero motivation for me strive to know them. While being able to learn in familiar and comfortable methods can be a valuable part of education, learning how to learn in new and unfamiliar ways is also an important part of education. I am well aware of the fact that technology is moving and developing at breakneck speed. Though students find it hard to believe when I tell them this, can remember television commercials when I was in elementary school that had the tag line “Computers are coming your way!” I can remember the first computer we ever had in a classroom and I can remember when my elementary school got a computer lab. This was big news–literally. A reporter and camera from a local news affiliate showed up to record the story! So things have changed, and are changing, and that is not going to change. But classroom instruction does need to mirror or follow every technological advancement–certainly not in toto.

On this point the author of the article I am critiquing and I clearly disagree. He writes, “It is essential to synch today’s classroom with the twenty-first century student’s way of learning.” This is simply not true. Neither is it necessarily wise. Yes, the use of technology is an important component of teaching, and teachers should take advantage of the many things that technology can enable them to do that truly enhance their instruction, but that should be one tool in their toolbox. Oddly enough, the author states as much when he writes, “A teacher’s toolbox of instructional models, methods, and strategies should contain a plethora of ways to engage students in the academic content to motivate them to learn.” That is odd for this reason–synching classrooms with the student’s way of learning is contradictory to using a plethora of ways to engage students. The implication of the first statement, and indeed of much of the article, is that classrooms need to adapt to students’ preferred and comfortable styles period.

Another erroneous premise of the article is that the utilization of all of the bells, whistles and wonders of the latest technology is necessary for effective learning. The author writes, “The educator must purposefully plan to create multiple memories for each concept. This current understanding of how the brain works best aligns with a nontraditional, student-centered approach to teaching, which is compatible for the twenty-first century learner.” Unless I am missing something or misunderstanding something, these coupling is absurd. Yes, the multiple memory idea is valid. However, it can be utilized in addition to a traditional approach; it does not have to be used instead of it. Furthermore, the implication is that traditional instruction does not (cannot?) create multiple memory pathways, and that implication is simply false; it is entirely possible to create multiple memories without utilizing technology.

While there are several additional points I could make here, I am endeavoring to keep my critique of the article shorter than the article itself, so let me jump to this statement made close to the article’s conclusion. “Unfortunately, too many Christian school classrooms are based on the traditional model of instruction in which the teacher is the giver of all information, forcing the learner to be passive and absorb factual-based information.” I would challenge both the use of the word “all” in that sentence and the idea that learners are necessarily passive in traditional instruction. Neither is automatically true.

This author states that utilizing individualized instructional models that conform to students’ interests will “increase the probability that the student will become successful.” Frankly, I disagree. I think what it will do is increase the probability that the student will become self-centered and unprepared for the realities of life. Are we really serving students, or adequately preparing them for “the real world,” by making everything focused on them? By tailoring, or allowing them to tailor, everything to their own likes, styles and preferences? I would answer with a hearty no. That the dean of the school of education of one of America’s leading evangelical universities thinks yes–and thus, no doubt, ensures that education students at his university are taught yes–does not bode well for the future of Christian education. This is not a defining of twenty-first century education, it is a redefining of education for the twenty-first century.

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