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Teaching What Matters: Technology and the School Experience


Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal, taking a deeper look at current events, ideas, and trends. He feels that it is clear that we–Americans–are being challenged to examine ourselves, re-assess our principles, values, and ideals; to challenge our pre-conceived notions of ourselves; to then perhaps move towards a fresher perspective.

One measure of the increasing move toward authoritarianism in the United States is evident in that the war against democracy and for neoliberlism is now being directed with special force and intensity against young people, especially low-income youth and poor minorities...There is a need to invent modes of communication that connect learning to social change and foster modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other.
Henry A. Giroux, America's Education: Deficit and The War on Youth (2013)

I. An Unrealistic Proposal

Let's think BIG: The moral imperative is to focus the K-12 curriculum of tomorrow on 2 large areas: Health and the Environment. End of story.

Health and the Environment is a rich, complex, overarching curriculum that covers history and philosophy, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and all forms of literature and the arts, as well as sociology, economics and political science; it covers the classics (is not Plato about health and the environment - literally and symbolically?). This curriculum connects "learning to social change and fosters modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other"; morality and ethics are the driving engines.

Our health and the health of the planet are our greatest challenges, but just as significantly surely to affect generations to come if we don't act now, creatively and with force. A curriculum focused on Health and the Environment is about a long view, not tomorrow's standardized test scores; it disrupts the move towards authoritarianism.

This curriculum can only be created by a meaningful K-16 collaboration that enables "education hubs" to emerge nation-wide: interdisciplinary centers of study focused on children, first and foremost, with appropriate teachers and mentors, counselors, and medical care up and down the system. Secondly, this new system privileges experiential learning: how to put into practice ideas and theories; how to test what we perceive; how to step away, reflect and describe what we're doing and how what we've accomplished may affect the future.

The breath of this curriculum will problematize the hypocrisy of short term political thinking focused solely on the next election and turn our most challenged environments into hubs of creativity. This guarantees a moral bind with the yet unborn, the voices to be, as Thomas Wells argues so effectively in "Votes for the Future":

Yet even if we can’t know what future citizens will actually value and believe in, we can still consider their interests, on the reasonable assumption that they will somewhat resemble our own (everybody needs breathable air, for example). Interests are much easier than wishes, and quite suitable for representation by proxies.

Education's moral imperative is to bring science, technology, the humanities, and teaching and learning together—Consilience—with delivery systems that are, to use Thomas Friedman's phrase, flattening or leveling the playing field, rather than privileging a hierarchical, competitive structure modeled after our socio-economic and political system(s).

(Still we are of course struggling with old models finding their way into new technologies, as evidenced in Joe Nocera's take, Will Digital Networks Ruin Us? Citing Jaron Lanier: “Networks need a great number of people to participate in them to generate significant value. But when they have them, only a small number of people get paid. This has the net effect of centralizing wealth and limiting overall economic growth” - echoes of Henry A. Giroux. Also, see The Internet as We Know it is Dying, by Andrew Leonard: "All is not well on the Web. While the particulars of each outburst of consternation and anger vary significantly, a common theme connects them all: The relentless corporatization and centralization of control over Internet discourse is obviously not serving the public interest.")



An unrealistic proposal, I know—but the tragic irony is that all the conditions we're experiencing are signaling that our old ways are done; they've lead us to this very dangerous place, a world out of balance. Yes, unrealistic, yet the technology, the knowledge that resides in our schools, K-16, all of it, if we take the long view, suggests that this is highly doable and will make us more efficient, more forward thinking, more in-tune with what's yet to come, and what needs to be addressed, today and tomorrow.

II. An Unrealistic Design

How important is disruption in higher education? Tuition costs have been ballooning faster than general inflation and even faster than health care. And what do we get in return? Nearly half of all bachelor’s-degree holders do not find employment or are underemployed upon graduation. At the same time, employers have not been satisfied with degree candidates. Two recent Gallup polls showed that although 96 percent of chief academic officers believe they’re doing a good job of preparing students for employment, only 11 percent of business leaders agree that graduates have the requisite skills for success in the workforce. And this is all occurring while higher education leaders were convinced that they were innovating all along.

Thus speak Clayton M. Christensen and Michelle R. Weise in MOOC's Disruption Is Only the Beginning. I'm not writing about MOOC's, but it's important to listen to Christensen and Weise a bit more:

In our research, we see over and over again that it is nearly impossible for established leaders to disrupt themselves. So what does that mean in practical terms for more traditional colleges? Some will have to accept they can’t be everything to everyone and scale back their course offerings. Academic leaders, no longer able to count on state or federal subsidies, will have to bear down on the inefficiencies built into how they now operate. Not every campus will be able to be a research institution. Tenure will be called into question.

Over time, colleges and universities will have to compete with providers who offer low-cost, direct paths to employment that do not necessarily end in degrees or certificates. Campuses will have to be clear about the value of a college degree. Students and families will demand a more precise understanding of what they can expect from their college degree. And that will benefit all learners.

Let's listen to someone else: Michio Kaku, in The Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Lives by the Year 2100:

Science is not static. Science is exploding exponentially all around us. If you count the number of scientific articles being published, you will find that the sheer volume of science doubles every decade or so. Innovation and discovery are changing the entire economic, political, and social landscape, overturning all the old cherished beliefs and prejudices.

This is true - but education is reluctant, kicking and screaming and holding on to Kant's old model, found in The Conflict of Faculties, saying that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

This model is broken - completely. It cannot address the concerns of Christensen and Weise, and it definitely cannot address the need for the civilization described by Professor Kaku:

The destiny of computers - like other mass technologies like electricity, paper, and running water - is to become invisible, that is, to disappear into the fabric of our lives, to be everywhere and nowhere, silently and seamlessly carrying out our wishes.

How do we prepare ourselves - and future generations - for this world? How do we determine the efficacy of one wish over another? How do we talk about value, health and happiness? Who are we and where are we going? How do we ensure the health of our planet for future generations?

These are still the age old questions that inspired civilization's earliest thinkers, expressly more complicated by the complexity of today's realities.

How do we do this? One way, says Giroux, is "to create micro-spheres of public education that further modes of critical learning and civic agency, and thus enable young people and others to learn how to govern rather than be governed. This could be accomplished through a network of free educational spaces developed among diverse faith communities and public schools, as well as in secular and religious organizations affiliated with higher educational institutions" (America's Education Deficit).

Technology can help us accomplish these goals. What would it look like?

1. The university classroom: a professor delivers a lecture; some materials for his students are Online; classes engage in discussion; there are essays written, exercises completed, projects, problems and experiments, books read and so on; there is reflection, too. But what if there is another piece ? What if there is disruption? Follow ...

2. Technology in the classroom: the professor's lecture is captured and made available to anyone - as are student discussions, responses to questions, problem sets, experiments and so on; the entire college experience is captured and made into a model - and a location for critique, as well. For our purposes we want these lectures to be available to 3 significant groups: the actual students in the college course; K-12 teachers; and graduate students at any university. This material is the basis for our Health and the Environment curriculum; and K-12 teachers localize materials so as to address conditions specific to their respective geographies - inner city New York is different from, say, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Common Core included.

College age students, in locations where certain courses are not offered, can access any number of courses from different schools and delivery systems - virtual education hubs.

3. K-12 Teachers: In a collaboration with graduate students, near one's geographic location and Online anywhere, K-12 teachers edit the college lecture to fit local needs; assignments, likewise, are tailored the same - and with a focus on civic engagement. In fact, the graduate student and the local teacher deliver, manage and oversee lessons together - a team. This is done face-to-face and Online (which can also be f-2-f). All sorts of possibilities can emerge from these simple - and meaningful - interactions.

4. The college student: It's uncanny how unprepared and inexperienced college graduates really are - even with solid internship dossiers. They are also highly unprepared emotionally and psychologically for the challenges of today's working world, no matter where they graduate from. And it's important to note that we have 3 types of college students: (1) the privileged 20% or so, perhaps less, that have the luxury of a 4 year residential experience; (2) the other 80% that have to work, commute, and carry on with lives while taking college courses - no luxury here; and (3) the non-traditional student that has found her way to higher education through GED's or is the returning veteran or simply the thirty-something + person needing further knowledge and training as the workplace changes and new conditions emerge, presenting yet new challenges to one's livelihood.

Why then not capitalize on these different tracks and flatten them out a bit? Let's get the residential student out of the classroom and involved in communities, virtually and literally, serving as tutors and mentors to K-12 students, particularly as K-12 teachers and their collaborating graduate students deliver relevant lessons. This student work is on fundamentals - reading, writing, technological literacy, as well as community issues, i.e. health, environment; this is a basic component of each college course, written into the syllabus (which likewise compels the college professor to think about civic engagement). Then, let's align the college experience of non-residential and non-traditional students with their lives, asking that they work to support, Online and literally, school children in distant locations as well as in local communities. This work is paid for by colleges and universities, raising funds, and by state and federal governments, ensuring that non-residential and non-traditional students are synthesizing classroom work with lived experiences. (There are plenty of NGO's already doing this work; we just need to thread these together and align them with colleges and universities, their reach into communities, across the country, is already evident - the Community Works Institute is but one example.)This is less costly, anyway we look it; certainly the student is more motivated and more likely to progress through the curriculum more efficiently.

Everyone benefits: the college professor is witnessing practical applications to theories and ideas - how they pan out in real world conditions, contributing to the community; civic engagement provides a way for college students to get outside themselves, honing their skills in organization, communication, economics and politics, for starters, and realigning priorities; the graduate student, much like the professor, is understanding and critiquing the reception of ideas and theories, evolving and formulating yet undiscovered ways to better communities with an eye to a more sustainable society - an eye to the future.

The biggest benefit would come to communities, particularly those that are marginalized. Ultimately, K-12 schools should be community centers of knowledge and hope, providing continuing education, health care in a meaningful way, such as first line diagnosis, basic blood testing, and psychological and social services; government services, likewise, would be flattened as well if delivered through schools. All this would ease the burden on stressed families. One stop shopping for the entire family: education, health care, training and adult education, complimented by social services across the board, and supported by private and public universities, their existing programs and services, as well as their socio-economic-political clout. This looks unreasonable and expensive, but the opposite is true.

Imagine an isosceles triangle. Δ ABC. In A, the left side of the base, K-12 students; B, at the top, the upper most, the height, the university experience (professors, students, including graduate students, and materials); and, C, the right side of the base, K-12 teachers (Common Core too), graduate students, college students.

In the center of the triangle, in the middle, resides the content of the curriculum: Health and the Environment + edited pieces for materials gathered from colleges and universities.

Facts: this challenges the age-old, repressive semester model. In the Unrealistic Proposal's model, university students could complete a courses, say, in 15 or so weeks, even less - or they could extend that period, depending on whether they've met expectations and whether they feel their work has exhausted all possibilities. Expectations, determined by a professor, are defined not by responses to a test or the traditional academic literacy, which is so daunting and highly questionable today, the "academic essay," the only essay written in the university, the argument, rather the intention of each course is to have students show and prove what they know by conflating theories and course work with applications in the field, i.e. collaboration with K-12 teachers and students in real learning contexts - inquiry based experiental learning.

Grades do not exist here either; however, written-recorded evaluations - by professors, graduate students and K-12 teachers - are the method for a college student to know where s/he stands. Likewise, graduate students and college students evaluate their K-12 charges - and so on. There is ongoing dialog between K-12 teachers, university students and graduate students and professors.

This triangle is fluid and dynamic, always moving between A, B, C; it's constant motion. Δ ABC is the construction of an energy field that is also capable of touching up against Δ ABC's from various disciplines, compelling all of us - teachers, students and communities - to think collaboratively and holistically, equalizing opportunity, flattening the promises of education.

Collaboration and cooperation are the only way forward if we're to ensure a healthy future for the yet to be, the voices that will one day wonder, What happened? What did you do? In the end, words are easy and cheap; actions speak louder. We have to act now, as unrealistic as this may seem.

Some Suggestions for Further Reading:

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