A New Normal

There’s no doubt about it; education is changing.  We can spend a lot of time talking about the changes brought about by state and federal legislation, high stakes testing, and the debate over curriculum standards just to name a few.  But I’m talking about the changes we see happening everyday in the classroom…changes that reflect the changing needs of our students as we prepare them to enter a world where change, not stability, is the norm.

Fifty years ago, classroom technology consisted of a chalkboard, mimeograph copies, and, if you were really lucky, a filmstrip.  Take away the filmstrips and those purple copies and you can easily travel back another 150 years or more.  During this time there were two primary sources of information: the textbook and the teacher.  Students sat in neat and orderly rows, were passive receivers of information, and then moved from one place to the next based on the ringing of a bell.

It was a system modeled on the efficiency of the industrial revolution and allowed for educating (sorting, actually) large numbers of students while preparing them for an industrial economy.  In many ways, the structure of public education in America has remained the same since the Common School movement of the 19th century.  The Committee of Ten established our current system of eight years of elementary school followed by four years of high school, with instruction in math, science, English, and social studies, in 1892.  Even the Carnegie Unit, the system that awards credit for high school students, was developed and adopted in the early 1900’s.

But changes in technology, the availability of information, and a rapidly evolving economy are placing serious pressure on the system.  Our students are competing in an information-based economy that values creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and the ability to find, analyze and apply information.  These skills do not fit easily into a system of education that was designed 120 years ago.

The way we “do school” is changing and that can be uncomfortable.  It is always difficult to leave familiar routines and practices behind even when we know it is for the best.  We worry that something important may be lost along the way.  But, we must remember that we are preparing students for a rapidly changing world that requires a different set of skills.  American education reformer John Dewey said it best, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”




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