For the last few years, I’ve had the honor to serve on the Fairfax County Public School Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale’s Business and Community Advisory Council. It has given me an opportunity to learn about the challenges of leading one of the largest and best public school systems in the country with a budget of $2.2 billion and 180,000+ students.
Last week, we had our first meeting of the school year. Our existing education system remains tied (some say hobbled) to early 20th century techniques, yet students need to be prepared for the 21st century. It’s not easy to create and apply new teaching techniques on real children. I was pleased to witness a presentation on FCPS taking a leadership role in trying and testing new teaching techniques incorporating new technology. FCPS is forming a partnership with the George Mason University School of Education to create a “laboratory” to test these ideas to see what techniques are effective at providing the services without increasing the budget. This is well beyond the discussion stage. The Academy is being created at Lake Braddock Middle School with an initial group of 200 students. The principal, teachers, and parents met over the summer to plan the changes which are expected next school year. A lottery will be created for admission which is expected to be open to everyone.
Here are my impressions. First, I think it’s great that FCPS is revamping education for the 21st century and adding technology to help. That’s important to teach more effectively and the reality of future budget constraints. Second, I’m impressed that FCPS is willing to attempt such an entrepreneurial venture. Education is a very risk averse culture, and with good reason since the futures of children are at stake. It would be easy to continue to repeat what has worked in the past and change gradually. Instead, innovation is being embraced with a willingness to fail since not every new approach will be successful.
But applying technology effectively is not easy. We have had great advances with technology over the last few decades without students making similar advances. Yet, technology can be used to provide personalized learning with immediate feedback. We also need to teach 21st century skills and not use technology to teach 20th century skills better. Here are some future trends I think we need to consider and address:
1. Facts are Available Instantaneously, Everywhere
People can already look up information on Wikipedia from their smart phones; this has already changed the way people argue. Future technology will search information automatically on a device that is already monitoring the conversation or what you are reading (think smart glasses). The implication is that the memorization of facts will be much less valuable. Knowing where to get it, and how to validate it will be more important. That means teaching history must be focused on WHY and not what events occurred. Life is turning into an open book test, or more accurately open Internet access. This transformation is similar to the advent of the written language which eliminated the need for elders to orally pass information to others.
2. Science is Multi-Disciplinary
I applaud the effort to teach subjects in multi-disciplinary ways. This makes the content relevant. Science is often taught in a cold, isolated manner that is difficult to connect with the real world. We need to transform teaching science from word search (looking up specific facts in book) into active synthesis and idea generation. Hopefully, they’ll also include computer science as part of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or at a minimum, allowing computer science to fulfill the language requirement, since this is relevant to all fields in the future.
3. Babel Towers are Crashing
This is where I feel the proposed academy is short-sighted. Teaching “world” languages is a great pre-21st century skill. English is THE world language today. It’s not like Thomas Jefferson needing to learn other languages because everything important was written in non-English languages. Being able to read other written languages is a challenge already solved for free by Google Translate, Microsoft Translate, and many other providers. No one can learn all the languages these online services offer instantaneously. Writing in other languages is also becoming a commodity. Speaking remains a challenge, but it is a matter of when, not if, this is solved. We can then be trained and speak in all sorts of languages one phrase at a time. There’s no need to waste thousands of dollars and hours to train a child to perform worse than what a free device will provide for a dozen languages before they graduate from college.
On a related note, requiring all high school students to devote 3 years to learning another language is a huge waste. People say it’s important to learn other cultures. I don’t dispute that. If that’s the goal, let’s teach that rather than memorizing the narrow vocabulary and grammar of one language. If we really wanted to teach cultures through language, then make it a year each of Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish to cover most people in the world rather than being mediocre in one language and ignorant of most.
4. Non-STEM Subjects are Important
STEM subjects are important, but that’s not all our society needs. Writing and public speaking are critical for conveying one’s ideas and influencing change. Fields that let kids push their individual limits such as playing an instrument, art, and drama should also be available. Analyzing philosophy, ethics, and moral reasoning are critical life skills, highly analytical, and important. Middle schoolers will make dumb decisions. The question is whether they learn how to recognize those situations in advance, to minimize them in the future.
5. Online Teaching is Good and Getting Better
More and more high quality online teaching is available for more and more subjects. Much of this is free, and it’s getting better and better each year. Being online, the content is available 24/7. This trend will not reverse. In fact it is accelerating. Over time, school districts and traditional teaching cannot be competitive with this online content. Whether it’s the Khan Academy or edX and its Harvard and MIT content, students can watch and practice on a platform that’s much more interactive and comfortable than classrooms.
Local schools can also leverage this. Numerically half the teachers (and students) are below average. There are good teachers and great teachers. With the dropping costs of video, storage, and transmission, schools should be recording their best teachers’ instructions so they can be replayed later and shared. It is not fair for students who are not assigned a great teacher to lose out on the experience. It’s not the same as being in the classroom, but kids in other classes and schools should be able to benefit. Other teachers can also learn from them.
For a teacher to provide the same content year after year, is a huge waste of time and resources. Why not do it just once or just have the best teacher do it once for everyone?
6. Teachers are Evolving into Coaches
Recording great instructors and replaying them scares some who think this will replace teachers. That will not happen. Teachers remain critically important, but their roles are evolving into coaches in a world where information is freely available. Online training will only provide a portion of the solution. Just like teleworking is not replacing offices and face-to-face interactions, online teaching will not replace classrooms. Teachers can help and motivate students in a way that impersonal online videos can’t.
Teachers should supplement technologically provided instruction (facts) with hands-on focused refinement that can’t be provided by a recording. Technology does not support social interactions and the skills necessary to present ideas and convince others. It is also very weak in supporting creativity. One could argue it actually prevents creativity.
No football team is considering eliminating the role of the coaches. Technology helps them take their instructions to a higher level. Over time, this trend may even help teachers earn more because they can be more productive by delivering more value and serving more students.
7. We Cannot Predict Future Careers; We Need to Teach the Tools to Achieve Success
Many of the fields today’s middle school students will work in probably don’t even exist today. My whole career (PCs and later the Internet) didn’t exist when I was in college, so it’s hubris to think we can predict what middle school kids today will face. What’s important is a child’s ability to set high expectations, a willingness to try new things, and understanding that failing is a key part of learning to be successful. No one gains self-esteem and confidence by being told they did a good job when they know they didn’t. Self-esteem comes from working hard, overcoming obstacles, and achieving goals. Kids do this very well with video games. We need to transform academic instruction similarly. Rather than focusing on a particular mistake, it’s the response to the failure that’s most important and helping students learn from them. Teachers/coaches play a critical role in helping students achieve higher than they originally expected. That’s what is critical to life and acquiring a resiliency that prepares youths to confidently face challenges their parents and teachers never
Overall, I think the attempt to revamp educational delivery with technology is a move in the right direction. Creating a separate academy is the correct method since it shouldn’t be squeezed into the existing system. Applying existing technology and anticipating future technology that will impact and improve teaching is very critical. I’m concerned that the STEM emphasis will prepare kids for today’s tech jobs at Northrop Grumman, Microsoft and IBM. Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, the future jobs are being created at technology companies like Apple, Google and Facebook where non-STEM skills have played a prominent role.
Will those companies remain leaders in two decades? We want our students to be engaged and successful in fields that don’t exist yet. We want them prepared to analyze and adapt so that when opportunities arise, they recognize them and are willing to try, fail, and succeed. There is lots of work and many issues to consider. Our country spends over a quarter million dollars to educate each student through high school. Coming up with innovative ways to gain a higher return on those taxpayer investments is critical to our country’s future. I’m glad to see our county playing a leadership role and taking action. What we learn from the academy should be quickly shared across the county, state and nation.