Are we promoting Zombie educational practices? #futureready

zombie-949915_960_720I was at an EdCamp this week and a spirited debate broke out in one session about pencil/paper work, writing, handwriting, and a lot of other analog v. digital considerations.

I tend to come down on the side of what I think is going to be most relevant for students in the future. I am torn, though. Sometimes we throw the baby out with the bathwater and sometimes we hang on to anything to preserve tradition. Some things are educational zombies, and they want our braaaaains!

Let’s start with hand-writing study notes. On one hand, The prominent research that suggests that hand-writing notes leads to greater retention and more creative thought processing than typing the same content. I have no reason to doubt this research.

But, does it matter? Will it matter in 2025? 2055? Despite all evidence that handwriting notes leads to better learning, the adults of the 2020s will simply not do it very often in real life. I think you could make a case that most adults don’t even do it much now. In some cases the best evidence will not make a difference, because things are just different now and will be more so in the future. The world has moved on.

I feel like that despite our best efforts, we try to rationalize many things in education because we feel personally they are important, or we don’t fully understand what the next generation will need. In some cases this is impossible.

Put a robust digital learning device into every student’s hands…instead of pretending that we live in a pencil, notebook paper, and ring binder world.

–Dr. Scott McLeod, 2010

Teaching cursive seems to be the best current example in this debate. We are torn between something people have always learned and something this year’s 4th graders (the class of 2024, mind) may never actually use much or at all in their adult lives. Because many current adults rely on this skill, we assume future adults will. The arguments for cursive tend very often towards nostalgia and outdated assumptions of what is needed in real life (how will they sign their name?). I see these as efforts to justify continuing a practice because we can’t bring ourselves to part with the tradition and rationale of the past. That doesn’t mean students should never learn cursive. Many kids learn calligraphy in art classes–a skill that is likewise unlikely to be important in most students’ lives–but is an artistic expression that some students will embrace and continue to explore even after the lessons are finished. Likewise, cursive can have a similar place as artistic enrichment. I believe there is still a place for cursive in schools, just not necessarily as a cornerstone of teaching writing to 3rd, 4th or 5th graders.

So, how do we decide? Will long division be important to people in the real world? How about states and capitals? Sewing? The Periodic Table? Shakespeare? Cell structure? The Revolutionary War? Keyboarding? What are key cognitive skills or crucial content areas and what are things that are just nice to know? Which are potential scaffolds for future study and which are going to be tomorrow’s detritus?

The lesson in all this, I think, is about learning to really think ahead and not behind.  What will they really need in a decade? I don’t think there are easy answers, but I hate the notion of anything being taught, much less fought for, that becomes a zombie practice that has little real relevance in the world of the future.

The big question is how do we determine what to phase out and what to retain? Are the right people making those decisions, and for the right reasons? In many schools and systems nationwide, curriculum decisions are made without the input of people who are versed in current technology, media and future technology trends. We need to approach content and curriculum as one might when pruning a tree. Some things may need to go to help the rest grow.

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