Teach ‘em to fish

Education reform has been a very popular notion for a very long time.

Jeff Jarvis, author of one of my favorite blogs, BuzzMachine, recently posted an article titled TEDxNYed: This is bullshit – it is a rant about, among other things, the state of our educational system, and it’s a fairly brilliant comparison to the state of journalism. In one sweeping, somewhat angry blog post, he wrote three of the most fabulous things I’ve read in a blog all year:

1) Just as journalists must become more curator than creator, so must educators.
2) I’ll give the same advice to the academy that I give to news media: Do what you do best and link to the rest.
3) We must stop looking at education as a product – in which we turn out every student giving the same answer – to a process, in which every student looks for new answers. Life is a beta.

He starts the post out by acknowledging the irony of him up on a virtual soapbox, dictating that we ought not be dictated to, so I’m going to take him up on what I perceive to be an invitation to respectfully disagree (even if just to a small degree).

That last line about teaching students to look for new answers rather than to memorize data cannot just be a blanket modus operandi. For one thing, sciences are pretty rock solid. Two plus two always equals four. But we all know he’s talking more about the humanities than the sciences, and, as I’ve said before, there is no “one old way and one new way” for us – the “new way” of journalism is going to be in a constant state of rapid evolution, and so too with education. Here is my main argument:

In my old, old, old, old age of 28, I feel a clear distance from some of my newer coworkers – fresh college graduates who’d never had a job in their entire life who now do the same job I do. Not counting artistic endeavors, I’d had twenty-two jobs before landing my current gig. TWENTY-TWO. I know that’s an absurdly high amount for someone my age to have had, but it illustrates the breadth of professional experience between myself and these kids that share the same job title as me.

Now, these kids are sharp, intelligent people, and just because they are “less experienced” in terms of quantity of jobs they’ve had does not mean they are not good at their job. And in many ways, they are better suited to the job as it is than I am, since half of the job is being able to talk on the phone, which is something I’ve always hated and have never been very good at. (How did I land this job, then? Simple: I lied in my interview.)

But I have noticed with the younger crowd that there seems to be a lack of desire to memorize certain facts. I hear the same questions being asked – questions to which the answers never change.

The point is this: my reservations about teaching children to ask questions rather than memorize facts is that sometimes it’s good to be able to memorize facts and regurgitate them. No amount of technology can ever replace the feeling of confidence that accompanies being able to answer a question from a peer without having to look up the answer.

So where is the line? Do we abandon all structure and start right from the beginning teaching our kids to Google an answer to a question? This has the potential to create a society of inquisitive learners with fast fingers, but it also has the potential to create a society of lazy-minded, disinterested, static people who can’t retain information.

Off the top of my head, I would think that junior high is the time to start treating them like adults, to start incorporating more Socratic methods of teaching, to start demanding more creative solutions. To start teaching them how to think rather than what to think. By the time they get to college, they should be ready for and fully expecting the style of learning that Jarvis recommends. And, just to clarify, at a collegiate level, I completely agree with him that institutes of higher learning should be run with more of a real-world, real-time perspective.

That’s my two cents. And, of course, I am well aware it’s all a gray area – what is learned as a small child is very hard to unlearn, so there’s more than one very fine line to walk when lecturing about how to reform the entire educational system.

The internet has turned everything inside out for us. In any business or industry, including journalism and education, the most vital thing to any sort of progress is human engagement. While we have miraculously cool technology (we have goddamn robots, for fuck’s sake!), the advances we make only serve to place greater importance on speaking face to face and being able to shake someone else’s hand.

So just as the modern journalist Jeff Jarvis calls for educators to take on the attitudes of modern journalists (do what you do best and link to the rest), I will call for educators to take on the attitudes of performers, and engage your audience, thrill your audience, tell a story they’ll remember, and make them WANT to think about it later. Make them WANT to come back to class the next day. Make them TRY to remember what they WANT to learn. My philosophy is that if you entertain an audience and activate their brain at the same time, you’ve done a fine job. Do it, teachers. Do it well.


And just because I think it’s such good advice, here’s a link most definitely worth checking out:

The Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship presents: “What’s Your Imagination Worth? A New Kind of ROI.”

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