This was published in April, and I am a bit out of date, I realize, but I was traveling and am only now catching up. Mark Taylor, from Columbia University, published this piece in the opinion pages of the Times, and it is a very thought-provoking piece about how to reinvent education for contemporary times. Education must change or become as much a dinosaur as Detroit, he writes; it must become “more agile, adaptive and imaginative.” Yes.
He is writing to address a crisis in graduate education, but nonetheless some of his recommendations for universities are highly pertinent to K-12 schooling. I like most his call to
“Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
Secondary schooling can also move in this direction, structuring at minimum upper division course into integrated programs addressing real-world problems, and generating stimulating learning experiences where students make connections across disparate fields and produce genuine new approaches to problems. And even if the pressure to meet college admissions requirements and AP coursework demands that we teach courses in traditional departments, still we can find ways to collaboarate across disciplines, and infuse those traditional courses with a more problem-based approach.
Taylor also strikes a chord when he writes
“For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.”
This is advice that has to be carefully modulated in a K-12 context. I find myself split: on the one hand, he is entirely correct that students are well served when we welcome and encourage them to use contemporary media formats– hypertexts, digital video, and others– for analytical treatments. Doing so has many rewards: it is more attuned to the media that students of this digital generation are immersed and most comfortable in,; it will often result in greater motivation and greater investment of energy and passion by our students; and, it has to be added, will in many ways prepare them better to be more effective communicators in their professional futures. But, my conflict comes from my commitment to ensuring students still write, really write, traditional format analytical papers and research papers. Doing so might be fusty and antiquated, but it is a great discipline, and will have great lasting value for our students in the way they learn to develop and articlate a point of view and support it in logically coherent ways. As much as I don’t want to overload students too terribly (I do want to overload them a little bit!), I want to see schooling that incorporates new digital media while still maintaining the traditional formats in an integral way.