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Time to circle the wagons?

September 15, 2008

I imagine what it would have been like to be a parent pioneer on the new frontier. You’ve left what you know behind and picked up and headed west. From cities, to small towns, and soon to rural areas that not only looked different, but provided fundamental different challenges. New foods, new soils, no shelter – maybe even the language was different. Would there be a blacksmith? Or would you learn to make your own tools? Would you create something new to solve a problem never before experienced in the “Old New World” ~ or would your children? Did you bring along textbooks, eager to home school your children, carrying their slates and telling them – “if you study hard, you won’t have to work the land like your father.”

Maybe hindsight makes this sound funny, but I have no doubt those families weren’t always in agreement. The discomfort from moving from one paradigm to another produces hundreds, thousands, innumerable points of contention on how to get from “here” to “there.”

There is no doubt in my mind that today’s commercial farmers need to receive extensive education to compete in a global supply chain that has elevated the “green thumb” to an act of science and art of production. Somewhere the world changed. Hard work alone wasn’t enough.

I am sure that many who read Will Richardson’s newly republished 2006 post in Edutopia ( will cry foul. After all we’ve “figured it out.” Right?

We have a formula for education that strictly scripts out what students need to learn, and when, and checks for understanding kicking the ones that need slight remediation back into the system so that “no child is left behind.” That isn’t tongue-in-cheek humor; it’s the recognition of our own arrogance that somehow we can stop human adaptation and evolution by choosing not to be a part of it.

In the two years since Will first wrote this, Web2.0 has exploded. And I predict it will continue to grow exponentially.

It is no more possible to drink from the fire hose and consume the product of all human knowledge now than it was then, or in 1960, or in 1860. What we have observed is that good education today includes teaching students where and how to dip their cup into this stream in order to pull out the most relevant and best points to discuss and learn from.

The Read/Write web gives our young people the ability to quickly find and take other’s thoughts and ideas, build upon them and mash them up, and release them back into the stream slightly improved for the next incremental update. Ideas can ferment, boil over, and be contributed to by dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of authors – or they can slip below the surface where they lurk near the bottom of the stream until they are needed again. And the best part is, it doesn’t matter if you’re NBC or some 8 year old kid. You can be in Urban City, USA, or in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. (Props to my good friend @Kobus who is doing exactly this.)

As a parent, as an educator, as an administrator – how willing am I to push my kids out to that frontier? How do I balance CIPA concerns with students becoming literate in this new landscape? How much longer can we make this old model work? With a working life of 40-50 years post graduation what service are we giving today’s students by training them for a future where they will no longer be the ones at the high end, but filling out the remnants of what yesterday’s future might have looked like?

Someday, we’ll be able to look back on this and reflect on how much the dry erase marker was an improvement over chalk and a slate and how far we came because of it.

Those that succeed in this new world will be just looking forward to students concentrating on reaching new markets spanning continents and galaxies. (Just 50 years ago, a moon landing seemed impossible.)

There is a whole lot of high level speak here – these are reforms of ideals – not exactly the kind of things where the rubber of change meets the road of the classroom. But put me on Will’s wagon here, his bandwagon if you must. I want to see my children grow up in a system where they learn leadership and collaboration. I want to see them learn to be able to grab relevant information as it happens, mentally process that information, and be able to intelligently move through 21st Century skills with agility and grace rather than see them stuck in a rut of “retraining” and “obsolescence” every few years.

100 years is an awful long time to someone who only sees day to day. But it is a blink of the eye on the ever expanding horizon of where we will be some day. It is this new frontier that I see my future in, and therefore my children. So, circle your wagons. Dig in. Make sure nobody gets left behind. I’ve got a land claim I need to go cash in on.

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