Rethinking Content in the Digital Age

I recently read a blog entitled “Back to School: A message to high school students who hate high school; Here is why you hate it.” The author of this post, Roger Schank, also penned an article entitled, “No, algebra isn’t necessary — and yes, STEM is overrated” for the Washington Post Answer Sheet.

No surprise that Schank has received a wide range of responses to his strong opinions. Personally, I’m grateful he has put them “out there” because it has forced me to really think about how I feel.

What we’re talking about here is content. With the huge changes the digital age has brought, I think it is more imperative than ever that we re-think content.

I’ve already made some small changes in my 4th grade classroom. For instance, when teaching states and regions in Social Studies, I no longer make my students memorize state capitals. I would rather my students know the location, landforms, climate, historical significance, and resources of the states in our country than spend their time memorizing capitals that they can look up any time they need them (do we ever need them?).

I’ve made the tough decision to stop requiring cursive, and instead have made time for keyboarding instruction/practice. We have 1:1 netbooks in my classroom, and the students do not have a computer resource class, so I spend time talking about Internet safety, digital citizenship, Internet research, validating sources, and copyright. These are all changes to content that I feel are appropriate and necessary for my students.

How do we discover our passions?

But Mr. Schank is talking about high school, so let’s think about that for a minute. In his post, Schank systematically explains why most of the subjects taught in high school are completely unnecessary. Does he suggest alternative content? Not so much. His advice? “Know what matters to you. Learn that. Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.”

While he makes some valid points in his article, I have a few issues with his approach.

My first question is this – How “deep” into a subject such as Algebra, Biology, Chemistry, or Physics do we need to go for students to identify a passion for the subject? If we stopped teaching them all together, would we have as many doctors and engineers? At what point do we allow a student to say, “This is neither a strength nor a passion for me. I don’t care to pursue this subject further”?

Schank’s “throw it all out” position to me does more harm than good. I think we DO need to consider whether students should be required to take upper level Math and Science courses in high school, but I feel his post does not encourage conversation about curriculum reform and passion-based learning. It is extremist and calls what we do “ridiculous” and “beyond silly.” That confrontational language will not encourage the dialogue that is so desperately needed to bring about a truly student-centered, interest-driven education system.

What happens instead?

Second: If we change the content in our high schools – if we drop requirements for certain upper level courses or for foreign language – what will take the place of these courses? What could we be offering to meet the needs of students who find their passion in the arts? Music composition and theory? Audio engineering? Script writing? What about athletics? Sports training? Sports medicine? What if students are interested in pursuing a passion that involves technology? Graphic design? Computer programming? Web design?

Third: When we learn certain subjects, we are not only learning content, but we’re learning a certain process or way of thinking. Reading good literature helps us identify what makes good literature. What does the writer do that makes his writing engaging? How can we use this in our writing? The methodology used by scientists or mathematicians is more important than the specific “facts” we ask students to memorize. How can we reform our instruction in these subjects to focus on the things that are most important to take away?

What’s missing now?

Finally: What should we be offering? What is missing? I believe we need entire courses created around Internet research, verifying sources, copyright/licensing, digital citizenship/Internet etiquette, creating an online identity/presence, and branding ourselves so that when we are inevitably “Googled,” it is clear who we are and what we believe.

Our so-called “tech savvy” students (in 4th grade or in 12th grade) are typically NOT well informed in these areas, and we would be negligent if we continue to send them out into the world — to college or the workplace — without this knowledge and skill set.

Students don’t need the “ammunition” in Mr. Schank’s article. High school isn’t going away any time soon, and I don’t advocate that students simply get on the Internet and learn about what interests them in lieu of a formal education. Mr. Schank does, however, give us food for thought.

We do need to make changes to what we teach and how we teach it, both in public and independent schools. We need decision makers to consider important reforms to the content we teach that reach well beyond the traditional curriculum or “common core.”

Change is made by developing a consensus, and I’m hoping we’re moving closer toward that consensus every day.


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Originally posted at Many thanks to my editor, John Norton for his brilliant editing and images!

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