Old-school methods worked for the longest time in preparing students for life after graduation.
For generations of Americans, the public school experience was a pattern of 180-days a year that repeated itself 13 times from kindergarten to their senior year in high school.
The classroom had rows of desks that faced forward toward a teacher who was the recognized authority on the subject and the go-to person for questions.
Students carried textbooks, spent the whole day in one building, learned much of the content by rote and demonstrated what they learned through tests and quizzes.
“The original system was designed as an industrial model,” said Karen Quinn, director of curriculum and instruction for the Carlisle Area School District.
The thinking was that if employers could get people to do repetitive tasks in a factory to produce a product, then school districts could do the same thing with thousands of students moving through, Quinn said.
“We all move forward and we all graduate with the same set of skills,” Quinn said. “It was always to educate a citizenry so they could become good citizens.”
And the model worked for the longest time, especially when information didn’t change all that quickly. Students came out skilled enough in math and language arts with knowledge in other subjects to find a pathway through life.
“But now we are overloaded with information, which is why we need to start teaching kids how to access information on their own and judge the accuracy and value of that information,” Quinn said.
Public schools are moving away from a rigid structure of requiring students to memorize blocks of content. Instead, educators are trying to balance the need to follow academic standards with the flexibility of teaching students how they can be adaptable and self-direct their own philosophy of lifelong learning.
This is being done to prepare students for a world of increased automation and uncertainty over what future jobs may look like. Old school methods are giving way to new models where teachers will be looked upon more as facilitators in education than as the end-all experts or the only source of information in the classroom, Quinn said.
Instead of rows of desks, students are being clustered more into groups to allow for greater collaboration on projects and assignments, she said. Rather than teach the whole class the same content at the same time, day-to-day instruction may evolve into a series of stations where some students are listening to a lecture while others are busy elsewhere in the room with online research and group discussion.
Laptop computers and downloadable content are replacing textbooks in many cases, and the changes are such that some students are spending part of their school day in traditional classrooms and part of their day in a cyber school-type setting.
While Carlisle provides each student a laptop from the eighth grade on, there are many school districts across the U.S. that can’t afford such an initiative, Quinn said.
Big Spring School District in western Cumberland County is studying the feasibility of implementing a coding curriculum in its elementary schools, Superintendent Richard Fry said.
“We are in the very early stages,” said Robyn Euker, director of curriculum and instruction for Big Spring. “When you look at the research on coding, it’s just like learning a different language. The younger you can do that the better.
“Coding is what drives computers,” Euker said. “It’s going to be what drives automation, technology and artificial intelligence. It’s going to be the language those things are written in.”
For students, coding will become an avenue for them to practice critical thinking and problem solving skills. “The other thing you are teaching them is logic and mathematical reasoning,” said Quinn, adding that Carlisle has after-school coding clubs at Bellaire and Mooreland elementary schools.
“Kids are finding they have to think differently,” Quinn said. “That I have to try it out and if it doesn’t work I have to come back. I have to be resilient and I have to persevere because the code is not going to work the first time.”
More than memorizing
Because technology has made information so much easier to obtain, emphasis has shifted away from the stacked memorization of content to a more skills-based transfer of knowledge and the application of facts to real-world situations, Euker said.
For example, there was a time when each Big Spring student was required to memorize every state capital. Now they are only required to know about Harrisburg and other capitals in the mid-Atlantic region. They are taught to do a Google search for the rest of that content. But the instruction doesn’t stop there.
Students today are taught how to identify credible sources, how to reconcile sources that conflict and how to pick up on any bias or propaganda, Quinn said. They are also taught how to interpret information and to make sound judgments on its accuracy and usefulness.
The goal is to help students learn how to problem solve, make decisions and investigate topics of interest to them, Quinn said. She added, in the future, classroom instruction will move away from just a Google search and an analysis of findings toward teaching students how to consult with experts outside of their classroom teacher.
“How do we branch out to say there are other experts in the world?” Quinn asked. “If I want to learn filmmaking, can I blog with someone who is a filmmaker in Hollywood? If I write a fictional story can I have a writer give me some feedback?”
At Big Spring, elementary school students are learning through a Habits of Mind curriculum that teaches the life skills necessary for lifelong learning, Euker said. Such lessons include persistence in the face of challenges and how to be engaged and to have input into the direction of your own learning.