Curriculum, Technology, and the Pace of Change

As the instructional technology coordinator for our middle school, I’ve been asked to give a brief  presentation next week to perspective families on the role of technology in the curriculum.  In considering how to adequately convey the depth and breadth of our 5th-8th grade program in mere minutes, I was struck by the concept of my limited time in relation to the rate at which information, a true cornerstone of curriculum,  is expanding.  Although I’m not a statistician, I did a little research, made a few calculations, and compiled a bit of data that I hope illustrates the pace at which technology is changing our students’ world:

Every Second:

Every Minute:

Every Day:

Granted, these statistics, which I readily admit are rough at best, cannot universally be viewed as valid additions to our collective knowledge; much of social media (and perhaps this post) could be considered digital refuse.  However, I do believe they speak to my long-standing contention that (1) we cannot ignore these explosive trends and (2) the classic notion of the 3 Rs as the foundation of curriculum is no longer adequate.

Information Overload or Filter Failure?

Technologist Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, noted last fall at the Web 2.0 Expo NY that  information overload isn’t the problem the media makes it out to be: it’s really a failure of information filters:

Whether you agree with Shirky’s assertions or not, the fact remains that information, which is often interpreted as knowledge, is expanding exponentially.  How, then, can a contemporary curriculum include (or at the very least leverage) the absolute best parts of this global, swelling compendium?  And to what extent should we even attempt to do so?  I don’t believe there is an easy answer, but  modern curriculum, whether it be approached as a product, a process, or a praxis, needs to consider not only the transmission of knowledge but the nature and value of the knowledge itself.  Simply put, we need to rethink what we teach.

The 3 Rs and the 3 Ss

Some may argue that the aforementioned statistics, staggering through they be, have no bearing on curriculum; status updates, home videos, and trendy terms are simply irrelevant within the context of the 3 Rs.   Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, however, while vitally important, are collectively insufficient and have been for quite some time.  In 1993, Seymour Papert wrote a short but thought-provoking article for Wired Magazine, Obsolete Skill Set: The 3 Rs—Literacy and Letteracy in the Media Ages, that challenged the fundamental concept of literacy.  As he noted,

The facetious old turn of phrase that identifies schooling with the three Rs — reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic — may express the most obstinate block to change in education. The central role of these “basics” is never discussed; it is considered obvious. Thus the most important consequences of new technologies are not recognized by education policy-makers.

The role of the Rs in elementary education used to be beyond question. How effectively could one teach geography, history, and science to students who could not read? Looking back, we cannot seriously fault these arguments — within their historical context.

But looking forward, we can formulate new arguments beyond the imagination of 19th century thinkers, who could hardly have conjured images of media that would provide modes of accessing and manipulating knowledge radically different than those offered by the Rs. Nor could they have formulated what I see as the deep difference between education past and future: In the past, education adapted the mind to a very restricted set of available media; in the future, it will adapt media to serve the needs and tastes of each individual mind.

Papert may have been ahead of his time, but I believe his views are more relevant now than ever.  The 3 Rs, while not obsolete, are no longer the benchmark for basic literacy and consequently should not be the sole basis for structuring curriculum.  In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, students today must be adept at managing the deluge of knowledge/information available and develop mastery of the 3 Ss: sifting, synthesizing, and sharing.

Within the stream of endless tweets, posts, articles, and SMS messages lies a wealth of knowledge, and sifting through the vastness of this information-rich world, synthesizing these myriad ideas into manageable forms, and sharing their meaning with others have become essential skills.  Consequently, curriculum should not only be coherent, spiral around “big ideas,” include essential questions, and employ core assessments, it should ultimately reflect the influence and opportunities of modern technology.  In that environment, technology moves from the role of simply being integrated to that of being integral; what a change that would be.

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5 Responses to Curriculum, Technology, and the Pace of Change

  1. Terry

    Patrick, Another great post. What a wonderfully concise and elegant way to help educational leaders understand the shift (and mandate) to “new literacies”. While the focus on state standardized tests continue to assess “traditional literacies” (3R’s) it can be a “tough sell” to devote scarce resources to the “new literacies” (3S’s). You are so right, technology no longer can be viewed as an optional add-on to be integrated with the 3R’s; it IS integral to the student learning and achievement. Thanks for “the articulation”, such a necessary step to further the conversation and bring urgency to necessary action.

  2. pwoessner

    Terry–thanks so much for the kind words and thoughtful response. I hope that teachers and administrators see the need for what I’ve termed the 3 S’s…and also the 3 C’s of communication, collaboration, and creativity…because our students truly need those skills and they won’t acquire them on their own.

  3. Jose Martinez

    Nice post. However, your YouTube post says 20 minutes of video every minute is uploaded. It is actually 20 hours every minute!

  4. pwoessner

    Jose–thanks for catching that! Another reader shared this resource:

    It’s pretty amazing to see the rate at which social media is growing!

  5. Jose Martinez

    That site is pretty neat.

    My high school “bans” cell phones in the school. Some teachers confiscate their phones as well. After 5 minutes in my class, I asked my students today how many had received text messages. Almost half of the class raised their hands. It was incredible. Students are eager to communicate with others. We just need to figure out how to do it in a positive manner in the classroom.

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