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:
- Facebook: 600,000 new users
- Wikipedia: 1923 articles added
- Words: 14 new English words invented
- Google: 299 million searches performed
- Text Messages: 2.5 billion sent in the United States
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.