What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?

I grew up in an era of top-down information flow – book publishers, newspapers, magazines, network TV, radio. I was accustomed to someone else making decisions about what I should read, watch and listen to. They created information, I consumed it. Other than writing an occasional letter to the editor, it never occurred to me that I had anything to add to the dialogue – even then someone else decided if my letter would get published. Information came to me according to their schedule. My only option, was deciding what to pay attention to.

School was just a continuation of the informational flow that dominated the rest of my life. Teachers, like their mass media counterparts, defined what was important for me to know and scheduled when I should learn it. I spent hours listening to teachers talk, and then practiced what teachers told me at my desk.  Later, I gave the information back to the teacher on a test – usually in the same form I received it.

A few teachers fostered my critical thinking skills, but at best I was merely asked to assess the positions of competing “authorities.” Great debates texts chose the issues and confined the discourse to re-runs of classic loggerheads such as the Federalists vs anti-Federalists.

I had some skepticism for my informational landscape, but I was quite comfortable with the experts curating my information. What could be more reassuring than Walter Cronkite claiming “… and that’s the way it is.” He reminded me of my favorite teachers.

Fast forward to a digital age which has fractured the information flow – fragmenting it into ever smaller pieces: LP record > CD >  single song download > ringtone. Now we are armed with gadgets that allow us to re-assemble the info bits; by-passing the curatorial function that had been served by the legacy mass media. Who needs a Walter Cronkite? I can be my own editor, reviewer, researcher and entertainment director. I don’t simply consume information – I am a content producer. I blog, I tweet, I review my Amazon purchases, I make sure my Facebook friends know “what’s on my mind.” Forget that much of what I post / tweet about are links to the mainstream media, if they can’t survive, they’ll have to come up with a new business model!

What happens in schools when life has become an open-book test? 

The legacy mass media aren’t the only ones struggling to adjust to the transformation of information. Today, students feel in charge of information – their landscape is explored with an expectation of choice, functionality and control that redefines our traditional notions of learning and literacy. Unlike newspapers, schools aren’t quite yet an endangered species – at least until someone figures who will watch the kids all day. But schools run a greater risk of becoming irrelevant to students.

It’s time to redefine to the information flow in schools. Educators must realize that they cannot simply dispense information to students. They will lose the battle of competition for student attention span. Instead they must teach students how to effectively use the information that fills their lives – how to better access it, critically evaluate it, store it, analyze and share it. 

Students are adrift in a sea of text without context. As the barriers to content creation have dropped, old media (for all its flaws) has been replaced by pointless mashups, self-promoting pundits, and manufactured celebrity. The web may have given us access and convenience, but it’s an artificial world where rants draws more attention than thoughtful discussion. Responsible general interest media are being replaced by a balkanized web where civil discourse is rapidly becoming less civil. 

Schools can become thoughtfully-designed learning environments where students can investigate information and be given a chance to reflect (with their peers) on what they learned and how they see themselves progressing as learners. That can be done with a variety of technologies – even pencil and paper. A social network is already sitting in the classroom that can interact with information and each other without the need to go online. 

Teachers shouldn’t feel in competition with all information permeating their students lives. Instead, they should realize that they can help their students become more skillful curators of their unique digital worlds. Most importantly, they can assist students in becoming more purposeful in their information choices. Despite their claims of multi-tasking, students will someday realize that infinite amounts of information competes for their finite attention. Their ability to critically filter out unwanted “informational noise” may eventually emerge as the most important new literacy.  

Image source: Open book on table
Date 21 March 2016, 04:41:37
Author: Creigpat

10 Replies to “What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?”

  1. I get the idea…we have endless amounts of information at our fingertips. But I am wary of those that say students don’t have to have a foundation of knowledge and understanding to work from. I have knowledge, and I can think about and discuss topics without having to look everything up first. So while I agree that we have to adapt to the fact that we live in a world with readily available information, we must be careful that we don’t cripple our young people to the point that they can only know by Google.

  2. I have been pondering thoughts like these lately. I agree with the intent behind the ideas in the post, but I also agree with Keishla. I will admit, I am still a bit of a newbie in my teaching career-this is my seventh year teaching, but I have never approached teaching as a sit-fill-regurgitate-move on as a teacher or student. I always tell my students I am not a teacher of history, I use history to teach them the academic, social, and life skills necessary to be productive citizens. This is a change that needs to be made–teachers realizing they are using the CONTENT to teach the SKILLS and STRATEGIES. Too often teachers approach these ideas in reverse–what SKILLS/STRATEGIES can I use to teach my CONTENT. I do believe there is foundational knowledge all kids need and some of that is best taught through direct instruction to get the knowledge. But then students can move up and learn to apply the knowledge by using the higher level thinking skills.

  3. Hi Keishla,

    I agree that students need foundational skills- after all, they can’t think critically about nothing. As I said in the post “Students are adrift in a sea of text without context.” And you are quite right about students being overly-reliant on Google – to many students, research is a quick google for low hanging fruit.

    In regards to your point about “students not needing foundations first” – see my comment to Ms Q below.

    But remember that the validity of foundational knowledge isn’t always so clear. For example what’s the foundational knowledge about climate change or the health care plan? Our society has become so polarized that often we can’t even agree on the facts. Our students won’t always have a teacher in front of them to sort out the foundation – as adults they will need to have the critical skills to figure that out for themselves. I think we should be giving them a safe and supportive place in school to start practicing.

    Since they will access lots of information, both in and out of the classroom – the question becomes how can schools train them to be more critical consumers and and creators of content?

  4. Hi Ms. Q,

    I took me quite a few years of teaching to figure out my job wasn’t to fill their heads with information. Glad to see you are already well beyond that point already in your career. And I applaud your approach to blending content, skills and strategies.

    In response to your last point “knowledge first, then higher order thinking skills.” That is the sequence that most teachers follow, and to many it’s the only practical order. I think that sometimes we can reverse the order. Present students with a problem to be solved, and then let them discover necessary the foundational knowledge. I used the approach often in class and inevitably they were much more interested in what I had to say when I filled in the gaps, after they had “struggled” without them.

    Simply put we assume that foundational knowledge is used to solve problems when it’s just as valuable to use problems to generate foundation knowledge. Besides it’s fun to mix it up a bit.

    BTW – in life we rarely get to practice our foundations and then get to apply them to a predictable problem. Most often we are faced with ill-defined problems that force us to go back and discover underlying principals.

  5. While I agree your sentiments, and love the idea of giving them the problem first, to find the foundational knowledge, how are teachers supposed to do that today with the pressure of state mandated end of course tests? Schools with 95% pass rates are still fearful to change their teaching, and instead, lecture for 90 minutes with power point. I’d love for my teachers to change how they teach, but our state standards are a crutch, and good teaching is that black gum you get on the bottom of the crutch.

  6. Nice to hear from you again Mike,

    I agree that the flawed accountability of NCLB has pushed us to test prep. But it has also provided cover for the teachers who would have lectured anyway. I wonder how many would switch to more student-centered approaches if NCLB went away tomorrow?

    I have worked with teachers in high-performaing schools and many are convinced that they need to prep kids for AP’s and SAT’s. Likewise teachers in low performing schools tell me they must prep kids for basic competency. Across the board too many teachers have bought into the idea that students can’t learn without their teacher giving them the information. Do they think learning is like installing a computer program?

  7. “The web may have given us access and convenience, but it’s an artificial world where rants draws more attention than thoughtful discourse. Responsible general interest media are being replaced by a balkanized web where civil discourse is rapidly becoming less civil.”
    I heartily agree with this and believe it is one of the ills of our “information age”.
    And it’s refreshing to hear from a teacher from the public school arena that believes in giving students the ownership of their learning endeavor. I also sympathize with those like Mr. Hasley here who want to do so but feel caught in the “teach to the test” vise. Having the luxury of teaching in a small private school, my history classes rely on non-textbook resources including source documents. I’ve always felt my greatest challenge is getting myself out of the way so the students can teach themselves. I feel the source documents are the closest thing to what I would call a “Bill & Ted” type of history lesson.

  8. But, for years, and long before the fragmentation of information in media, teachers still could not in most schools let selection of current material from the outside world largely determine the content of their courses. Teachers could be excited by a brilliantly written and exciting popular history or serious articles appearing in well-edited magazines, but could not introduced them to students until long after they might receive any support in the media, or continue to be exciting to the teacher.
    Student’s absent authority for selection of content was preceeded by teachers’ loss of it years ago. The school day has so for so long been accounted for, it is no wonder unopened bundles of NYTimes sit unopened in some schools.

    Let me put it another way: teachers have long been expected to extensively vet the teaching of, say, a stimulating book by Michael Pollan, before they could teach it, as though they were movie producers vetting it to sponsors for adaptation to an expensive Nova television production. Teachers today are expected not to accompany students in disovering and being surprised about connections from a coherent collection or show of materials as is assembled by a good museum curators; but to be as knowledgable and creative as the curator herself. Every artifact must come with a comprehensive study guide, in XML, linked to the curriculum, goals, objectives, methods, and modalities.
    This is not an impossible burden, but a discouraging one. I have just spent time with some newly published State education standards. I was reminded, from pages on HS and down to first grade, of auditors confirming that the teacher articulates the standard as part of intruction, and even of students being expected to recite them as a check on the teacher’s purposiveness and clarity.

  9. Teresa,

    You are fortunate to be teaching in such a supportive environment. When you write “I’ve always felt my greatest challenge is getting myself out of the way so the students can teach themselves’,” it echos a critique on lecture written by Donald Finkel in his book Teaching with Your Mouth Shut. “Our natural, unexamined model for teaching is Telling. The fundamental act of teaching is to carefully and clearly tell students something they did not previously know. Knowledge is transmitted, we imagine, through this act of telling.”

    He writes from the perspective of the college classroom – which may have some parallels to your small private school.

  10. Harry,

    Thanks for adding this perspective to the discussion. My high school social studies teaching career spanned the years from 1971 – 2000, so I was not subjected to full brunt of the “what standard are you teaching to” thought police you reference. But I was held accountable via the New York State Regents exams which tightly specified curriculum in grades 9-11 via high stakes finals in 10th and 11th grades.

    My real freedom to innovate (in the way you might enjoy) was in the one semester senior electives I sometimes taught. Over the years I developed a variety of classes which tapped into my interests and engaged students’ critical thinking and creativity. They included – War and Peace Studies (during the waning years of Vietnam), Media Studies, Future Studies, and Criminal Law. I often wonder how satisfying teaching would have been if I was starting my career now

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