Our responsibility to humanity: Teach less content

Humanity is begging us to prepare students for the difficult digital decisions in their futures, even if schools aren't built for that right now. (Wikipedia / The College Preparatory School)

Humanity is begging us to prepare students for the difficult digital decisions in their futures, even if schools aren’t built for that right now. (Wikipedia / The College Preparatory School)

For generations, content has been king in the classroom. The more information we impart, the more students will know. Information was a commodity, and teachers were the broker.

Not so anymore.

Information is an Internet search away. We don’t even have to type it anymore if we ask Siri on our iPhones or do an “OK Google” voice search.

Our students’ future is full of decisions … decisions about how to use all that data rather than how to acquire it. Whether they know it or not, I think humanity is begging us in the education world to help students with that.

“Please,” they’re asking us. “Help kids learn how to make smart decisions so they’ll lead us into this digital age responsibly.”

In essence: Quit teaching kids so much content. Teach them how to use it.

While listening to a two-part podcast series called “Screen Time” on the NPR TED Radio Hour (Part 1 / Part 2), I was reminded of these three examples of why we need kids who can handle themselves digitally:

1. Your personal and professional life can be ruined too easily. If you haven’t heard of Justine Sacco yet, check out this New York Times article on the mess she lived through. Some poorly-worded tweets to her very few followers were circulated all over Twitter. The social media furor lasted forever. She was fired and struggled to find a job.

Humanity is begging us to help kids navigate social media and to be responsible. Often, though, schools shudder to open social media and the Pandora’s Box that it can entail.

We have to stand beside kids through their social media messes, even if we’re standing in figurative mud — or a sewer — with them. Childhood and adolescence are messy. Life is messy. And I’d rather help kids learn hard lessons with my guidance during school years than endure what Justine Sacco did in adulthood.

2. Data will make supremely powerful ideas become reality. Every day, we’re generating data about ourselves. When we shop online, when we like something on Facebook, when we do online searches, we leave a digital trail of those decisions. On the podcast I mentioned earlier, they highlighted a girl who received coupons for diapers from a big-name retailer. Not such a big deal, right? She got them two weeks before she broke the news to her parents that she was pregnant.

Programmers and mathematicians can write algorithms that process all that aforementioned data into very telling predictions. From the data we leave behind, it can identify (oftentimes fairly accurately) our disposition toward work, our sexual orientation and even whether we’re pregnant. These are powerful weapons to wield that can be potentially deadly. (Imagine releasing findings on sexual orientation in a country where homosexuality is illegal.)

Humanity is begging us to prepare kids for tricky, complicated, messy digital decisions. The ones that face society now likely pale in comparison to the ones we will face as technology improves. We have to show kids that these difficult decisions exist and give them opportunities to walk through the options and consequences.

3. Our screen time is changing who we are and how we behave. Compare interpersonal communication now to a time before the massive onset of smartphones. We’re drowning in a sea of misinterpreted text messages and social media postings. (“Was the exclamation point at the end of that sentence excitement or anger?”) Neuroscience even tells us that the effect of screens on our brains affects our sleep and our mood (and maybe more!).

Humanity is begging us to guide kids through life changes that will help us stay human without a digital device fused to our brains and eyes. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of these changes, and kids should know that they have potentially serious consequences.

What happens if we stick to the curriculum and don’t get to these questions? The United States is so fixated on high-stakes testing that we’ll do almost anything to improve our scores. What are we producing that way, though … citizens who have practice in picking answers out of multiple choice questions but can’t handle the day-to-day issues in their lives? (Let alone the complicated ones.)

Here’s the problem: schools today aren’t built for this. Education is as slow an institution to change as any.

Here’s hope, though: education is slow to change, but classrooms are nimble. A motivated, dedicated teacher can create what humanity is begging for in his or her own class. And when it works, it can catch on with others that notice it and spread like wildfire.

It’s like Margaret Mead said … “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Change the word “citizens” to “educators,” and change the words “the world” to “education.”

These three examples are just the ones that stirred me to write. Certainly, there are others, and I’d love to see what you think humanity is begging us to impart to the next generation in the comments below. And whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to see your take on this. Please leave it in a comment also and engage in the conversation.

Humanity is begging us to change course, to teach less content and to prepare students for the uncertain future world where they’re headed. Will we heed that call?

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