On Twenty-First Century Learning

My grandmother, Dorothy Esther Roush Kuhlmann, grew up on a dairy farm in central Michigan. Her father, John Gabriel Roush, grew up on a grain farm, but decided with his wife, Emily Ann Gray Roush, to start a dairy farm together, just north of Hastings, Michigan. The Broadway Dairy proved to be both a successful business venture, as well as a wonderful place for their six children to grow up.

Hildred, Dorothy, Kenny, Spud, Mary, and Lois Roush walked a few miles north of the Broadway Dairy each day to Welcome Corners School. You can picture this sweet, little one-room schoolhouse. The clapboard building is white. There’s a bell in the small tower on top that rings at the start and end of school each day, and at recess, calling the children in from play. The worn desks have inkwells and hard benches. The schoolmarm walks among the rows, long skirt swishing around her black boots, stopping to talk to students as they work independently, occasionally pausing her daily circuit for a lecture. My image comes directly from the Little House on the Prairie television show in the ’70s. Can you see it in your mind?

Today, March of 2012, we sit about a century after the Roush children were attending Welcome Corners School. Our schools look quite different. They’re bigger. They’re more divided by age, like with like. For better and for worse, I’m sure, they are deeply bureaucratic, with policies and procedures and safety concerns and School Boards and elections and tax levies and program eligibility testing and standardized testing and on-line reporting of demographics and testing statistics to “School Report Cards.”

But does learning actually look different today than it did at Welcome Corners?

Education. Teaching. Learning.

As parents, teachers, and community members, for the past century, we have been considering how to best do these things. I’m sure we will do so for many years to come. As well we should. What children learn: in school, at home, in our communities, in large part determines the sorts of adults they become. And this, in turn, by and large, determines the sort of society we live in. So, education matters. Learning matters. Teaching matters. For individuals. For their families. And for society.

But how does education happen? How do children learn best? It is these questions that keep college and university Education Departments in business, and teachers, administrators, and parents debating.

One of the more controversial questions about the “delivery” of education these days is the role that technology should play. Should there be an age “minimum,” before which technology does not play a part? Should technology be integrated at every level of education? Do children learn better from generalized, face-to-face instruction from a teacher at the front of a classroom to a classroom of students, or from specialized instruction on a screen, customized to where they are in the learning?

Fascinating questions, all. And difficult to answer. And yet, as parents and teachers, we must continue to wrestle with these questions if we believe that the education of our children is important.

I have been particularly intrigued lately by the aspect of teaching that can be customized through the use of technology. I’ve read a number of articles over the past year regarding schools that are implementing various forms of this sort of technology. The 21st Century Fluency Project is “a collaborative initiative created to develop exceptional educational resources to assist in transforming learning to be relevant to life in the 21st century.” Last year, the Project posted the full version of an article originally published in the Harvard Education Letter, a bi-monthly newsletter of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It tells the story of a “hybrid school” in Yuma, Arizona that has been successful at implementing the marriage of traditional face-to-face learning with on-line learning.

If you’re interested, take a look at the article. I think it’s hard to not be intrigued and wonder what this sort of learning would look like for your own children, for your school, for your community. Here’s a quote, to whet your appetite:

The online curriculum for each course is adaptive, meaning it can gauge from the students’ answers when they have mastered something and are ready to move ahead and when they may need extra practice before moving on.

What do you think? If this was available in your community, would you want your child to participate? Would you advocate to bring this sort of programming to your school system? Is “customizing” teaching in this manner all good, or are their pitfalls as well? What, if anything, do we lose by reducing the amount of face-to-face teaching time? What do we gain? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you to my college friend, Susan Hauser Maynor for this link, a while back. She’s an amazing teacher and a terrific Mom, and often shares links that give me a lot to think about regarding the “how” and the “why” of education.

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One Response to On Twenty-First Century Learning

  1. Pingback: Esther roush | Evdioner

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