Over the past few weeks, many of us have expressed discontent with the limitations that we feel imposed upon us by external forces: departments, districts, state laws, federal mandates. I’ve found hearing from others who share some of my concerns to be a professionally beneficial experience, and I feel as though what I’ve taken from this class has prepared me to shift my pedagogy in a direction that will help my students engage with digital writing in a meaningful way. This week’s reading however, opened a more fundamental question for me, one that is perhaps a bit frightening to engage with: can our current system be adapted to keep up with a rapidly changing world, or is the system itself so rooted in an obsolete way of operating that, despite the best efforts of hard-working teachers, it is incapable of being salvaged?
DeVoss suggests that we “may be entering a third era” for the American school system, an era “in which institutional, social, and technological innovations are leading people to ‘extended learning throughout life and over many venues.’” This era would be the next step in a chain that starts with the “apprenticeship era” of the colonial days and continues with the “universal schooling era,” rooted in the work of 19th-century reformers like Horace Mann which brought about the public schools we know today (143). Such a suggestion is radical—ask how closely your classroom resembles a blacksmith’s apprenticeship, and then try to imagine what a model for education that is as far removed from today’s classroom as today’s classroom is from an apprenticeship would even look like. Would there be a single teacher? Is there a teacher at all? How many students would there be? Would the students all be the same age? Is such a classroom even a physical space? Much of what DeVoss draws attention to in this chapter—that “digital environments…are typical ‘on’ 24/7/365” (146), that our “students are learning to think, to read, and to ask questions in networked environments (150), and that “school is just one node in a (potentially global) learning network that young people have the opportunity to inhabit” (148)—points to the basic fact that a school that operates under basic assumptions like timed periods/school days, a nine-month school year, or a physically constrained learning environment might not be capable of serving students who have grown up in a constantly and universally connected world.
In fact, not a single model that DeVoss cites in this chapter as an example of effective digital writing/learning is a traditional public school. The Science Leadership Academy, which has reimagined its pedagogical planning to focus specifically on “elements of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection” is an experimental and selective public magnet school (144). The Digital Youth Network is founded on the notion that “schools alone cannot be expected to provide full support for students as media creators” (144), and DeVoss herself emphasizes that the thing that “feels significantly different at this particular moment” is that the tools we’re discussing are “not primarily tools for institutions at all. They are tools for learners and writers, and as learners and writers begin to sue them across any areas of their lives outside of school, these tools will have a profound impact on the core business of life itself” (142).
I don’t want to undermine the impressive efforts, hard work, and good intentinos that teachers bring to the classroom. Nor do I want to ignore the fact that “not all students…have access” to the sorts of tools that this “third era” would be predicated on. At the same time, DeVoss’ concluding sentiment—that we should “guide and respond to our students’ writing even though technologies continue to change”—is a half-hearted and milquetoast response when seven pages earlier she was predicting a fundamental shift in what school is (150). I guess I’m wondering if we need to turn the sort of institutional skepticism that we’ve pointed at Google and Facebook over the past couple of weeks on the educational system, and not just the parts of it we dislike. It’s easy for us to blame that one vice principal, or the College Board, or MCAS, or any other aspect of our job that we feel limits us. It’s harder, though more effective, for us to make the small, individual changes that will actually improve our pedagogy, and we should all most certainly make those individual changes where we can. But it’s terrifying to wonder if whether the fundamental pillars that education as we know it today is built upon are beginning to crack.
To condense all of that into a more manageable list, I guess I’m wondering
- Do you agree with DeVoss about “something being different” about this moment for education, or have changes occurred before?
- If we are indeed entering a new era for education, what does it look like? What basic assumptions are we throwing out, and what new ideas are we bringing in?
- What are the costs and challenges of that sort of radical shift?
- Where will that change come from? Will it be built within existing institutions? Or is the model for education that we need so far removed from what we have that we must begin building it outside our existing schools?