New Perspectives is an ongoing series on The Agenda's website that explores how members of the millennial generation (roughly those born between 1980 and 1995) understand the world. Read the series’ introductory post.
Once, educators debated how they ought to respond to the invention of cheap calculators. Should these little devices be allowed in classrooms? Did they change what students needed to know? Is there an intrinsic good in knowing how to do long-division by hand? Did calculators make students lazy and dumb?
That debate was really about how technology ought to be integrated into the education system. This debate is being revisited today, now that the widespread availability of the Internet allows us to outsource the memorization of facts to websites, such as Google and Wikipedia.
Don Tapscott, professor at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, thinks institutions should change to reflect the world that the “Net Generation” (those born between 1977 and 1997) live in. In his book, Grown Up Digital, Tapscott devotes a chapter to how the education system ought to be changed. Tapscott writes:
The education model was to cram as much knowledge into your head as possible to build up your inventory of knowledge before you entered the world of work, where you could retrieve that information when needed. This worked in a relatively slow-moving world. But now we’re faced with the fast-paced world of the information age, where, as jobs change, you can’t take the time to send workers back to school for retraining. … If you are studying a technical topic at a university, half of what you learned in your freshman year might be obsolete by the time you graduate.
Thus, you and your teacher may have wasted time memorizing all those facts in school. Perhaps we should learn skills and "Google" facts.
The End of Rote Learning?
When facts can be recalled with a quick Google search, is rote learning less valuable?
Rob Horgan, a Ph.D. student in Queen’s University’s Faculty of Education, says rote learning “wasn’t very useful when we got into the era of printing presses. The facts don’t really matter at that point. It’s more how we use them.”
Some educators hope that by de-emphasizing rote learning, students will have the time to learn other things, such as critical thinking and reasoning skills. Kate Hammer, the education reporter for The Globe and Mail, explains this approach as, “maybe we need to spend less time memorizing the list of Canadian Prime Ministers and maybe we should spend more time learning how to read a passage about the Prime Ministers. Or knowing how to talk about their policies and their impact on Canada.”
Hogan thinks by doing this we can provide students with a more specialized education that would help them understand themselves and the world around them. “What if we had 80,000 Steve Jobses in our community?” Hogan says, referring to his hometown of Bowmanville, Ontario. “What if we allowed every single person to live to their fullest potential? To their fullest capabilities. But … we have institutional learning that says ‘we need to make sure everybody’s bunny looks like this bunny in kindergarten.’ Because if you look exceptional, we don’t know how to handle that.”
Many educators believe that not only will this new teaching style be more useful for students, but the students may also enjoy it more than rote learning.
Regardless of the presumed positives listed above, Google may make some traditional homework assignments obsolete. Hammer forwarded me a blog post by a teacher who realized his iPhone could answer the question, “Siri, can you tell me what 2x+7 is?” (complete with graph). The teacher realized that multiple choice and true-false questions weren’t going to work anymore. Instead, it may be more important for students to show the process they used to solve a problem, rather than just showing the answer. To show that students understand the problem, rather than just being able to provide the answer.
However, not everyone agrees this new pedagogy is necessarily desirable. Roland Mascarenhas recently completed a graduate degree in education at Harvard University. He is also a former teacher in Washington, D.C. and Toronto. “Undoubtedly, various types of activities are important for all types of learners and their respective styles,” Mascarenhas argues. “But as educators we need to engage, not entertain them.”
Despite the new emphasis on learning through problem-solving and collaboration, not everyone thinks the traditional methods of education should be discarded. Mascarenhas points to an article in Stanford University’s Education Next journal that says, “an emphasis on lecture-style presentations (rather than problem-solving activities) is associated with an increase – not a decrease – in student achievement.”
Furthermore, some would argue that we are exaggerating the amount of change the education system requires. “From a practical perspective, the same skills tend to be utilized across eras,” argues Marscarenhas. “Ability as a reader, writer, and public speaker; organization and time management; self-presentation and professionalism; work-ethic and desire to learn; adept at using technology (including Microsoft Office, Excel and Word).”
“There is a backlash against this. Especially in the math context,” Hammer says, where some teachers still see value in everyone knowing that 5 X 4 = 20. “There is a debate about if we are going too far from rote. … There is tension in education. … It’s even a debate about whether we’ve gone too far or haven’t gone far enough.”