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From Learning What to Learning How

Technology’s role in educational change

In 1892, the committee of ten met at Harvard College to create a curriculum that schools would use to prepare students to be ready for Harvard College. Since access to books was very limited at that time, there was a premium placed on knowing as much information as possible. Direct instruction was used for transmitting information into the heads of the scholars to be, while drill-and-practice was used to make sure it stayed there.

Memorize or Google?

Fast forward almost 120 years. While some facts may have changed, the basic organization of knowledge and strategies for instruction promulgated by the Committee of Ten still dominate America’s schools. Consider this “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb” type of question from a popular high school science textbook, along with its answer (Earth Science, Glencoe, 2005):

? “What is a passive margin?” (from the Section Assessment on page 604).

? “When there is no tectonic activity along a margin, it is called a passive margin” (pages 601-602).

The venerable paper-based flash card is a cost-effective technology when the focus of instruction is putting information of the above sort inside a child’s head. Given that what we currently teach is centered in the 19th century, it is no wonder that K12 schools, by and large, have not had to embrace 21st-century technology.

Outside of K12, technology is being disruptive—again. While admittedly not conducting a rigorous, scientifically based survey, we have repeatedly asked groups of college undergraduates over the past 18 months, “How many times a day do you ask Google a question?” More than 75 percent have responded, “More than 20 times per day.” Remember, these undergraduates have an Internet-connected device glued to their hands 24/7. The students and their devices are always connected, always on. They virtually live inside a browser, which makes it cheap and easy to find the facts. Yes, there are some basic facts that should be memorized. But how many times does one need to instantly know what a “passive margin” is?

YouTube Shows Them How

Fortunately, this tech disruption will not go to waste in K12 education. Over the past 24 months the call for teaching 21st-century skills and content has gained considerable momentum and acceptance. At the heart of 21st-century skills and content is a focus on how: how to communicate, how to solve a problem, how to work in a team—how to learn.

It is not immediately clear whether the students are mirroring or leading educators’ new focus on the how, but there is some provocative evidence that the youth of today are increasingly searching You- Tube instead of Wikipedia or Yahoo. Why? YouTube provides concrete examples in video as opposed to abstract, text-based descriptions. Our children intuitively understand that knowing how to use information to pursue an interest, a goal, or a need is the key and that learning how from concrete, image-based examples is an excellent starting point.

Tools for Learning How

There are pockets of 21st-century education in America’s schools today. For example, in a 5th-grade project-based science classroom where the driving question is “How do my family and I eat in a healthy way?” instead of teaching biology and chemistry per se, the teacher and students use biology and chemistry to develop healthy eating practices.

In service of developing the deep, integrated understanding that is needed to generate healthy eating practices, children must use 21st-century computational tools—for example, mobile technologies are needed to record all intake in situ, simulations are needed to explore what-if questions, social Web sites are needed to share findings and discuss issues, and images and videos are needed to demonstrate how to carry out the practices.

America’s curriculum has long been criticized for being a mile wide and an inch deep. Students are taught only surface- level facts about many topics and do not develop deep understandings. But change is coming: Technology and pedagogy are converging to support students moving from learning what to learning how. Finally, students can begin learning 21st-century skills and content using the 21st-century technological tools that define who they are.

Visit Cathleen and Elliot’s new Tech Disruptions blog.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder and chief technology officer at GoKnow.