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What Do Students Really Need to “Know?"

Breakthrough technologies challenge the fundamental premises of schools.

A few months ago, a Chinese family moved into a house down the block from our home in New Jersey. The two kids playing in the front yard looked about the age of our own teenagers, so within a few days we did the neighborly thing and introduced ourselves. The good news? The family seemed genuinely happy to meet us. The bad news? They barely spoke a word of English. There was a lot of smiling and pointing (to our house) and uncomfortable sound-making from both kids and adults, but we didn’t manage to communicate very much in our brief encounter. And we felt helpless to do much about it, frankly.

But this sort of helplessness may be more short-lived than we thought. Last October, Microsoft’s Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid demonstrated a “speech recognition breakthrough” to a rapt audience in Tainjin, China that not only translated the words he was speaking into Chinese text on the screen, it translated his English speech almost immediately into Chinese speech, as well. The video of the event is outstanding; Rashid speaks, a moment of silence, then a computer speaks his words in Chinese (in his own voice to boot). The audience breaks into gleeful applause after each line.

If only we’d had that for our little trip down the street...

Amazing...and Daunting

If you take it pretty much for fact (as I do) that in the next five years or so we’ll be able to use apps on our phones not just to translate other languages but to converse with the speakers of those languages, you can’t escape the ramifications for schools. And it’s not just languages and speech recognition that we’re talking about here. It’s new tools and technologies that are being invented at a rapid pace that can replace much of what we do in our classrooms. As I’ve said before here, we live at a time of growing abundance when it comes to the resources available to learn and to function in our lives. It’s amazing and daunting.

And it begs many questions, among them what do our students really need to know when they leave us on graduation day? Will they need to know a foreign language in a world where technology will translate our words for us? Will they all need four years of math and English when teachers and tutors and courses in those and every other subject are a few clicks away should they need or desire to learn it later in life? And what will they need to know about reading and writing and communicating beyond the traditional definitions we apply to literacy?

Process vs. Knowledge

There’s a growing sentiment that what our students really need to know is more process-based than knowledge-based, a position articulated passionately by Roger Schank, founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University and author of one of my favorite books on learning, Teaching Minds. Schank states that the current curriculum being delivered by most schools in the world was designed by a handful of university presidents over a century ago when the landscape for learning looked just a bit different from what it does now.

Instead of force-feeding students a whole bunch of information which most will never use and soon forget, (could you pass your state graduation test today?) Schank suggests we should instead focus on the cognitive processes like prediction, judgment, causation, and negotiation that would serve them better given abundant access. He writes:

“Our education system, in concentrating only on the knowledge base and not on independent reasoning from that knowledge base, has ensured that the knowledge base remains incomprehensible to most people and is therefore immediately forgotten after school is over.”

The knowledge on which schools used to have a monopoly is now ubiquitous. But the thinking and manipulative skills our students can exhibit to deal with that shift are in much shorter supply. As technology translates more of our learning world, what if what our students really need to know is decidedly different from what it used to be?

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at His latest book is “Why School?” (