Detecting Baloney about “Schools of the Future”

As part of a brief project before our study of the Scientific Revolution, I recently had my sophomore high school students read Carl Sagan’s “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World. The aim of this mini-unit was to provide students with some tools with which to sharpen their critical thinking skills, and to this end Sagan provides an overview of how to evaluate the credibility of scientific research specifically, and arguments in general. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read it; it is a lively, at times personal, and very effective guide to healthy skepticism. Sagan concludes the chapter with definitions and examples of seventeen major logical and rhetorical fallacies.

Demon-Haunted_WorldAfter a discussion of Sagan’s piece and a bit of practice recognizing and creating examples of fallacies, I wanted the students to apply their critical tools to an actual argument. A bit on the fly, because I knew it was riddled with easily-recognizable fallacies and other weaknesses, and because I thought their reactions to it might be interesting, I gave each student a copy of pages five through nine of A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future, by the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) Commission on Accreditation.  The students were to read the brief section for homework and come to class armed with four substantive critiques of the argument’s structure and credibility. I made it clear that whether they agreed or disagreed with the general point of the essay was irrelevant to this assignment, which was concerned only with analyzing the argument’s effectiveness.

The Myth of “Today’s Students”

 The students applied their new skills effectively and with enthusiasm, critiquing the NAIS piece on both a micro and macro level. They identified straw men and false dichotomies, appeals to fear and appeals to authority. They called into question the credibility issue with the NAIS commission using its own author’s opinion piece in the Honolulu Advertiser as “evidence” that student learning has changed. On a broader level, both classes noted what they saw as hypocrisy in calling for the demolition of traditional education while almost obsessively assuming a Harvard affiliation as the ne plus ultra of academic achievement and credibility. In short, they detected quite a bit of baloney in the way that the argument for “schools of the future” was structured and supported.

But if that’s all that had resulted from the assignment I wouldn’t bother with a write-up. What surprised me was how strongly the students reacted to the way the NAIS commission spoke about “today’s students.” Sagan would rightly caution that the sample size here is tiny (thirty-three students from a very particular sort of well-resourced school) and the findings merely anecdotal. I think, though, that the comments that emerged from the discussions are interesting and important, and that they merit a wider audience if for no other reason than to prompt a discussion about how we decide what students “need” in order to succeed in a future whose nature is by definition unknowable, and how we talk (or don’t) to students about their educational goals and expectations.

I should note that my two classes are small (both under eighteen) and student-led seminar discussions are a regular part of our repertoire, so the students are fairly adept at tackling readings without regular prompting from the teacher. For the most part, I was an observer to the discussion, though on a few occasions I joined in, either to try to create balance and space for contrary views by playing devil’s advocate or to clarify points of information. When the class was settled, I simply asked “what did you think,” and the students mostly took it from there.

“This made me angry!” was the first comment in the first class. The speaker and then several other students explained that they felt the authors were making general assumptions that all young people think the same way, “lumping us all into the same category” and not speaking of them at all favorably. They felt that the document portrayed them as interested in very little besides playing video games and texting, and as incapable of paying attention to anything in school that wasn’t immediately entertaining.

Quite a bit of the discussion in both classes was spent by the students deriding the notion that teenagers require instant rewards in order to stay engaged, or that they enjoy multitasking and encountering information randomly. In short, the idea that today’s students are cognitively “different” did not land well in either room.

In both classes, the conversations also spent a good bit of time on the subject of social media usage in the classroom, and I was genuinely surprised by the forcefulness and consistency of their comments. Evidently, my students very much do not like it when their teachers use Twitter, Facebook, or similar applications as part of their coursework. I pressed them on this out of my own curiosity, and they replied that social media was to them an escape from school; they viewed it as a social space that teachers should not intrude upon. Privacy issues briefly came up, with one student saying that he’ll post things on Twitter for extra credit in his language class, but then he deletes it right away, because he doesn’t feel that it belongs on his feed, or that teachers have a right to make him link his personal account to school-related matters. A couple of students pointed out that their parents do not allow them to have social media accounts, so that it was in their view unfair for teachers to require these apps in school, even for extra credit.

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There was some surprisingly passionate discussion of physical books versus electronic books, with a consensus emerging that students feel that they remember things better from reading physical books, and that they find navigating and annotating e-books to be a nuisance. Evidently one of their math classes this year is using an e–version of the textbook, and the mere mention of it resulted in an explosion of vitriol. One student pointed out that whenever I assign homework, I allow the option to write it out by hand or to type it (students all have laptops) and that it’s obvious when I collect student work that the vast majority prefer to write their work by hand. So, in addition to reading physical books, there seemed to be a general preference for writing by hand, at least on relatively short assignments.

I wanted to open the possibility for agreeing with the argument on some points at least, so I asked about the “digital natives-digital immigrants” dichotomy, and they allowed that in their view, older people were slower to pick up on things like new apps, and were slower and less frequent texters. But they also said that their parents spend as much time on devices as they do, so that the differences tends to be more about type of usage than time spent on digital platforms. (Also, “Facebook is for old people” of course, which we old people already know and are fine with).

One of the things I found most interesting were the comments in a number of the written critiques that addressed school in general, and the purpose of education. One boy wrote that “sometimes school is hard, but that’s ok because it’s teaching you discipline and time management, and other skills that we will need in college and in work.” Another said that “doing homework and taking tests is important. It teaches time management, responsibility, and focus, which is just as important as everything else on the list [of 21st century survival skills].” One must allow that these students are simply expressing the general zeitgeist of their highly competitive, college-preparatory school environment. They don’t necessarily have the perspective, we may fairly argue, to decide what is really the best system of education for them because they are too immersed and invested in one particular type of institution. Fair enough. But it was notable how many times the students expressed the idea that they do rely on school, that it is the primary place where learning takes place for them, at least during the school year. It is where they encounter ideas, build skills, and find their interests.

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But…We Don’t Want to Work for Google!

One final aspect of the NAIS document that seemed to fascinate both classes was the list of “Demonstrations of Learning for 21st Century Schools,” which included “building a robot capable of performing a difficult physical task” (NAIS, p. 5). The groups both seemed divided on whether this was hilarious or bizarre. One discussion drifted a bit, conflating the demonstrations of learning with Tony Wagner’s “Seven Survival Skills” (p. 6) and that group demanded to know “who this Tony Wagner guy” was so I explained that he was a prominent author and education professor at Harvard who had written, among other books, Creating Innovators, which our entire faculty had read over the summer. Wagner’s writing, I explained, tends to focus on the need for students to be innovative and to develop their creativity, with the general aim of developing abilities rewarded by Silicon-Valley-type businesses, because he believes that this type of work will be most valued in the economy that they will enter. I was genuinely surprised by the outrage that this statement provoked, especially as our student-body includes more than a few people with deep interest and experience in computer programming, mastery of animation software, digital film and photography, 3-D printing, and other endeavors that fall well within the realm of digital creativity and expertise.

“Building a robot is fine if that’s what you enjoy, but why should I have to spend a huge amount of time doing it if I don’t want to?” asked one girl.  There followed a discussion of the sorts of things that they are interested in, including medicine, community service, environmentalism, business, and economics. I think the student here asked a fair question. Does the emergence of the tech sector mean the decline of the more traditional professions? And how many of our graduates end up in traditional versus tech-sector employment?  In our 21st century panic, are we distorting the reality of the job market or artificially forcing students down a path that doesn’t coincide with their genuine interests, and in fact may limit their options in non-tech-related fields? (I assume that learning to build a functioning robot would consume quite a big chunk of a student’s coursework. What’s being sacrificed? The humanities? Science?).

Also, why aren’t we talking to students about technology and learning and what works for them? Why don’t we ask them how they feel about having their digital identities co-opted by teachers and school systems? (See Audrey Watters on this ). I don’t know much about coding, but aren’t those jobs fairly easily outsourced? Might we want students to consider the possible injustices associated with the “gig” economy rather than simply resign ourselves to it?

When we push change for its own sake, or from a generalized fear of an uncertain future, we ought to consider what we might be abandoning or short-changing in the bargain. I notice increasingly that my students are reluctant to talk about politics or even current issues generally, largely because they don’t know how to have a civil, reasoned, productive discussion over contentious issues, so they simply avoid them. This does not bode well. Regardless of what the economy will look like in ten years’ time, our society is facing serious problems: climate change, social injustice, a dysfunctional legal system, desperate shortages of mental health professionals, teachers, and social service providers. We suffer from a dearth of good political leadership and an ethically-challenged financial sector. Should we be shoving our best and brightest, those most capable of effective leadership and good judgment, toward an industry based on endlessly “innovating” consumer products or do we want to allow a breadth of experience at the secondary level that allows students the freedom to choose what they value, what fires their interest and enthusiasm, and where they see potential for progress? With due respect to Tony Wagner and the NAIS commission, I fear that it is presumptuous, dangerous, and unfair for us to decide, through limiting curricula to a focus on digital innovation and creativity over content, what future opportunities our students will be prepared to pursue.

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