A Vision of K-12 Students Today

There’s a Youtube video “A Vision of K-12 Students Today,” that seems to be the junior version of the vision of college students today video, only with less whiny students. At least college students have some choices, whereas most K-12 students are forced through the involuntary factory of public education.

The complaints are a bit different. All these students want to be “engaged,” of course, and engagement is apparently always the responsibility of the teacher and never the student. In many ways I’m quite sympathetic to these students. I’m sure many of their classrooms are boring and their teachers dull. I spent my pre-college years wondering whether the educational system was designed to do anything other than bore me into submission. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t. I’ve struggled to make sure my daughter doesn’t suffer the stultifying effects and methods of the typically dull educational system.

What I’m not particularly sympathetic to or impressed by is the assumption that the problem with all of their schooling is that they don’t use “technology” enough. It seems to be a tragedy that most of their teachers haven’t used blogs or wikis, because, you see, these students are “digital learners.” They hold up signs saying “If we learn by doing” and “What are we learning sitting here?”

But what does that mean, we learn by doing? Is that always the case? One learns to be a historian by “doing history,” I suppose, but that’s not necessarily the way one learns about history. It’s how one learns to write poetry, but one doesn’t need “technology” for that. It’s not necessarily how one learns to be a citizen. It is how one learns to make a wiki, but is making a wiki at all difficult? As a sometime teacher as well, I question this logic. I teach writing in the context of political philosophy. Whether I know how to use blogs and wikis is irrelevant to this activity. Class discussion of difficult texts doesn’t require “digital engagement,” and yet they are a cornerstone of a liberal education.

One student asks, “How do you learn?” A better question might be, what are you learning? “What kind of education would you want me to have?” “If I were your son?” “Your Daughter?”

I can answer this one quite easily, since I in fact have a K-12 daughter. What I want for my daughter is a sound liberal education, because I believe that liberal education will prepare her best to be a satisfied human being, a concerned citizen, and a person eminently capable of adapting to the changing circumstances of the world. What I want might be partially understood by referring to Common Core or in this text, Beyond the Basics, or Dorothy Sayer’s “The Lost Tools of Learning,” or just a good liberal arts curriculum. This video seems to imply that the various digital technologies they want to use are at all difficult to use, as if anything that doesn’t use digital technologies is somehow inadequate for them. I’ve had no trouble adapting quickly to technology or changing circumstances, but I think that’s best explained by a long and rigorous liberal education. Using technology for these “digital natives” is all fine, but what are they using the technology to teach? A bigger problem with their education is probably the aggressive standardized testing they’re subjected to and their relatively insubstantial curriculum than the fact that they can’t make a wiki for class.

Some of the comments seem odd. For example, we’re told that soon the largest English-speaking country will be China, and then that there are more honor students in China than there are people in North America. Okay. I wonder if all those honor students in China are buckling down with their laptops and iPods, and that’s why they’re learning so much English. Really, I don’t wonder at all, because I don’t see the connection between this and anything else in the video, especially the very next frame where the sign reads “But only 1/2 of us will graduate from high school.” The “But” implies that somehow this is related to the previous statements on China, as if there being so many honors students in China somehow leads to half of American students not graduating from high school in some sort of bizarre intercontinental zero-sum high school graduation game. I also wonder where they got these statistics. According to the census data, in 2001 the number of high school graduates per 100 17-year-olds was 72.5, not great, but not 50% either. And according to this census study, the percent of Americans 25 and older with a high school education in 2003 was 83.2 and is projected to be 87.3 by 2028, and this is the “low projection.” The high projection is 91.0. I have no idea whether this is correct, but I’m at least citing the source.

This confusion may be designed to put the next statements into perspective: “Teach me to think.” “To Create.” “To Analyze.” “To Evaluate.” “To Apply.” All of these actions are necessary to take the statements on China and American high school graduation rates and make any sense of them whatsoever. But then comes, “Teach me to think. Let me use the WWW.” I posit that using the WWW and learning to think have no necessary connection with each other, and that in fact the conceptual clarity and analytical agility that these students need would be better served by a strong liberal arts curriculum or a good course in logic, and they don’t need computers or digital cameras for either of these.

If there is any sense to the comparison of China and American high school students, what might it be? One relation might be increasing globalization or cultural diversification, or perhaps the need to be able to communicate with and understand those of different countries and cultures. What makes this sort of communication or understanding more likely: being able to manipulate digital images, or a grounding in world history and foreign languages? Or perhaps they’re trying to imply that Chinese students just work harder than American students? That might certainly be the case, but what does this have to do with being digital learners? Who wrote the script for this thing, anyway?

Sometimes I hesitate even to make arguments like this, because opponents will too easily assume that anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the “digital learning” argument is somehow opposed to such technology. This is hardly the case for me. I’m immersed in digital technology at work and at home. My daughter’s school has a classical curriculum and no computers. She loves it, and somehow, shockingly, she manages to learn. Videos like this imply that something like a miracle must be occurring if this is so. Does this mean she won’t grow up sufficiently “digital” to make her way in life? I doubt it. She’s got the family desktop, her own OLPC laptop, her iPod, and various other playthings. She spends plenty of time on various digital activities. These are easy things to do, which is why an 8-year-old can do them so easily.

Education is certainly about more than conforming the students to No Child Left Behind, but it’s also about more than “digital learning,” and learning can take place without the digital. There are numerous problems with the public education system, but whether the students are digitally engaged is a lesser problem than the content of the curriculum, the control of teachers over the classroom, union opposition to pay for performance, or various other things. Students need to learn to read and do math, but they also need to learn about history and the arts. They need to know about their own and other cultures. They need to learn to speak and write effectively. And of course they need to learn to think, create, analyze, evaluate, and apply. It’s very possible that they would develop these skills more in debate class than they would in any number of “digital media.”

Digital learning or digital nativism have little to do with the many problems facing American education today. If students can’t think, create, analyze, evaluate, or apply, the problem is most likely not that they are “digital natives” and that all their old fogey teachers don’t know how to make wikis. That argument implies that children today are incapable of learning unless they are learning “digitally,” but this argument can be turned around. If students are incapable of learning by reading books or engaging in discussion or approaching difficult subjects logically as well as analogicallly, this isn’t necessarily the fault of the teachers of the educational system. It just shows that these students aren’t very intelligent or adaptable, which is probably not the case.

They note in the video that their parents use email, but that they IM and text. So be it. But if these students are as unadaptable as this video implies, and are incapable of adjusting to the common world and communicating across generations, it might be surprising if they don’t graduate from high school, but it will hardly be surprising if they don’t finish college or get jobs. Part of a liberal education is learning what has come before, especially the best that has been thought and said, and adapting it to changing circumstances. As Heidegger noted, we are thrown into being, and as Wittgenstein argued, there is no private language. We are immersed from birth in what has come before, and struggle to adapt ourselves to a culture, history, and language that precedes us. To imply that because children today text while their parents email we are encountering some sea change in what it means to be a human being and that the newer humans we call students can’t adapt to a common world that preexists them and we can’t communicate properly with them is to do both the students and ourselves a disservice.

As academic librarians, we face the recent products of the educational system every year. What would make it easier for students to be able to do library research? More digital learning, or a good liberal education. Are those two things incompatible? Certainly not. But I’m skeptical that the discussion seems to be around the medium and not around the content, as if introducing more blogs, wikis, and digital media into classrooms would somehow solve our educational problems.

2 thoughts on “A Vision of K-12 Students Today

  1. Wayne:
    Thank you for this most excellent post. We, too, have a daughter at a classical school, and what they are teaching is phenomenal. My husband and I thought we were well-educated, until we see what she is learning in 3rd grade.
    I work with adult students in a college library, and my students are the polar opposite of the undergrads in the notorious YouTube video. They know first-hand how much work is expected of them, and are, almost universally, willing to put in all and then some (in spite of full-time jobs and full-time family responsibilities). They appreciate the value of their education, because they are paying for it (mostly out-of-pocket), and so their expectations for the professors are high – but what a great dynamic to be part of! I would be hard-pressed to go back to working with regular 18-22 year-olds.
    Thanks again for bringing a notable sense of thoughtful reflection to the blogosphere.

  2. Wayne,
    My children are in very good public schools, and while I do see problems with the focus on standardized tests, there are some good teachers who push the students to think. My younger daughter recently came home and told me about a social studies class where they acted out the shooting of Ferdinand that started WW1. She loved doing it, and afterwards all the class could remember what happened. WITH NO TECHNOLOGY. And in grade 4, she had a social studies teacher who used this sort of role playing, plus songs, to get the kids ready for standardized tests. She still remembers the songs!
    And what about the responsibility and pride that my daughters have learned from working hard to take care of horses and help the young riders at the barn where they ride. It has made a great difference to their self-confidence and class participation. And it doesn’t involve technology.
    I don’t think more technology will cure all the ills people seem to think are part of the education system. Just like, I don’t think student evaluations of professors and courses should be the reason for change. University should teach students how to think and read research papers – while Science and Nature have podcasts, they only summarize some of the papers, so sooner or later you have to look at an article. Surely students are there to learn, not to tell the professors what they want to know. But that is a topic for later.

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