By Andrea Alban-Davies

Have you spent time in your child’s classroom recently? If so, you most likely recognized, instantly, how little has changed since you were a kid, or even since your parents were kids. Sure, the desks are no longer organized in neat little rows, but are, instead, arranged into small groups. And, yes, there are small nods to how radically our world has changed, with a white board replacing the blackboard, and computers and tablets lining the back wall. The pedagogy, however, remains largely unchanged.  

The teacher is the source of information, and the methodology of imparting that knowledge is principally through direct instruction: the teacher talks, the students listen. The teacher asks questions and students endeavor to produce the answer(s) that the teacher is looking for. Worksheets and textbooks (with their broad, but shallow, coverage of content) are still alive and well, both in the classroom and the homework folder. Students are asked to listen, memorize, repeat, and retain. Perhaps the only meaningful difference for this generation is how frequently they are tested and assessed. This can all either feel comfortably familiar and reassuring... or somewhat alarming given what is needed to succeed in the world we live in today versus the industrial world that public school has been preparing children for over the last century and a half.  

To be sure, none of this is particularly new; warning bells have been sounding for decades on the need to change our traditional public school education system. But sometimes even those who listen to the research and understand the urgent need for change can get so bogged down in the ‘how’, that they end up throwing up their hands and settling for small tweaks around the margins (after all, the system that seems to be working ok for now), leaving the core unchanged. That is why it was such a true privilege to have Chris Dede, Harvard Professor of Education, come speak publicly (at the invitation of the Rye City School District) about how large-scale formal education can be — and, in fact, is being — transformed in schools around the country through the use of digital technologies. He has spent an entire career contemplating questions surrounding how to keep our classrooms relevant, and how to prepare today’s students for the workplace of the future.

Currently, his journey finds him working with colleagues on technology-based solutions that foster immersive learning, complex causal reasoning, and teamwork, among many other things, and that are in use today in a diverse group of schools. (Incidentally, he and his colleagues make many of these resources available for free.)

Professor Dede began his talk by outlining the limits of our current model. He used the metaphor of teaching a student to operate a “player piano” to describe the current state of public education. It’s just fine, as long as the world demands that someone turn a crank and predictable, replicable music comes out. The problem arises, however, when we’re living in a world that increasingly needs people to play in what Professor Dede called the “jazz combo”. Those of us in the audience didn’t need to know much about music to understand what he was saying: learning how to operate a player piano will not afford you the skills and flexibility to play in tomorrow’s jazz combo.

He proposed a new kind of classroom. One where the teacher is a facilitator (not a lecturer), the student is a symbolic analyst (not a clerk), learning is about thinking skills (not information transfer), cognition is about process (not warehousing information), the unit is a team (not an individual), assessment is authentic/portfolio-based over time (not a multiple choice test), and the questions are asked and answered primarily by the students (not the teacher). He was talking about preparing our students for an innovation-based economy, where the key regarding knowledge isn’t about how much you can store, but rather how you use the knowledge, dissect it, put it back together, make inferences from it, and, most importantly, use it to formulate the next important question, which often may not have an answer — yet.

He then showed us in more detail the real digital technology solutions that he is collaborating on for use by students as early as third grade. They are so exciting not only for the incredible multi-faceted learning opportunities they afford, but also because they are accessible to every district and its teachers that are willing to invest time and thought into addressing the new challenges their students will face when they leave their classrooms.

While digital technologies are not the solution to all of the problems we face, in large schools like ours they could be a bridge to the kind of classroom that Professor Dede champions, both when they are <and aren’t > in use. Best of all? They don’t require us to tear down the entire system that we’ve built — a system with many strengths, including a rock-solid community, strong social cohesion, and a deep commitment to intellectual values — but, instead, allow us to build upon our strengths to find the best way forward for our students.  

Sure, we’ll probably need to rely on experts during the transition, and surely there will be painful bumps (and perhaps dips in some traditional metrics) along the way, but if the product is creative, collaborative, flexible, inquisitive, self-starting, accepting, communicative, innovative, engaged, and happy graduates — citizens ready to tackle the challenges of the 21st century — isn’t it worth it?