American Education in 2030

Take 10 men and 1 woman to think about American Education in 2030. That is what Standford’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, a public policy think tank, has done. The result is an ebook and a website with the author’s video comments: www.americaneducation2030.org.

First, one could argue that the group of authors isn’t the best example for gender equality. Second, the essays aren’t covering a wide range of educational issues as I expected beforehand just reading the title. The articles are clustered into Curriculum and Instruction (five), Standards and Testing (two), Governance and Finance (four), and Privatization and Choice (two), with a lot of overlapping territory, e.g., technology or national standards and testing. The best read is probably the conclusion by Chester Finn, a recapitulation of what actually changed in American education from 1990 to 2010, as a form of evidence of what is possible within 20 years.

American Education in 2030 - Not much time left

Most of the essays are written in past tense travelling to 2030 and looking back. This Back-to-the-Future-Part-2 approach is quite entertaining and a good read.

Some authors cite Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle and a cliché in American education: “Had Rip awakened in a classroom 20 years later, he would have noticed no changes at all.” Hopefully this won’t be true for American education in 2030. And most of the authors are convinced that change will happen. However, I would not agree with Paul E. Peterson’s top-down suggestion that “changes will move from the college level downward through high school into middle school.” In my opinion, the only starting point is “the best part of the twentieth-century school” (Peterson), the elementary school. Otherwise it would lead to a future, that President Obama described recently: “Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, rather than a tool of empowerment.”

Many authors stress the benefits of computer access, new teaching materials and computer adaptive testing. In my opinion, one has to be very careful to get the use of technology in education right. Everything depends on the people teaching and learning, and how they use technology. In “American Education in 2030” I missed that perspective. Nevertheless it is a good starting point to discuss a more responsive, efficient and effective education system than we have today.

For further reading and downloading American Education in 2030 (2010), edited by Chester E. Finn Jr., visit: www.americaneducation2030.org


Ellen and Eleanor try out iPad and iPhone

Maybe these two videos explain why the iPhone may not perfectly fit educational needs, but the iPad does! The touch screen and intuitive usability were already there from the very beginning. But for Kids, and not only for them, less is more! The iPod touch was a great step in this direction. I remember my son playing with an iPod touch from the age of 1. But now, the iPad’s bigger screen is the latest development that was still needed to be able to develop real educational Apps. What do you think?

Ellen’s iPhone parody

Eleanor, 2, tries out an iPad


(thx Ellen and Gizmodo)


With new technology, literacy evolves

It was Louis Braille, a student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, who modified the French Army’s “night writing”  in 1821 and came up with what is known as Braille today. For the first time in history, blind people had access to a reliable method of written communication, resulting in a signifant rise in social status. Louis Braille was embraced as a liberator.

Braille code where the word “premier” (French for “first”) can be read.

Nowadays, with more and more written words digitized, MP3 players, audio books and screen-reading software are a real alternative for blind people to access and communicate in the written language, without even knowing Braille. A report by the National Federation of the Blind found that less than 10 percent of legally blind Americans learn to read and write Braille today. Back in the 1950s it was roughly half of all blind children.

There has been a big debate whether this affects cognitive development. Moving from the written to the spoken language may have more cultural consequences rather than cognitive ones. It is about losing your own way of communication, and discussing that issue may be as passionate as the debate about cochlear implants and their imoact on the use of sign language, or the decreasing of language variety in general.

But I would rather like to link the developments of Braille and new technology to the learning of reading and writing in schools today. Although for sighted people the transition from written and printed texts to digital representations has been more subtle, it is still remarkable and has important impacts, too. It will probably affect our general view of literacy. With new technology, literacy has become harder to define.

That's how text messaging looked like in 1912. (c) Underwood & Underwood
That’s how text messaging looked like in 1912. (c) Underwood & Underwood

Take penmanship for example: While handwriting was still necessary in the last century for documents, reports, etc., this is no longer the case today. The majority of formal documents are expected to be typed and most people use handwriting, if at all, only for informal notes and reminders. One could question the relevance of learning penmanship at all. A few decades ago, experts even predicted that the electronic age would create a postliterate generation as new forms of media eclipsed the written word. Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher and scholar best known for his expression “global village”, claimed in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) that Western culture would return to the “tribal and oral pattern.”

Do we really need to learn penmanship to be literate people today? The architecture of our brain is flexible. Blind people for instance consistently surpass sighted ones on tests of verbal memory, according to a 2003 study in Nature Neuroscience. Instead of teaching handwriting, it would be more appropriate to teach digital literacy, not least because even standardized tests are employing the new technologies. For example, in 2011, the writing test of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) will require 8th and 11th graders to compose on computers, with 4th graders following in 2019.

Although one could argue that the question of teaching and testing is only another form of asking: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, I would argue, that even without testing future education will be much more about digital literacy rather than calligraphy. And new technology will not only affect the way we teach reading and writing, but also the way we teach art, music, mathematics, science, foreign languages and literature. I am curious about the new approaches and very happy to live in a global village.


The School of Facebook

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” This famous misquotation of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates became popular in the 1960s, when it was used by the Mayor of Amsterdam and reported by The New York Times, on April 3, 1966.

Rafael: The School of Athens

Nowadays, parents and teachers once again are concerned about the bad manners or the social well-being of their kids.

Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 spend on average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day using some sort of electronic device, from smartphones to MP3 players to computers, The Kayser Family Foundation reported earlier this year. You can go to any campus or school, and you will probably find an immediate flipping up of phones and texting when the lesson is over. Parents are concerned about the fact that kids no longer care about language as an art and gift. And they wonder: If some of these digital natives have more than 500 “friends” on social networks like Facebook, do we have to be concerned about the future?

We do, certainly. But we should look a little bit closer first. As The Economist reported in an article entitled “Primates on Facebook” last year, even people with very many Facebook friends, mutually communicate only with some happy few. 10 to 16 people, according to a study of the Facebook Data Team, taking into account gender differences. The average user on Facebook has “only” 120 confirmed friend connections and mutually communicates with 3 to 7 people. This looks quite similar to the good old concept of friendship.

(c) Facebook Data Team: Maintained Relationships on Facebook

And even if Facebook seems to devaluate the term “friend”, and although parents might be impressed or scared of the social multitasking skills of their children, digital natives seem to be able to build up and maintain friendships in their social networks. As the Economist put it: “The neocortex is the limit.”

It was Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from Oxford, who extrapolated from the brain sizes and social networks of apes and suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Many institutions, from neolithic villages to the maniples of the Roman army, seem to be organized around this Dunbar number. And even digital natives in their new habitat of social networks do not exceed those limits.

Until recently concerns about the use of technology have been focused on the implications for kids’ intellectual development. Now, it is taken into account how technology is affecting social relationships and friendship. This brings the worry about the social repercussions of technology from the darker side of online interactions, like cyber-bullying or texting sexually explicit messages, to the light.

In my opinion, most of the concerns of the elder generation result from something Remo Largo, swiss MD and early childhood specialist would call “misfit” between Kids’ behavior and their environment. Then education would be about rearranging learning and living to better match the children’s individual needs. That means new approaches to digital literacy to address a second digital divide. But it is also about being interested in the kids’ needs and their new virtual habitat. Better education will help them to find the balance between broadcasting and privacy, networking and friendship, multitasking and concentration, lightweight conversation and personal reflection, online networks, and real life.

This southpark episode is a very good starting point:



Digital Divide 2.0

The first digital divide has faded in schools but a second one is emerging, a study of the OECD, a rich-country think-tank, concludes.

Digital Divide 1.0 (c) www.toby-ng.com

The term digital divide came up in the 1990s when the internet made its way into public consciousness. It describes the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. Digital divide in the first place was about the gap between those 7 people in our global village of 100 that have computers and the rest. The OECD study found that someone living in a rich country would probably be amongst those 7 people having access to computers. Regarding the students in particular, the picture is even brighter: in almost all OECD countries all students attend schools equipped with computers. 88% of computers at schools are connected to the Internet.

But the issue is far from closed. According to the study computer use can make a difference in educational performance if the student is duly equipped with the right set of competences, skills and attitudes. In their absence, no matter how intense the computer use is the expected benefits are going to be lost.

If policy making would be finished by putting computers and hardware into schools it would be like saying: Here is a book. Here is a paper. Here is a pen. Now you can read and write! No one would really argue, that this is the right approach to address illiteracy. Surprisingly and on the contrary, many policy makers still tend to use the paper-and-pen-approach in their decision making process on ICT use in schools. Therefore Michael Trucano of the World Bank recently assembled an insightful list of Worst practice in ICT use in education.

If you agree that you can’t fight illiteracy with a paper and a pen alone, than you would probably agree that fighting the first digital divide by putting computers in classrooms is only a precondition to fighting the real digital divide. The OECD study thus identified a “new” second form of digital divide between those who have the right competences and skills to benefit from computer use, and those who have not. For me and for many others this isn’t news, because there has always been a digital divide between my grandparents and me for instance, from the very beginning of the information age.

The OECD study may not be noteworthy in 2010 for its newness, but it could facilitate additional discussions and debates amongst policy makers and educators about digital literacy. And this is what really lies at the core of the educational challenge faced by many countries today.

(c) 1962 St. Louis Post-Dispatch