Knowledge: a useful byproduct of school

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Last week’s through-provoking debate statement was “schools should not focus on teaching things that can be googled.” While both sides of the debate presented good points on this topic, I’d like to express my confusion over some blurriness I see remaining, and give my own two-cents.

Team agree began their video for the debate by asking “why teach it when you can just Google it.” They went on to give reasons why “we are increasingly becoming a world where knowledge is obsolete” and schools should focus their time on teaching skills. They quote a Forbes article, Top Employers Say Millennials Need These 4 Skills, which suggests that schools should focus on helping students develop their attention, their agility, and their humility, and that school should be “more than college.” I have to say that I disagree with the “agree team” this time around, and while I applaud them for taking on this difficult topic, I have a few problems with their arguments.

For example, the “agree” group of debaters cite the Forbes article saying that “attention” is an important skill to have in today’s job market. While talking about this article, one of the group members says that:

The first thing [students] need is attention. If we give students tools like Google and we give them a topic that they are interested in, we allow them to choose that and give them an opportunity to explore those interest on something like Google; we’re taking away what we know as being important because it’s what we as the teacher know, and allowing them to decide what they feel is important.

The point that students will be more motivated to learn something they are interested in is a good one. However, I’m confused – if “schools should not focus on things that can be Googled,” then why give them a project that involves searching Google?  Is the argument here that they students are teaching themselves, via Google?  If so, isn’t the school still involved in “teaching” or at least directing students to the “things that can be Googled”?  Furthermore, this take on “attention” is not the one presented in the Forbes article.

Not only that, but even the Forbes article makes points about “attention” that I find quite off-topic…  Please – really! – please tell me if I’m missing the boat here, but below is my brief analysis of this part of the article. The paragraphs indented and in italics are from it:

“Focus is the new IQ,” says Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport. Technology has increased automation and decreased our focus, creating a high demand for and short supply of workers capable of concentrating.

Um, I’m not sure what the hard data is on this employment “fact.” We all use technology (as my previous blog post mentions, just about everything we use in our daily life, even if you’re out there banging rocks together to make a fire, is in fact “technology”), and I don’t think there is as much of a “short supply of workers capable of concentrating” as this statement suggests.

Attention is conscientiousness. Jake Rozmaryn, CEO of Eco Branding, told me that his firm sees lots of “careless typing and formatting errors in millennial applicant writing and work samples, cover letters, resumes, etc.”

Is “attention” the same thing as “conscientiousness”? Is it “attention to detail” that we’re talking about when we talk about attention? I think this draws attention to our need for clarity when discussing constructs such as “attention” – are we talking about the ability to proofread, or are we talking about the ability to maintain an attention span greater than that of a goldfish’s (as the disagree team of this debate make us ponder in their video).

[Attention is] also time management and follow-through. Executive Recruiter Carolyn Thompson said she’s seen “an increase in people struggling to manage time and prioritize.” Lindsey Dole, Vice President of People at Updater, notes that “very few” entry-level candidates have work experience on projects or internships that have allowed them to “own and execute on a deliverable from beginning to end” – a must-have skill in startup environments like Updater’s.

I think it’s possible that  of Forbes needs to slow down and pay attention to the logic behind what she’s saying. Is sticking with a project “from beginning to end” necessarily an issue of lack of attention?  Perhaps, but I’d say that “time management and follow-through” are quite separate issues from it…

So… getting back to the topic?  Schools should not focus on teaching things that can be googled … I’m sorry, maybe I have weak concentration abilities and poor attention skills, but I’m not sure how any of the above connects to this statement. Is the point that we should not teach things that can be Googled, but instead teach kids how to pay attention? If so, I don’t know how teachers can go about doing a better job of this without technology rather than with it.

If I’m missing something here, would someone please tell me?

It’s amusing that team disagree actually uses the same argument, that of the importance of teaching kids to have better attention skills, but, I think (this too is not very clear to me), to suggest that schools should in fact continue to teach materials that are “Google-able.”

Among other sources, this group draws on points made in Nicholas Carr’s article Is Google Making Us Stupid: What the Internet is doing to our brains. First of all, I have to say that I enjoyed this article. As a lit major myself, I nodded my head when I read Carr’s quotation from Scott Karp’s blog: “’I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,’” he wrote. “’What happened?’” “’What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?’”

This idea that the way we are thinking is changing because of the way we are encountering reality (now via the world of the web) is fascinating. I was thinking of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” point just as I got to Carr’s paragraph in which he writes that

media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, [that] media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I have to admit that I can feel this happening to me, too.  I need to make a conscious effort to turn my phone to “do not disturb” before doing my bedtime reading… and that bedtime reading doesn’t happen as much as it used to – I now find myself skimming my Twitter feed or checking my messages on various apps… all of this from someone who (until recently) hardly ever used my phone and certainly didn’t feel it was a major part of my life. Now, even as I type this, I have it pinging next to me as I skim – not really even read – most of the articles I need to look at for this class!  (oops, don’t tell my prof 😉

But again, does this issue (of less-than-deep reading/thinking from our over-reliance on digital technology) mean that schools should not teach things that are online?  I’d still have to say the answer is a big “no!”

Let me put it this way: I teach English as a Second Language. One could theoretically learn English through using Google… but who would want to?  This is why I’m not afraid of losing my job any time soon.

Another reason: We are more than the sum of our knowledge. We need to remain engaged in the issues of our social and physical world – with all of its serious problems that need – and will always need – solving. We need to care about each other and our planet more than we do. Schools can and should teach kids to do this. But if we take away the job of teaching knowledge from the work of schools, we will do away with schools. Why? Because in this rewards-based society, where all the talk is about “employ-ability,” who would really send their kids to school just for the sake of teaching them to be decent human beings and contributing members of the world-wide-community? Teaching “critical thinking” and “creativity” (and yes, “digital citizenship and media literacy”) are important, but are these topics alone going to fill a 12-year curriculum?  I don’t see how. And, at least for now, school is a place where yes, kids may spend 12 years learning the knowledge that they could and do learn elsewhere, but they also get socialized – for better and in some ways, for worse.

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