Are We Relevant?

With every pedagogical and strategic decision we make at Butler University, we must ask ourselves a crucial question:  “What will the future of learning look like?”

James M. Danko, President Butler University

Yesterday I pulled the quarterly Butler Magazine from my mailbox.  I dumped the bills and junk mail on my desk and sauntered toward a comfy canvas patio chair on the deck, the Butler Magazine in tow.  Let me be completely honest, the Butler Magazine doesn’t often stir me with excitement, but this spring edition was completely different.  The full cover depicted Butler’s new brand, The Future of Learning, Choosing the Right Path.  I turned the cover to read the president’s letter.  James Danko began his message with the quote above.  Let me ask you the same question:  “What will the future of learning look like?”

The Butler College of Education’s vision statement begins with these words, “We must prepare students for schools as they should be, not simply perpetuating schools as they currently exist.”  Schools as they should be?  Please don’t focus on a specific model but rather imagine this as a relentless pursuit of truth, relevance, and application – each day a new justification for its existence, a new opportunity for growth.  The fundamental context of this complex confluence called learning is always the student, our learner.  Who are these individuals?  What does the world demand of them in 2015?  Who do our students aspire to be?  The art of my job as an administrator presents exciting challenges.  Educators get to raise the curtain to a phenomenal world.  We want them to experience this world with all of their senses.  This world must be relevant; each student has a birthright to interact, each according to his curiosity, each according to their discovered passions.  Teachers are not primarily dispensers of knowledge.  Rather, we are mediators in series of connections and attendant meaning for our students.  By instilling and assisting our student’s critical thinking we empower our students to self-instruct, to synthesize ideas and beget new ones, the highest level of critical thinking.

What will the future of learning look like?  Whatever it looks like, strong critical thinking must permeate the learning dynamic.  Our children from the first day they cross a school threshold must learn how to organize new information, assess uncertainties, ask good questions, determine problems to be solved, develop multiple strategies to solve problems, appreciate different points of view, work in teams, and always be open to new information that may lead to new solutions.  This is a journey that never has a final destination.  The Irish band U2 said it well, “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  We don’t ever want a child’s curiosity to be sated.  Feed the monster.

Lisa Randall is an amazing woman.  A child prodigy, Lisa went on to become one of the world’s best theoretical modelers in the field of particle physics.  Dr. Randall has written two fabulous books, Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  These two magical discussions make the Standard Model of particle physics assessable to mere mortals like me.  Most of us look at experts like Dr. Randall as apex critical thinkers.  We stand in awe as they grapple with the seemingly incomprehensible universe.  But do you know what struck me most about Lisa and her colleagues?  It is their humility.  The more they know, the more they realize what they don’t know.  If new knowledge shatters their understanding of the universe, they do not perceive a failure.  They see an opportunity.  Lisa says, “I cannot wait for secrets of the cosmos to begin to unravel.”  What do I want the future of learning to look like in the classroom?  No matter what it physically looks like, I want my students to say, “I can’t wait to learn what comes next in my personal journey.”

What will the future of learning look like? Butler President Danko’s words were not merely a challenge, they were a warning.  Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen predicts that half of all American universities may be bankrupt by 2028.  Culture changes, American education must adapt or become irrelevant.  Will we heed the current warnings?  Can public entities subject to state and local political forces adapt quickly enough?  Do we have the requisite humility of our apex critical thinkers?  Will we commit to the challenge?  The clock is ticking.

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The Marketplace Speaks

“Where innovation comes in is figuring out the right problem to be solved, the right question to ask, and then figuring out a better way to solve the problem.  You can’t just come up with a solution for today’s problem.”

Rick Hassman, Director or Corporate Applications, Pella Corporation

What does the marketplace want from our college graduates?  Are they getting what they need from this fresh crop of entry level workers?  Grab your electronic device and search the web.  The news isn’t good.  Bosses sing a similar tune.  These kids are ill prepared to carry their weight on the team.  In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education American Public Media’s Marketplace survey of over 700 businesses, better than half of the employers polled had real difficulty finding qualified candidates for job openings.  All of this is happening in a period of high unemployment!  So what do these companies want that we aren’t delivering in education?

A survey published in January of 2015 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities interviewed employers and prospective graduates separately.  Each party evaluated graduates separately.  Both were asked to evaluate graduates on a wide range of skills.  The percentages in Table 1 below reflect those who believe graduates are adequately prepared in that particular skill.

Table 1

Proportions saying they/recent college graduates are well prepared in each area

Skill Employers Students
Working with others 37% 64%
Ethical judgment and decision making 30% 62%
Working with numbers/statistics 28% 55%
Oral communication 28% 62%
Written communication 27% 65%
Critical/analytical thinking 26% 66%
Being innovative/creative 25% 57%
Analyzing/solving complex problems 24% 59%
Applying knowledge/skills to real world 23% 59%

The obvious disconnect between employers’ needs and the readiness of college seniors shouts at us.  The bosses aren’t happy with the best we have to offer.  That fact cannot be overlooked.  These are our strongest academic achievers.  We can’t hide behind the crutch of low expectations.  Something is wrong with our teaching. And our college graduates are oblivious to their short-comings!  Nearly two-thirds believe they possess the goods.  “I’m ready for management,” they cry.  We haven’t even given them a clear picture of expectations in the real world.  We hang them out to dry.

David Boyes, president of a small tech company in Virginia said, “We find that a lot of people, and not just new college grads, people that are coming from a career aren’t getting that skills set.  How do you put an idea forward, and how do you support it, how do you build it, how do you put the facts behind it?  All of those things are critical.”  Our students lack experience.  This is an important implication I draw from the surveys and comments.  Lack of experience explains, in part, the ignorance of these prospective workers.  They don’t miss what they never had because those skills have not been demanded of them, not in the classroom, not at home, not in the workplace.  Every skill demanded by these employers can be taught, strengthened, and reinforced in our youth from the moment we get them as little cherubs.  These skills are universal.  Every child has the right to become a reasoned critical thinker.  Do we as educators, parents, and mentors have the tools to teach these skills to our children?  Can we offer real work at real jobs with exceptional demands to our young people?  These skills must be tested early, or  inevitably learned late, or tragically not at all.

We have a choice; do we leave the teaching of thinking to chance?  Is thinking simply caught or can we intentionally, sequentially, and systematically teach it?  Will we assume the responsibility to teach critical thinking skills or do we assume that these young people will learn these skills by association, a consequence of our current instruction?  Our critics have answered the question for us.  We dare not assume anything.  We must change.  Our instruction must address how our students think.  As Tony Wagner in the Global Achievement Gap puts it, “It is not what you know that’s important.  Rather, it is what you do with what you know that is important.”

Education Must Adapt to Change

Where is your cellphone at this moment?  In your pocket?  Perhaps in your handbag?  I bet it’s in close proximity to your person.  How many times have you used your phone today?  How many different applications have you employed?  Where would you be without it?  How has your cellphone changed your life over the course of the past dozen years?

I just read a brief announcement in Business Weekly last week.  Nokia, the Finnish high-tech giant, hinted that it may re-enter the smartphone market.  Apparently the company is working on a top secret project.  Back in 2008, Nokia dominated the global cellphone market.  By 2013, Nokia dropped out of this sector and sold all of its remaining assets to Microsoft.  Nokia is but one example of the blur created by dynamic change in today’s culture.  “Here today, gone tomorrow” describes our potential standing in the global struggle to remain relevant.  No nation, no business, no worker can afford to relax.  Rapid change is now a way of life.

America spearheaded much of this disruptive innovation.  We reaped spectacular rewards and continue to do so.  But what if the innovation stops?  What if the well runs dry?  What then?  Leaders in business and education are asking this question every day.  And it should challenge every one of us in the work of public education.  How do we confront the threats and opportunities of dynamic change as educators?  Will we innovate?  Will we risk failure to reap the rewards of success?

Public education in America sits on a precarious chair.  Our scores no longer shine bright on the global scene.  The trends shout at us, you’re slipping! So what do we do?  “Work harder,” cry the politicians.  We must score better on our high-stakes test, or else  . . . ,” reply our state officials.  So we work harder.  We target specific objectives.  By golly, we will improve our scores.  We will be a high achieving school.

But is this enough?  We improve our scores.  Every child now knows how to take these tests, there are no surprises.  What have we accomplished?  Can our children now compete with our global competitors and win?  Have we equipped a generation that can adapt to the new realities of disruptive innovation?  Or have we simply created efficient test takers for specific tests?

I believe we need to ask a different set of questions to better frame and address the real issue of change and adaptability.  What is required to deal with novel situations, problems?  What skills must we employ to engage new information, ambiguity?  Can we ask the right questions?  How do we define the problem?  What strategies with scope and sequence do we employ to solve problems?  Do we persist with strategic purpose?  We can no longer afford to construct education in a linear fashion.  We cannot assume the specific skillsets of today will be required tomorrow.  We must teach our children to think critically, creatively.

What do we mean when we say we must teach children how to think?  Specifically, what is critical thinking?  Are there specific components?  How do we develop our instruction to integreate those skills into general education?  How can neuroscience inform our teaching?  How do we measure success anecdotally and empirically?  In the weeks to come I want to explore the basic components of critical thought.  I aim to demonstrate why every child must acquire these skills.  Finally, I hope to illustrate why these skills are absolutely vital in the midst of change, how these skills readily transfer to varied challenges.