Learning to relearn in a digital world

There are three main types of knowledge that can be taught and learned in schools:

  • Content: facts, concepts, and processes that are the stuff of instruction
  • Tools: classes of devices (including software) used to manipulate, remodel, re-purpose, and re-imagine facts, concepts, and processes.
  • Skills: procedures required to use those tools efficiently and effectively.

Of the three types of knowledge, skills are the most important for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Content expires quickly

Having content at one’s fingertips is probably useful for people who create bubble tests, but for most people remembering the factual material taught in school isn’t useful in the long term.

Content is primarily information we can look up as needed. Content is just stuff: It comes and becomes obsolete faster than entries in the Urban Dictionary.

For example, for decades there were nine planets. Then Pluto was demoted for not being good enough, and we bought T-shirts saying “In my day there were nine planets.”  Two years later, scientists found what they think may be a genuine planet at the edge of our solar system. Overnight our knowledge and our T-shirts were obsolete.

Similarly, this years’ PD on mindfulness and PBL will be replaced by PD on some other buzzwords and acronyms next year.

Tools become obsolete

In the last 30 years, the tools we’ve used to work with facts, concepts, and processes have become outdated almost as quickly as our content.

For example, the entire tool class known as word processors emerged and disappeared in a quarter of a century.  (If you remember using stand-alone word processors, you probably should be reviewing your Medicare coverage options for 2017 instead of reading this post)

Search engine AltaVista  and web host GeoCities—big names in the information sector 20 years ago—have become Jeopardy questions for nerds. Yahoo, which purchased both companies, seems to also be disappearing into technology’s sinkhole.

In five years we may be asking each other, “Do you remember when we used Twitter and Canva?”

Skills have durability

In the midst of all the degradable knowledge in our information age, skills still have remarkable staying power.

Chances are, if you learned how to use AltaVista in the ’90s, you learned how to use at least one other search engine since then.

If you created websites with GeoCities back in the ’90s, you probably have learned how to use several tools for creating websites and digital presentations since then.

Certainly, many tool-specific skills that were essential 20 years ago have practically disappeared—using a card catalog, writing a paper check, or operating a mimeograph machine are skills the under-20 population has not experienced—but the meta skills for retrieving information, transferring money, and making printed duplicates of written material have not changed.

Twitter may die off, but people will still use tools for interpersonal communication across distances.

The ability to learn to use a new digital tool with which to manipulate content to produce original outputs is a learning skill that can transfer from old tool to emerging tool and from old content to new content.

In my next post, I’ll explore what we need to teach (and what we shouldn’t bother to teach) to enable students to become good re-learners.

If you’re one of the 1,200+ people who subscribe to this blog by email (you wonderful people!) or one of the equally wonderful people who pick it up through RSS or through postings on Twitter or LinkedIn, you know that skill learning is one of my soapbox issues. Here are some of my earlier posts on the topic:

Reflections on learning from work experiences

Learning when those who can, teach

Work experience as education

Use your bloomin’ mind; get some bloomin’ skills


Student involvement in superintendent search

Since my local school district has been looking for a new superintendent, I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about the process.  In the last few weeks, I’ve written several posts¹ about various facets of the process, with particular emphasis on its public relations aspects.

I deliberately avoided discussing the role of students in the process for two reasons.

First, although students are certainly impacted by the work of a superintendent, they typically don’t know much about what the superintendent does or how she does it.

Second, students probably have even less information about the laws governing hiring than adults, who typically have little.

Those two considerations render students’ input into selecting the best candidate of little value.

That said, however, students could be very useful in other ways that also provide them with genuine learning opportunities.

Learn and share: 3 potential activities

I hate having students do a project that accomplishes only one objective, so I’ll suggest three ways that students could

  1. learn some communications skills
  2. while learning some other content, and
  3. providing a community service.

First idea. Students could research facets of employment law to develop informational materials for the adult stake holders to use. Depending on their topics, the research could be in print and digital sources or it could be interviews with specialists in human resources and labor law.

Students’ findings could be presented as audio, video, infographics, blog posts, printed pages, etc.

Second  idea. Another potentially useful activity would be the development of information to help candidates get a feel for the school culture.

A 3-minute video about the music program that includes interviews with current and former students, community supporters, and parents would help candidates understand the importance of music in the district, for example.

An infographic about the district, perhaps one on its demographics or one focused on what students do after high school graduation, could be useful not only to candidates but also to a school board attempting to educate its community.

Third  idea. A third potentially useful activity would be the development of information to help newcomers get acquainted with the community. People who have lived all their lives in a community often are oblivious to the kinds of information newcomers, like a new school superintendent’s family, would find useful.

Again students would have a host of options available for presenting their information.

Each of these kinds of activities requires critical thinking, learning, and communicating on real topics for real people in the real world.

¹Other posts on hiring a school superintendent

Superintendent candidate questions

Questions from the community for candidates

Due diligence: Resources for schools hiring a superintendent

The superintendent search: A PR perspective (7-part series)

  • Part 1: Introduction
  • Part 2: Identify stakeholders
  • Part 3: Set stage for stakeholder participation
  • Part 4:  Prepare the invitation to apply and  give potential interviewers resources
  • Part 5:  Keep good interview records
  • Part 6:  Check references following interviews
  • Part 7:  Explain your choice & archive paperwork

Why punctuation matters in 21st century

Jason Renshaw, who teaches English literacy in a vocational program for students 16-18 in Australia, blogged recently that his students have given up using punctuation:

Evidently, the apostrophe is obsolete to my learners, as are capital letters for proper nouns (though, curiously, they do occasionally capitalise the starts of other words for what appears to be something along the lines of emphasis).

At sentence level, commas are very infrequently used and even full stops are sporadic at best (and almost never followed up with a capital letter to signify a new sentence). Question and exclamation marks are seldom employed; colons, semi-colons, dashes and brackets are quite positively extinct.

Jason discusses the reasons students give for their disuse of punctuation, which range from “that’s what computers are for” to the difficulty of punctuating on a mobile phone.  He notes that punctuation-free prose does not look wrong to students. One student him there’s no need to use punctuation when everyone already knows what you mean.

Unfortunately, everybody does not know what you mean.

The 21st century is experiencing an explosion of English users around the world. Most of them will learn English rather than acquiring it. Those new English learners will not know what you mean unless they can parse what you say or write.

Since punctuation is handmaiden to grammar, only those who understand grammar at more than a superficial, acquired language level, will be able to make themselves understood internationally.

Teens tend to have a cosmos that is all ego, to borrow Henry Syndor Harrison’s phrase. A major function of education is to teach students that the world is a bigger than their circle of Facebook friends. That should include teaching them to use punctuation to make themselves understood by people who do not already know what they mean.

Jason’s  Twitter name is @EnglishRaven.
Novelist Henry Syndor Harrison’s 1911 novel Queed, which contains the phrase noted above, is reviewed here on my vintage novel blog.