2010: A Classroom Odyssey

Symphony #9 In E Minor, Op. 95, “From The New World” – 2. Largo
Antonin Dvorak

2010: A Classroom Odyssey

A Chinese Abacus

A Chinese abacus with the value in each column given.

The music is from Dvorak’s The New World Symphony. It captures the composer’s impressions of what was for him the “New World”, the United States of the early 20th century. But the idea of a “new world” is not specific to any one country or any one idea. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s science fiction was my “new world.” As an educator the idea of a “new world” is found in the impact technology has made on my classroom with the potential of growing it into a room without walls or borders.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey redefined the science fiction film for my generation. I remember thinking how realistic the animations and special effects looked and could not imagine that space ships could be done better, at least not until real space ships could be photographed in actual deep space. About ten or so years later the first Star Wars film came out and the graphics in this film dwarfed the graphics in 2001. I just recently looked at the first Star Wars and the graphics in this film were not as crisp and realistic as I remembered them.

I do not know if this is because special effects in films have gotten so much better or because the films live more vividly in my memory than they ever were in fact. To what extent do the visuals in any film depend on the imagination of the viewer to fill in the missing pieces and smooth out the rough edges. Perhaps this is not unlike what people do when they read something they have written. They see what they intended to write and not always the spelling and grammatical errors they in fact wrote. This is one reason English teachers encourage students to have peers look over their papers before turning them in for a grade.

One reason 2001 was praised so highly was for its vision of the future. Michael Chabon in his book Maps and Legends writes about his love for genre fiction, one of the genres he praised being science fiction. He does not like the 2001 variety of science fiction that attempts to be prophetic in how it imagines the future because these kinds of stories, he thinks, get so much more wrong than they get right. As an example he points out that in 2001 for all the technological marvels that the film imagines, the characters are still carrying around clipboards. In 1968 who imagined “clipboards” smaller than a transistor radio.

Directed by Fritz Lang
Production Company:
Universum Film (UFA)

When the film Metropolis came out it did not receive the attention it received in later years. But it too has been hailed as ground breaking and prophetic, as paving the way for films like 2001. Yet in its opening sequence the futuristic flying machines are bi-planes. The film is amazing for what it was able to accomplish with 1927 technology, but though the spirit of many of its prophesies have come to pass, the letter of these prophesies are a bit wanting. I live near Boston where we just spent billions of dollars doing away with the kind of highway system Metropolis envisions.

Poster of Robot and Futuristic City from the film Metropolis
Poster for the film Metropolis

Will Richardson in his blog comments on a debate on Web 2.0 technology hosted by The Britannica, the folks that bring us that other encyclopedia. The debate focuses on the impact new web technologies will (or will not) have on education and the modern classroom. It is a necessary dialog. Schools are changing as the world in which they live is changing. But to what extent do the future classrooms teachers are being encouraged to imagine resemble the bi-planes and clipboards in these science fiction films.

The problem with the future is that something can happen tomorrow (perhaps it has happened already) that will change the whole direction the future takes. One of the first jobs I had after graduating college was for a banking firm. I worked with customer accounts and everything was done on computers. The computers of 1977 were a bit different from those today. I remember seeing the Hewlett-Packard mainframes that were used to handle all the information the company had to manage and manipulate on a regular basis. There was a room with about a half dozen of these units that stood about six feet tall and maybe three feet wide (I remember their height much more vividly than I do their depth or breadth) and the peripheral equipment necessary to keeping them running. There was a special fire extinguishing material that would suck the oxygen out of the room and kill the fire without using any water. They used huge magnetic tape drives producing reels of tape that had to be stored in other large rooms. It all seemed amazing to me at the time.

I remember being told by one of the folks that worked these machines that most of what was in the computer housing was empty space. He believed they were built as largely as they were not because they required that much space to do what they did, but because no one (at least no one responsible for buying the machines) would believe they could do what they did if they built them any smaller.

The discussion that Will Richardson describes in his blog and that the folks at Britannica are sponsoring is important. Schools do need to incorporate new technologies if they are ever to prepare students adequately for the world that students will find outside of high school. But imagining what that future will in fact look like can be daunting. All schools can do is help students find their bearings in this new world. Wherever the new technology ends up, it will get there through whatever it is we have available to us today. But the world of work in the next decade or so will probably not resemble the world of work today or any world of work we can imagine.

It is not difficult to imagine a time when the new laptop is more of a palm top, something the size of a pocket calculator that serves not only as a computer, but as a telephone, and complete entertainment center as well, that perhaps come with special glasses that make a 2″ screen look like movie theater. But this is easy to imagine because there is technology available today that resembles this. But to what extent are the technologies we imagine the clipboards of our day, remember the clipboards in 2001 did look futuristic.

There is another article in today’s (10/26) Boston Globe. It is about education and America’s place in the global classroom. The article is by Jay Mathews and is called “Making the Grade.” Whatever one thinks of his analysis of American schools as they compete in the world he makes a point that captures the essence of the modern teacher (or what that essence ought to be).

There is, in any event, scant evidence that test scores have much to do with national economic performance. Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, analyzed the disconnect between test scores and economic growth in a column reprinted in his 2001 book, “Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong.” Samuelson told of the computer guru at Newsweek’s Washington bureau who had an English degree but found, through a series of jobs that taught him new skills, that he had become a technological expert indispensable to Samuelson and his colleagues. “People don’t learn only at school,” Samuelson concluded. “What counts – for the economy, at least – is what people do at work. . . . On the job, people learn from supervisors, mentors, co-workers, customers and – most important – experience. One Labor Department study estimates that about 70 percent of training in the workplace is informal. Culturally, this is America’s strong suit.” Mathews, “Making the Grade”

What struck me was not just that the computer guru at Newsweek did not have a degree in technology, but that he had a degree in English, which is probably as far removed as one can get from conventional thinking about computer gurus. The important thing I take from this is that the 21st century teacher does not only need to be the master of her or his discipline but also to be open minded, adaptable, and possess a vigorous curiosity. There is not a lot of money to spend on the kind of professional development that will make good teachers into technologically savvy teachers. The way professional development is done in most schools would probably do more harm than good in any case.

This means that teachers will probably need to explore independently and possess a level of curiosity that will motivate this kind of exploration. This would also suggest that time needs to be made available to teachers to do this. People often talk about money as an issue in education but that is an incomplete argument. No matter how much my school pays me there are still only twenty-four hours in a day and no amount of money will enable me to do twenty-five hours of work in a twenty-four hour block of time.

As the Richardson article argues, each discipline has its own needs and dynamics and the lessons designed for each discipline need to come from within that discipline and from that discipline’s teachers. But what are also needed are teachers like the technology guru at Newsweek, who want to play around and explore the neighborhoods of these new technologies. School districts are not likely to pay teachers for the exploring they do or the curriculum they develop, nor are the tools going to be easy to come by with the economic problems currently faced by all of the public sector. But students need to see modeled in the classroom not only the kinds of adaptability the work place of the future will demand and reward but also the kind of enthusiasm for these new tools and technologies that will get students excited by this future and their place in it.