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Lee Crockett joins us this month to talk about digital learning and what schools must do to change their approach to instruction. The traditional school classroom is still locked in the past and we’re teaching as if it were fifty years ago, according to Lee. We are instructing our kids to be “school smart,” he says, teaching to tests, not giving our students the ability to think critically and creatively, which are the in-demand skills which cannot be easily outsourced or automated. In this provocative interview and in Lee’s new book, co-authored with Ian Jukes and Andrew Churches, you’ll find a road map for rethinking how we educate our kids and why we must shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher, where it has traditionally been, to the learner, where it belongs.
Q: One of the main points you make in all your books is that there is a tremendous disconnect between how our children learn in the digital age and how they are taught in the traditional classroom. The world has changed radically outside of schools, but inside we still teach as if it was fifty years ago. Skills taught in schools that were once valued are now obsolete or not as important as they once were. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Lee Crockett: One of the challenges that we are running into is the disconnect that is happening between children and teachers, and the institution of school in general. The reason for that is that school has been, I guess the reason we call it an institution, is because it has been stable and stagnant for a long time and the things that we are doing now are the same things that we were doing a hundred years ago. Outside school, there has been a lot of change; that means that learners can find information and then can find skills anywhere. Kids in particular, they do not use Google the same way that you and I would use Google to search for something. The first place they go is to YouTube, because when they want to learn something, they want to learn it just in time. The philosophy of ‘just in time learning’ to them means they want to know how to fix a mountain bike until it is time to fix a mountain bike. They don’t want to learn how to fix a mountain bike six months before that, they want to learn it when they need that skill.
“School provides a very structured environment where we do just in case learning … It is a complete disconnect between their style of learning and our traditional style of teaching.”They have learned to be able to access information and to learn in real time. School provides a very structured environment where we do ‘just in case learning,’ where the reason that we tell students they need this piece of information is just in case it is going to be on this exam, just in case you might want to become an engineer or a doctor, or something like that, just in case you want to go to a university, and that is not really something that make sense to them. It is a complete disconnect between their style of learning and our traditional style of teaching.
Q: A key thesis of your book is that schools must change their instructional approach in order to provide students with the most in-demand skills, those that can’t be easily out-sourced or automated.
Lee Crockett: We kind-of addressed that in one of our previous books, Living on the Future Edge, where we talked about outsourcing of anything that is what we call below the neck, so anything that is routine cognitive task work can be automated, can be outsourced, and can be turned into software, and that is actually happening on a global basis right now. When we look at the statistics, the call for that kind of work is diminishing or is nonexistent in the United States, and in most of the western world, because those kind of skills and those kind of jobs can be done easier elsewhere. So, the jobs that are in demand, are what we call creative class jobs and Richard Florida refers to this in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class – jobs, which are non-routine cognitive class jobs, in other words, jobs that require problem solving in real time, the ability to think outside of the box and, under great pressure, come up with solutions.
” … the instructional approach in school builds what we call a culture of dependency … dependency on the teacher, dependency on the text book … where the job of students is to sit and be told exactly what to do, how to do it, and then to be tested on regurgitating that same piece of information.”The challenge that we have is the instructional approach in school builds what we call a culture of dependency, we really focus on dependency on the teacher, dependency on the text book, dependency on the entire structure, where the job of students is to sit and be told exactly what to do, how to do it, and then to be tested on regurgitating that same piece of information or in repeating that skill once it has been demonstrated. Those are lower-level thinking skills; it goes right to the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy, remembering and understanding. What the private sector is looking for, the skills that are in demand, are the higher level thinking skills, the ability to create, the ability to solve problems, and those things do not happen in the traditional school structure; those things happen in a 21st century learning environment, where students are challenged by being presented problems and then getting out of their way and letting them learn; forcing them to think about it and to analyze it, evaluate it, develop solutions on their own, creative solution, creative products to solve real world problems. That is a process that duplicates exactly what goes on in light outside of school. It is only inside of school that we have this particular structure; outside of school, employers and the economy, people are forced to be self-employed. All of that is a different set of skills and a different process than the process that we teach in school.
Q: You refer in your new book to the growing disconnect between being what you call “school-smart” and the actual skills kids need to have – being street-smart. Tell us about this disconnect and why it’s so critical for schools to address?
Lee Crockett: The skill that we teach in school is really what we call educational bulimia. We teach them memorization and regurgitation of information. In a 24/7 Wikipedia world, the skill of being able to remember a significant amount of information is not really a skill that is in demand. Being able to repeat that information is not necessarily something that is needed. The skills, like I said and we have talked about before, about being able to deal with different types of media, being able to communicate and collaborate with people that are not only in the room but on the other side of the planet, the ability to solve problems constantly in real time, those are skills that are needed and that is the difference between school smart and street smart. School smarts is a process, and if we are really honest about it, we all remember going through school and the process to be successful in school involves sitting down three days before an exam, remembering all of the information, and then just studying all the information, all the facts that you were told by the teacher that you needed to learn for the exam, and really dealing with a three-day drill where you put all those things into your head so that you can regurgitate them on exam so that you can forget them for the rest of your life. We give you a diploma and we say that you are educated, but that is really nothing other than school smarts, and it really does not relate to the skills that we need to function in the world outside of school. All of us are aware of this. If we think about what we are doing now, how our careers have changed, or how the careers of the people we know have changed, it is completely different than the set of school smarts that we were taught. Really, the only place that those skills are in demand is in academia.
“We give you a diploma and we say that you are educated, but that is really nothing other than school smarts, and it really does not relate to the skills that we need to function in the world outside of school.”Q: You write that “mastery of content is valued over thinking critically about the content.” Can you explain?
Lee Crockett: If you think about how most of the testing is done these days, most of the testing is done in multiple choice or short answer form. As a matter of fact, Bob Marzano says that 85% of the questions that are on exams today are just that, lower-leveled thinking of either remembering or understanding. We use words like “describe” or “explain,” we don’t use things that contrast, compare, or analyze; we don’t use those terms, those higher-level thinking skills. What we focus on is, “Were you able to remember this?” School is broken down to a list of facts and figures, and part of this is the outcome of high-stakes testing, the No Child Left Untested…I’m sorry, the No Child Left Behind initiative, which really valued what facts could be memorized. When you sit down and talk to people who develop curriculum, they will tell you that it is impossible to teach all of the content that is required in the amount of hours that are there for school, so the approach becomes very straightforward. Any curriculum development person who is honest about the process that they have had to go through in the last 15 years will tell you that they go line by line and say, “Can this be tested at a national level? No it can’t. Can this be? No it can’t. Well we do not need to teach those things. Oh, here is a fact that we need to teach. Here is another fact, that we need to teach.” So it becomes, like I said, the focus of educational bulimia, the memorization and regurgitation of that content as opposed to the skills that are necessary, or the thought process that are necessary to find that content or to think about that content, or to develop it on your own. That is much harder to test, especially in a high-stakes situation. That is really why I say we focus on content and not on the critical skills.
Q: Why is the traditional literacy model that schools focus on insufficient for success in the new digital age?
Lee Crockett: The thing is, when school was first conceived a very, very long time ago, it was a brilliant noble cause to try to bring a basic understanding, basic education, and basic awareness to the mass majority of people, truly a noble cause, but the world has changed dramatically since then and we no longer live in a world where we send hand-written letters by post; we no longer live in that world at all, things have changed dramatically. As a matter of fact, we communicate far more now with visual, with multimedia means, than we do with text. So, the focus on being literate by the standards of the 20th century, will make us illiterate by the standards of the 21st century, where communication happens in multiple multimedia formats, where information is available at just an overwhelming rate.
” … the focus on being literate by the standards of the 20th century, will make us illiterate by the standards of the 21st century, where communication happens in multiple multimedia formats …”In the 21st century, the question is when there is so much digital information available, is it more important to be able to remember that information or is it a better skill to be able to access that information to be able to authenticate it, to analyze it, to be able to determine whether it is fact or opinion, to really evaluate that information and then to communicate your ideas, not just through text, but through multiple multimedia formats. It is just as conceivable in the very near future that we will be communicating with short videos or with pictures as much as we will text, or even more so. For the digital generation, that is already the case. They have already dramatically prefer pictures over text and video over or text; they are a visually literate group. It is completely different than the way that you and I were brought up.
Q: You say that in order for students to be successful in the world we have to shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher, where it has traditionally been, to the learners, where it belongs. Why is that the case?
Lee Crockett: The simple reason is, it is their learning and they need to be responsible for it. That is the first thing; just the mindset of it’s not our job to teach, it is their job to learn. It is a mental point that we have to get across to ourselves, but there is more that is involved in it than just that. When you learn the information by yourself, when you discover it, the process of learning it, of understanding it, of uncovering that on your own, is dramatically more effective as far as retention. You will remember that information practically forever. We have to resist the desire to tell everything in school. What happens is when the classroom door closes, we want to start talking. What we do is we demonstrate to the students how smart we are, but at the same time, we bore them completely and we don’t give them the opportunity to find out how smart they can become. It is really a big difference. When the responsibility of the learning moves to the student, when they have to take ownership of that learning, they end up learning far more than they would if it was being done in a full-frontal lecture, you know, talk-and-listen, kind of environment.
“What happens is when the classroom door closes, we want to start talking. What we do is we demonstrate to the students how smart we are, but at the same time, we bore them completely and we don’t give them the opportunity to find out how smart they can become.”Q: You’ve identified five fundamental changes that schools need to make in order to successfully educate students to meet the challenges of the 21st century world. Can you describe these five fundamental changes?
Lee Crockett: The first is that we need to acknowledge that there is a new digital landscape, that there is a digital reality, there is an online computerized world, and that kids spend a great deal of time in this world. This does not mean that schools need to have high speed internet or students need to be able to use tablets or laptops, we just need to acknowledge that there is something more going on and that education needs to transform itself to be relevant in a world that is connected 24/7/365 in multiple ways. The first thing is really to acknowledge that there is a digital landscape and a digital world that our students operate in.
The second thing is, when it comes to technology, we need to provide guidance as well as access. The analogy would be, if you think about handing your sixteen year-old the keys to the car, you know, you wouldn’t just toss them the keys and say, “Take the car.” You should make sure they have a license, that they have probably had some driver training, that you know they are going to be safe, you have an agreement of where they are going to go and how they are going to behave with the vehicle, and what time they are going to be back. But that is just standard, just what we would do as parents being responsible. But we hand the youngest kids digital devices that are connected in an online environment without any kind of agreement as to what is the acceptable use of those devices, how will they use them, how long will they use them, what will they do with them. These are all things that we need to think about. We need to cultivate responsible digital citizens and we are only going to be able to do that if we really make sure that we put the same emphasis on how they would operative with those devices as we would with how they would operate other things in their lives.
” … we really have to change minds and change our mindset, and really start thinking about what does teaching, what does learning, what does assessment look like, and what does it need to look like for this particular generation.”The third thing that we say is that we need to change minds. That means we have to address the thinking patterns that are happening in the digital generation, because how they think, how they learn, what is important to them, is completely, as I said, out of sync with how we traditionally teach it, so we really have to change minds and change our mindset, and really start thinking about what does teaching, what does learning, what does assessment look like, and what does it need to look like for this particular generation.
The next thing is we need to think about teaching the whole learner. We need to move evaluation past the yes/no/true/false/ABCD type of mentality. David Masters uses the analogy that you can get a good picture of a person’s health by taking their height and weight, but to go to a doctor who took your height and weight and said that he completely understood your health, we would not think that is very acceptable; we would be looking for a bunch of different tests, blood tests, blood pressure, urinalysis, all of those things to get a good idea of a person’s health. The same thing comes to assessment; it can’t be a one size fits all kind-of approach. We have to start thinking about something more than does this person remember this bit of information. It has to be more holistic and we got to start teaching more to the whole mind.
The fifth thing we say is that we have to emphasize relevancy and connections, and this just can never be said enough. Learning does not happen unless it is relevant to the learner. It does not matter if it is relevant to the teacher; the teacher is completely irrelevant in the process, it has to be relevant to the learner. The learner has to be able to make connections to it. If they can’t, then the learning will not happen. Far too long, we have gotten away with “You have to learn this because,” and that is not an acceptable answer for the digital generation; they need to be able to connect to the learning, as we all do. The truth of the matter is, you know, I teach workshops and work with districts and states all over the world, and it is the same, I find, for adults; matter of fact, even more so. We have even less patience for material that we cannot relate, to un-engaging methodology. We have no patience for it, yet we expect our students to. We have to be able to make sure that we can connect with then and we can demonstrate the relevancy of the content. The thing is, when they see relevance, they go after it in a big way and they will learn it on their own without being forced to.
“Learning does not happen unless it is relevant to the learner. It does not matter if it is relevant to the teacher; the teacher is completely irrelevant in the process, it has to be relevant to the learner. The learner has to be able to make connections to it.”Q: In a true 21st century learning environment, you have identified that there must be a shift from the traditional mode of lecturing to what you call “discovery learning.” Can you talk about what discovery learning is? Why is it so necessary for schools to move to this new learning environment and how can they accomplish it?
Lee Crockett: If we think about discovery, if we think about the process of uncovered things for ourselves, a good example of that would be if you were at a movie. If you are at a really scary movie and the tension is building and someone is going down that dark hallway, the music is rising, and you know something is going to happen; you know that feeling, something is going to happen. If at that point, the person in the row behind you says, “Ah, don’t worry about it. The guy is not actually behind the cupboard and everybody lives and everything is fine,” it takes all of the discovery and all of the enjoyment out of that experience for you; it is lost. So, discovery learning is like I mentioned before, it is where the students have the opportunity to uncover the learning on their own and to discover how smart they can become.
The 21st century learning environment really has three core elements. The first is relevance. I mentioned before that there has to be relevance. If there is no relevance to the learner, the learning doesn’t happen, plain and simple; so, that is the first element of 21st century learning. The second is creating. If we think about Bloom’s taxonomy and everyone has had Bloom’s taxonomy forever and we all throw the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy without overly thinking about are we actually doing this in school. The wonderful thing about Bloom’s is that it doesn’t matter where you start on the ladder of Bloom’s, everything below it is automatically incorporated, so we don’t have to start at the bottom with remembering. If you are dealing with analyzing, you can’t be analyzing or evaluating unless you are being able to remember and understand and apply. Only then can you evaluate.
So, if we want to incorporate all of Bloom’s taxonomy, we would go right to the top, which is creating, and so creating becomes the second element of the 21st century learning environment. The third, without going into too much of the background on it, there are just numerous studies that have been done by people like Glaser, Marzano, I mean the list goes on and on about effective learning and retention of content, and what it comes down to is that we remember very little of what we hear. Actually in Brain Rules, John Medina talks about this, that we will remember 72 hours after we are presented information, we will remember less than 10% of it if it is presented orally. The other end of that is when we are dealing with actually teaching things to another person, when we are actively learning, when we are teaching, when we are dealing with a real-world scenario or a simulation of a real-world scenario, that is where we remember the most; we remember almost everything because we are actually both learning and doing at the same time. Because it is participating, the retention is so much greater for us, so the third element of the 21st century learning environment becomes a real-world scenario. If we are dealing with relevance to the learner, if we are dealing with creating, and we are dealing with a real-world situation, that is what 21st century learning looks like.
“If we are dealing with relevance to the learner, if we are dealing with creating, and we are dealing with a real-world situation, that is what 21st century learning looks like.”When we make the shift to this 21st century learning environment, when we take the content that we are all accountable for, and it all comes back to the fact that everyone is accountable for a certain amount of content, if we take that content and then we craft a scenario that is a problem-based scenario that queries the student to learn something and to create a digital product as a solution that, that is going to develop not only the content, but also the essential 21st century skills that everyone knows are so essential for life beyond school. That is why we are willing to make this shift. It is going to allow us to deal with both the short-term pressure of the high stakes testing plus the long term development of the skills that students actually need.
Q: You write in the book that teaching 21st century skills is not about new building or computers or technology, but a new mindset. What is that mindset and why is it so pressing that schools develop that now?
Lee Crockett: Everyone is looking for the quick fix. I don’t know how many people come up to me and say, “We are going to a one-to-one program,” and they are so proud of it. “We are going to one-to-one computing.” Somehow, that is going to magically solve the problems that we are having in education. Technology is not the answer; it’s certainly not the solution. If we think about what are the critical 21st century skills, they are not technology skills. We are not talking about hardware skills; we are talking about head-ware skills. We are talking about critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaborative skills; these are things that are not about technology. Matter of fact, the technology is irrelevant in the process and the technology is going to change constantly. The technology that we are using now is different than what we were using three, four or five years ago, and it is going to be different by the time students graduate.
“Technology is not the answer; it’s certainly not the solution. If we think about what are the critical 21st century skills, they are not technology skills.”It is not about technology, it is about an engaging methodology that will allow us to develop higher level thinking skills and 21st century fluencies in our students. Yes, computers can be helpful, but they are not necessary. We can deal with developing these skills in a high-tech, low-tech, or no tech environment; it just requires some creativity. When it comes to the whole one-to-one thing and everyone is after what is the best thing for me to do with my technology, what more technology should I buy; for us, we say do it the other way. Stop spending money on your technology. Allow your students to bring their own devices. Almost every student has devices of some kind or has access to them and they want to bring them. In schools that we see that are one-to-one schools, what happens is kids bring their laptop or the pad from home, they leave it in their locker, take out their school laptop, use it, put it away, and take out their own again. We may as well let them use the tools that they are most familiar with and then teach them digital citizenship. Teach them a way to be responsible with those tools. Right away, every school could go to one-to-one computing if they allowed kids to bring their own devices and used their own cell phones, smart phones, and so forth. Instead of investing money in technology, invest your money in your people. Invest that money in developing your faculty and professional development. For every dollar you spend on technology, spend $2 or $3 in developing your staff, teaching them how they can create and engaging methodology on how they can develop scenarios that will work for students. In the end, as I said, the hardware is irrelevant; it’s about developing head-ware skills.