Action Area 5: Teach to a New Basics

Whether well founded or not, it seems to have become a perennial complaint that education is falling behind in key areas of the ‘basics’. We have a crisis of science, mathematics and technology education. We have a crisis in literacy education. Standards are dropping. Our global competitiveness is at risk.

There may indeed be a crisis, but perhaps it is at deeper orders of difficulty than anything measurable by today’s curriculum frameworks and assessment processes.

The first order of difficulty is the question of discipline boundaries and curriculum content. The basics of science, technology and mathematics have shifted in the context of new areas of fundamental intellectual and practical concern (such as nanotechnology, web informatics and environmental sustainability). The basics of literacy have shifted in the context of the deep multimodality of the new media in every aspect of our working and personal lives, mixing written language with spoken language, image, sound, gesture, touch and space. The intellectual and practical work we need to do today to address the key challenges of our times take us beyond the disciplines as they have been historically conceived. We cannot simply keep teaching the things we have always taught within the traditional subject areas and expect our teaching to remain relevant.

But there is a second fundamental problem, a problem of an even greater order of difficulty, and that is a change in the epistemological bases of the basics, a transformation in the social conditions of knowing. Top-down systems of knowledge authority and application are in many places rapidly being replaced by the more grounded and dialogical systems of knowledge-producing communities. Whether it be product and market research in workplaces, or learning design in schools, or clinical knowledge management in hospitals, or environmental policies and practices by local governments, or community outreach initiatives to diverse communities in non-profit organizations, a new bottom-up knowledge making energy is needed today. Persons and groups use available knowledge resources, for sure, in the form of multiple sources of fact and concept which require critical analysis and interpretation. Then they reframe, rework, redesign, recalibrate, reapply then recirculate these ideas based on the subtleties of local experience and practicalities of application. Every worker and every community member is becoming a knowledge producer. Or that should be our program of action.

Add to this a generational factor, the rise of a new Generation P, for ‘participatory’.221 We’ll just consider the example of young people living in new media environments. Not simply vicarious viewers of movies, they play computer games in which they are the central character and in which their actions and identities in part determine narrative outcomes. Not simply listeners to the top forty songs on a radio station’s play list, they create their own playlists on their personal listening devices. Not simply consumers of broadcast television, they choose amongst thousands of television channels and millions of YouTube clips; they even choose their own viewing angles on interactive TV or make their own television programs and upload them to the web. Not simply readers, today’s literacy experiences as often as not also position readers at the same time as writers—in wikis, or blogs or their Facebook and MySpace pages, or small messaging spaces such as SMS or Twitter. Not simply consumers of pre-packed products, they become ‘prosumers’ of products which allow customization and even consumer contribution to the shape of the product for other consumers. Traditional relationships of knowledge and culture are profoundly disrupted, and even the terms of the either/or differentiations we have hitherto used to describe these relationships: creator/audience, producer/consumer, writer/reader. The key to these changes is an intensified cognitive and practical input on the part of previously more passive recipients of culture and knowledge, a shift in the fundamental direction of the flows of knowledge and culture, a transformation in the balance of creative and epistemic agency.

For better or for worse, Generation ‘P’ represents a new kind of person, a person who will be less comfortable with the relations of cultural command and compliance that underlay the old, didactic education. We have in our classes today a generation of young people who will be bored and frustrated by learning environments that fail to engage every fiber of their intellectual and active capacities. If we don’t rework our pedagogies, we are in all probability going to find we have increasing discipline problems and ‘attention deficits’—diseases that may reach plague proportions, in need of drastic social epidemiology.

So, what do we need to do to order this order of challenge? What are the new basics stated in terms of the kind of person who can live a good life in the changing social conditions of the unfolding future? What will be their dispositions, sensibilities, stance? How will they navigate change, take responsibility, solve problems, negotiate differences, resolve conflicts, think creatively, act innovatively, take well measured risks, learn-as-they-go, collaborate, be flexible?

— Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope

Action Items

Action Item 5.1: Re-examine Microdynamics of Learning

The P-for-P or Pedagogy for Generation ‘P’ Program would bring together educational researchers and practitioners to reconceive the microdynamics of pedagogy in order to reflect and support a shift in the balance of agency in knowledge making towards learners as active knowledge makers and collaborative participants in knowledge producing communities. This is a pragmatic thing when educating ‘generation P’, and a necessary thing in the service of a knowledge economy. The program would aim to generate exemplars of new pedagogical practice which harness lateral communities and knowledge making energies amongst learners. In a world of ‘social networking’, these environments would be exemplify ‘social learning’ or ‘learning 2.0’.

Action Item 5.2: Reframe Standards

Educational standards are in urgent need of reconception and reformulation so they go beyond the factual content and canonical theories of the discipline areas; instead to address through the discipline areas deeper and broader cognitive capacities: experiential, conceptual, analytical and applied. The New Basics Standards would supplement the old basics of conventional schooling with twenty-first century capacities of participatory work and citizenship.

Action Item 5.3: Frame New (Inter)disciplines

The challenges of our times defy the disciplinary boundaries of our heritage educational systems. The Project for the Conception of New (Inter)disciplines would aim to reconceive the conventional subject areas to address key contemporary scientific, technological and social issues. For instance, here are just two areas of intellectual concern, the breadth and depth of which are barely captured by today’s disciplines:

Interdisciplinary Informatics
The new technologies and sciences of informatics are infused to a remarkable degree with the human of the humanities: the human-centered designs which aim at ‘usability’; the visual aesthetics of screen designs; the multimodal grammars of the digital media which overlay language, image and sound; the communicative plays of computer interfaces and mobile communications devices; the formal logic models of computer programming; the ontological schemas of the semantic web; the information architectures of data archives; the logics of machines which assist human intelligence; and the literariness of the code that drives them. Areas of study and their disciplinary lineages could include:

Interdisciplinary Biotics

The new biosciences deeply inveigle the human—when considering, for instance, the ethics of bioscience and biotechnology, or the sustainability of the human presence in natural environments. Areas of study and their disciplinary lineages could include:

Action Item 5.4: Reframing Learner Outcomes

We need to start specifying and building performance measures of a ‘new basics’. The New Basics Learner Outcomes Framework may include the stuff of:

Supporting Evidence

Supporting Evidence 5.1: STEM Trends

At the outset of the 21st century, the National Science Board unequivocally asserted that “advances in science and engineering . . . will to a large measure determine economic growth, quality of life, and the health and security” of our nation and the world.222 A recent RAND Corporation study found that, presently, the US remains the dominant leader in scientific, engineering, and technological innovation worldwide.223 The continued inflow into the US of students, scientists, and engineers from around the globe has contributed to this dominance and several of the RAND study recommendations focused on maintaining and strengthening this trend. The latter study, however, strongly cautioned against complacency and raised questions about the vulnerabilities associated with the US overreliance on global human resources, which, we believe, is a form of reverse outsourcing of the last distinctive advantage of the US in an increasingly globalized world. We agree with the recent assessment of the National Science Board 224 that, to a significant extent, continued US world competitiveness and leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) hinges on the preparation of highly qualified, diverse, and motivated 21st century learners—the future of the scientific workforce—at every stage of the US academic pipeline and, in particular, at the precollege level. The US, nonetheless, is falling seriously short in these areas.225 Despite modest gains during the past decade, our K-12 students continue to perform rather poorly on international comparisons of science and mathematics achievement 226,227,228. Equally alarming is the fact that K-12 education in the STEM areas continues to fail girls229 and students from minority populations230. There is an urgent need for action: Maintaining our nation’s scientific competitiveness entails the transformation and continuous upgrading of K-12 STEM education231.

The first crucial step toward improving K-12 STEM teaching and learning is addressing the unprecedented severe and increasing shortages of highly qualified teachers232. Better STEM teachers are central to better teaching: Evidence strongly indicates that student learning is affected by the qualifications of teachers.233 In this regard, research indicates that universities and colleges of education have a significant role to play. After all, “the most consistent and powerful predictors of student achievement in mathematics and science are full teaching certification and a college major in the field being taught”.234 Teachers holding certificates in specific subject areas—“in-field” teachers, are more effective in impacting student learning and achievement than “out-of-field” teachers.235 It is imperative that substantial federal funds be made available to the recruitment and education of highly qualified STEM teachers, as well as to the betterment of the employment conditions of those teachers, which would serve to decrease the revolving door phenomenon in terms of teacher attrition and help protect public investments in this domain.236 With the current downturn in the US economy and the oversupply of unemployed, highly trained STEM professionals, federal funds are well placed to help transition those professionals into STEM teaching jobs, thus, addressing both the need for highly qualified teachers and securing sorely needed jobs as part of the current economic recovery efforts. In turn, institutions of higher education need to transform their paradigms and practices for the preparation of K-12 STEM teachers by moving beyond outdated disciplinary boundaries and debates on whether STEM teacher education is the realm of disciplinary departments or colleges of education. Federal funds could be structured to encourage universities to provide the rigorous, trans-disciplinary programs that allow for the preparation of STEM teachers with strong disciplinary backgrounds who, nonetheless, are well prepared to engage all students in our increasingly diverse nation in the sorts of meaningful and authentic 21st century learning environments whose characteristics are explicated throughout this document.237

Interestingly enough the recommended transformations for K-12 STEM teaching and learning as explicated in a host of national documents during the past decade238 ,correspond with many of the espoused trends and patterns for transforming teaching and learning writ large as explicated in this document. With an eye to the unique epistemological underpinnings of the scientific enterprise, which largely remains an expert-driven knowledge generation enterprise, the various transformative investments in K-12 schooling outlined in this document would serve to advance the aim of providing the sorely needed, innovative and responsive K-12 STEM teaching and learning environments.

— Fouad Abd-El-Khalick

Supporting Evidence 5.2: Literacy Trends

In the past 30 years debates about the best ways to teach students to read through a holistic literature-based approach or a skills-based phonics approach have been replaced by the need for a more comprehensive, balanced approach to instruction that includes focusing on the alphabetic principle, word identification, fluency, vocabulary, text structure, and comprehension.239 The goal of effective instruction is developing independent readers who can apply skills and strategies, process texts fluently, adapt to purpose and text structure, develop new knowledge, and self-monitor their understanding of texts.240 Understanding that reading is a strategic, motivated, and social process has led to practices such as shared reading, book clubs and literature circles, reader’s workshop, and inquiry projects that provide students with opportunities to engage in reading meaningful texts, talking about texts, and representing their understanding in innovative ways.241 Adolescents require even more choice about texts and tasks that link to their diverse cultures to sustain motivation; they need responsive classrooms that foster critical thinking, address diverse interests, and provide opportunities for hands-on activities, discussion, small group work, and multiple forms of expression.242

Similar debates about whether writing instruction should focus on conventions and grammar or the process of writing such as drafting, revising, and editing have been replaced by a focus on writing instruction that is holistic (an ongoing developmental process), authentic (for an audience and purpose with real-world connections), and varied (collaborative and technology-based in many genres and disciplines).243 Focusing on the ways in which students intertwine their own experiences with media and text and understanding the role of context in students’ writing have resulted in classroom practices that include writing conferences, collaborative writing, and constructing projects that allow students to address real world problems.244 Critical literacy practices focus on writing as a tool for revealing tensions and inequities in the larger society at the same time that writing empowers culturally and linguistically diverse students to promote social change.245 Writing instruction that provides extended opportunities for writing, promotes the discussion of strategies with diverse learners, and encourages students’ responses to texts is effective for learners from diverse backgrounds.246

A shift in terminology reflects a larger shift in conceptualizing what it means to be literate. Instead of considering reading and writing as separate processes, the term “literacy” encompasses an understanding of reading and writing as related social practices.247 These social practices, which have created possibilities for literacy to become more personally and socially empowering, are increasingly related to personal computing and the use of the Internet.248 Digital literacy is now reshaping what it means to be literate as even kindergartners use computers, elementary-aged students surf the Internet, and adolescents use text messaging and social networks.249 Writing with video in ways that mirror the written composition process, acquiring global identities through their use of fanfiction, and using multimodal platforms for rethinking and transforming traditional texts are practices in which adolescents have engaged.250 Much of the information in these new modes remains encoded in conventional print as digital literacies incorporate hypertext, audio, still and video images with print texts, combining new and old modes.251 However, not all adolescents have access to these types of technologies, compounding existing inequities. Teachers’ roles are increasingly important in closing the digital divide by helping students reflect on the role of technology in their lives, providing website access in classrooms, introducing wikis and other media to students, and encouraging multimodal presentations.252

While not all students have access to the tools to engage in new learning environments, increasing globalization demands that current practices be transformed to include key concepts including the need for (a) collaboration, (b) integration, (c) consideration of culture and context, and (d) multimodality. Adaptations of practices to and from U.S. contexts to international ones are apparent in the uses of collaborative reasoning, online books clubs, and wikis for revision.

— Sarah J. McCarthey

Supporting Evidence 5.3: Creativity, Design and Innovation through Education

Today there is a strong renewal of interest by politicians and policy-makers world-wide in the related notions of creativity and innovation, especially in relation to terms like ‘the creative economy’, ‘knowledge economy’, ‘enterprise society’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘national systems of innovation’.253 In its rawest form the notion of the creative economy emerges from a set of claims that suggests that the Industrial Economy is giving way to the Creative Economy based on the growing power of ideas and virtual value—the turn from steel and hamburgers to software and intellectual property.254 In this context increasingly policy latches onto the issues of copyright as an aspect of IP, piracy, distribution systems, network literacy, public service content, the creative industries, new interoperability standards, the WIPO and the development agenda, WTO and trade, and means to bring creativity and commerce together.255 At the same time this focus on creativity has exercised strong appeal to policy-makers who wish to link education more firmly to new forms of capitalism emphasizing how creativity must be taught, how educational theory and research can be used to improve student learning in mathematics, reading and science, and how different models of intelligence and creativity can inform educational practice.256 Under the spell of the creative economy discourse there has been a flourishing of new accelerated learning methodologies together with a focus on giftedness the design of learning programs for exceptional children.257 One strand of the emerging literature highlights the role of the creative and expressive arts, of performance, of aesthetics in general, and the significant role of design as an underlying infrastructure for the creative economy.258 There is now widespread agreement among economists, sociologists and policy analysts that creativity, design and innovation are at the heart of the global knowledge economy: together creativity, design and innovation define knowledge capitalism and its ability to continuously reinvent itself.259 Together and in conjunction with new communications technologies they give expression to the essence of digital capitalism—the ‘economy of ideas’—and to new architectures of mass collaboration that distinguish it as a new generic form of economy different in nature from industrial capitalism. The fact is that knowledge in its immaterial digitized informational form as sequences and value chains of 1s and 0s—ideas, concepts, functions, and abstractions—approaches the status of pure thought. Unlike other commodities it operates expansively to defy the law of scarcity that is fundamental to classical and neoclassical economics and to the traditional understanding of markets. A generation of economists have expressed this truth by emphasizing that knowledge is (almost) a global public good260; it is non-rivalrous and barely excludable.261 It is non-rivalrous in the sense that there is little or marginal cost to adding new users. In other words, knowledge and information, especially in digital form, cannot be consumed. The use of knowledge or information as digital goods can be distributed and shared at no extra cost and the distribution and sharing is likely to add to its value rather than to deplete it or use it up. This is the essence of the economics of file-sharing education; it is also the essence of new forms of distributed creativity, intelligence and innovation in an age of mass participation and collaboration.262

— Michael Peters