Educating Students Now for Their Yet

The beginning of the new school year is always a great time to look forward to the excitement and challenges that the year will bring.  It is appropriate to reflect on our students’ futures, whether it’s a few years from now when they are further along in their education or decades from now when they are on a career track.  As I considered my students’ future, I was reading a fun little book called One Red Paperclip, the true story of Kyle MacDonald, who traded his way up from one red paperclip to a house.  Throughout this tale of opportunity, risk, and personal adventure, MacDonald dispenses advice.  His thoughts on the present and future particularly resonated with me as I began my work with a new crop of students.  MacDonald wrote,

“Now is now.  And now.  And now.  At it’ll be now later on too.  Now is a sort of continual gray area of time, sandwiched between then and yetNow is quite plentiful really, so it’s not like you need to worry and stress to take advantage of now.  But if you don’t take advantage of now, it becomes then.  The trick is to see yet as it approaches, take advantage of yet as it becomes now, and turn now into a then when you arrive at a new now.  But by far, the best now of all is now.”

Schools and educators continuously wrestle with the idea of how to best serve their students.  It is not necessary that institutions reinvent themselves to educate students of the 21st century.  Rather, there are specific transcendent skill sets currently espoused in curricula nationwide – communication, collaboration, leadership, problem solving – that successful, educated, productive members of society will always need.  It may sound as if I am letting the current educational tradition off the hook, stating that much of what students need for their yet is already present in the now of their education.  Not quite.

The now that students are experiencing is significantly different than the simultaneous now experienced by the generations that precede them, namely their parents and teachers.  The students in our classrooms today were born into a world centered about computers and rapidly changing technologies, whereas the adults in their lives are working to adapt our behavior and constructions of the world to fit this shifting landscape.  Consider that this year’s college freshmen have likely never seen an airplane ticket, and that the fundamental particles of their existence are bits, bytes, and bauds (Beloit College). While there may be an understood boundary between the “real” and “virtual” worlds for parents and teachers, today’s students are growing up in a world that does not draw such clear distinctions between these realms.  Meanwhile, educational institutions remain largely unchanged, not having evolved as rapidly as the world in which they operate.  What should schools be doing to ready these tech savvy students for their yet of high school, college, and beyond?

Successful communication skills allow one to connect with others, effectively transmitting, obtaining, and decoding information.  It then follows that one of the most valuable experiences schools provide for students is the opportunity to improve and refine these skills.  Most curricula readily support this notion – consider the technical writing skills honed through creating laboratory reports or the verbal skills practiced in delivering a presentation or the listening skills developed through deep, engaging conversations with teachers and peers.   It is difficult to imagine a yet where such skills will be of little value.

Technology is central to the way the current generation communicates, driving significant social and cultural change.  Consider that in a relatively brief span of time, cell phones and computers became ubiquitous to the point where 77% of American teenagers currently own a cell phone, and 25% of teens own a smartphone (Pew Internet and American Life Project, March 2012).  With the expansion in modes of communication and the resultant importance of being connected, strong communication skills are now more valuable than ever.  In the coming years, there will be devices and technology yet unimagined, connecting people from every corner of the world faster and to a larger audience.  However, these innovations only facilitate greater communication; they are the means, not the end.  Increased access to the distribution and inhalation of information means little in the hands of the unpracticed and untrained.  An important function of education is to develop and refine proper and effective communication skills.  Schools must continue to emphasize writing, speaking, and listening across their curricula and schools must continue to teach students to use technology responsibly to communicate with peers and indeed, the world.

In addition to being effective communicators, students need experiences that help them grow into effective collaborators.  From the International Space Station to mapping the human genome, many of the man’s greatest innovations and triumphs are the result of collaborative efforts.  The recently completed Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was built to purposefully put scholars in philosophy and linguistics in contact with those researching artificial intelligence.  Collaboration is not isolated to scientific pursuits, however.  The connectivity of our wired world allows information to be shared more readily between those working on a common problem, resulting in collective learning, creating, and innovating. Teaching students to collaborate is a worthy educational goal, and its pursuit will better prepare them for their yet.

Courses that emphasize small group work to introduce or reinforce material are an excellent example of collaboration in action.  Additionally, creative experimental work in pairs and participation in theatric or musical ensembles help students internalize the importance of collaboration.  Technology will evolve, and issues resolved more creatively, more efficiently, and ultimately, more collaboratively.  And the more technology connects individuals, the more we will need to rely on each other to complete complex tasks.

In addition to being effective communicators and collaborators, students must acquire strong leadership skills during these formative years.  Individuals possessing sound judgment, demonstrating initiative, modeling high standards, and effectively guiding and supporting others will find themselves poised for success.  And leaders with these characteristics are required at every level of every organization, whether it be corporations, governments, schools, students councils, or athletic teams.  Students comfortable in their leadership abilities take responsible academic risks and confidently and respectfully voice their opposition when they disagree.  Moreover, these leaders embody the previously described ideals of communication and collaboration; it is, in fact, difficult to lead without them.

As a chemistry teacher, I often think about the role of science in a student’s education and the place of the skills mentioned to this point – communication, collaboration, and leadership – in my classroom.  Possibly more than any of aforementioned skills, science education develops one’s problem solving abilities, which entails much more than simply working through word problems and completing calculations.  Problem solving encompasses higher order critical thinking, complex reasoning, and creativity.  An effective problem solver processes data, applies previous knowledge to new contexts, synthesizes all the component parts, and then draws a conclusion based on solid deliberation.  Problem solvers of the future will rely on technology for its raw computing power, and will consult with others in the pursuit of creative, effective solutions.  Preparing our students for their yet means incorporating technology and collaboration into problem solving scenarios.  Training students to reason, to debate, to think, ultimately makes problem solving the domain of humans, and strong science education improves problem solving abilities.

Problem solving is one of the most difficult, but most important skills that I teach my chemistry students.  Frequently, students who are the best problem solvers are okay with making a “mess,” not in terms of physical chaos, but rather, these students are comfortable in their discomfort.  They are not consumed by the answer but rather by the application of their knowledge in a unique challenge.  At the risk of offending fellow teachers, I urge students to focus less on the answer and instead embrace the process and for teachers to use content as a vehicle for skill development, rather than a goal in and of itself.

For students to become better problem solvers, we need to continue to do the following. Teach students to be organized in their methodology.   Train students to focus on the big picture and allow overarching concepts to drive their pursuit of the details.  Provide opportunities for students to be creative when working with new ideas.  Help students find value in the unique perspective that other individuals bring to a problem.  Encourage students to take measured risks and to try unconventional approaches when all else fails.  Celebrate student failures and help them learn from their errors.

The students sitting in our classrooms today will inherit a unique set of challenges, challenges for which today’s schools must prepare them.  Given that technology will continue to evolve and shape the world, many issues of the future can not be forecast with a great deal of accuracy.  It is incumbent upon schools to provide students the basis for successful navigation of their future.  Preparing students for their yet involves elevating and strengthening the threads of communication, collaboration, leadership and problem solving, as the tenets of a sound general education.  As educators and parents, we want our students to adapt, to innovate, and to succeed in their yet.  And the time for these students is now.  As Kyle MacDonald wrote,

“Now was two words ago.  Yep, this is just a blatantly inane comment to make you think way-too-deep thoughts.  But it’s not.  Unless you think it is.  Then it is.  If you want to analyze it, and give it meaning, that’s fine by me.  But analysis and deep thoughts won’t change the simple new fact:  now was actually more like five words ago.”

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