Thursday, June 26, 2008

What do students need to learn


A fundamental question for everyone involved in education — administrators, teachers, parents, and students — in this time of rapid change is, "What do students really need to be learning today in order to be ready for an unpredictable future?" Some believe that the best thing we can teach them is how to teach themselves. This requires that students become not only literate, but also able to use that literacy within their personal information environment in order to succeed now and in the future.

The challenge to us as educators lies in keeping up with an information environment that has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, a decade during which the very nature of information has changed in appearance, location, accessibility, application, and communication. Thus, it is crucial that when teaching literacy to our students, we emphasize skills that reflect the information environment of the present, not the past.

Whether we like it or not, with the information age comes a whole new set of basic skills. Following, we will take a look at how the traditional 3 Rs, naturally and out of necessity, evolve into 4 Es to define literacy in an increasingly, and soon to be exclusively, digital and networked world.

Reading → Exposing Knowledge

Most of the readers of this article were taught to read what was handed to them. Textbooks were given to us by our teachers, reference books by librarians, and magazines and newspapers by publishers. If we could read and understand the text handed to us by such recognized authorities, it meant we were literate.

Today, our students typically begin their information experiences in front of a global electronic library of billions of pages of information (the Internet), where materials can be published by just about anyone, on just about anything, and for just about any reason. If our students have been taught only to read and understand this information, they could be in serious trouble, possibly even in danger. Accessing information in an increasingly digital and networked world requires a range of skills of which decoding text is only a small part. Basic skills for today's students include the following:

1. Finding information: Locating relevant information not only from a local library or newsstand, but also from the Internet. Literacy includes the ability to identify needed information, use Web searching tools to find it, and employ research strategies that expose the best information.
2. Decoding information: Beyond decoding text, literacy requires reading deeply for meaning in multimedia content.
3. Evaluating information: It is critical that students learn to evaluate the information they encounter, and also identify its value in terms of their goals.
4. Organizing information into personal digital libraries: A key strategy for handling the overwhelming amount of information available to us is the construction and cultivation of personal digital libraries. When we create and organize information that is relevant to our ongoing interests and goals, then we can handily find answers to our questions.

Arithmetic → Employing Information

Before the proliferation of personal computers, most information was merely consumed. We purchased and then read text, listened to audio, viewed images, and watched video. Numbers, on the other hand, were used as a way of precisely measuring our environment and the laws that governed it, and to manipulate that environment and its laws in order to add value to our lives.

Today, just about all information is expressed in the universal language of numbers. Multimedia content is stored and communicated as ones and zeros, otherwise known as binary code. Since information is expressed in numbers today, and personal computers are available for interpreting and modifying those numbers, it becomes raw material that can be analyzed, altered, and improved in pursuit of a goal. It becomes just as important to be able to use a computer to process the invisible numbers behind images, audio, and video content as it is to be able to add, subtract, measure, count, and calculate the visible numbers.

Learning to process any and all information requires:

1. Basic mathematical skills: As always, students must know how to add, subtract, count, measure, and calculate numbers. They must also understand the fundamental laws of numbers and how to use these concepts to answer questions, solve problems, and accomplish goals.
2. Computer-aided processing of numbers: Of the numerous exabytes of information that will be generated this year, only a small percent of it will be printed. The rest will require a machine to read it. Students, while they learn the basic skills of processing printed numbers, must also learn to process large quantities of digital numbers using computer spreadsheets and other data processing tools.
3. Processing media: Because of affordable digital cameras, scanners, MIDI music devices, and the vast array of multimedia content available on the Web, obtaining or creating the picture (or sound) is no longer the final outcome. It is merely a part of the process. All formats of information can be moved into powerful graphic, sound, and video processing software and altered to communicate in a more precise and compelling way. Students must learn to use these software tools in order to add value to information. It's all about numbers, but also about using computers to process those numbers in order to improve the delivery of information and accomplish goals.

Writing → Expressing Ideas Compellingly

In a world bursting with information, we can use only the information that successfully competes for our attention. In the information age, content competes for our attention in much the same way as products on a store shelf were designed to in the industrial age. The information we select will be what looks the most appealing, seems to communicate itself most effectively and efficiently, and appears reliable and authoritative.

Writing will continue to be a core skill for all students, because some information is simply communicated most effectively in text. However, other information might best be expressed using pictures, sound, animation, or video. Students must master a range of practical and technical skills involved in expressing ideas effectively and compellingly.

1. Writing effectively: Students must learn not only the mechanics of writing, but how to use text to communicate knowledge and ideas more efficiently than ever.
2. Communicating with multimedia: Students must also learn to match their message with the medium that best communicates it, and then use the appropriate tools to create and or modify it in order to attract the attention of an audience.

Ethics: Right and Wrong Online

As information becomes increasingly important to our economy and culture, it also becomes more powerful — able to accomplish enormous good and great harm. This is why it is essential that at the same time we teach our students these prevailing information skills, we also teach them the ethical use of that information.

1. Information reliability: Students must learn to assess the accuracy of the information that they access and use, and it is equally important for them (and for all of us) to provide evidence of the accuracy and reliability of the information products they assemble.
2. Information property: In the information age, we are all information property owners. Most of us will make our living by producing information products. It is important that students gain an appreciation of information as property that needs to be respected in the same way that we respect each other's material property.
3. Information infrastructure: Today, we depend on the computers and networks through which our information flows to no less degree than we depend on our roads, rails, waterways, and airports. Planting a virus on a network is just as destructive as planting a bomb under a bridge. Students must realize the importance of our information infrastructure and how critical it is to our success in the future.

By Sara Armstrong and David Warlick

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