Summer Thinking About Our Responsibility to the Future (and/of) our Students…

Thinking about education is a part of who we are at UAS.  The summer is the best time of the year to regain a sense clarity and purpose – maybe it’s because we don’t have to wake up before 6:00 AM!  But just because we are on summer break, doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking about better ways to serve our students.

Mr. Torris recently posted a great article on our internal Social Media platform about a computer programme that helps students “cheat” in Math.  You really should read it, but for the purpose of this blog, here is a condensed version: there is a really cool web tool called Wolfram Alpha that does very complex math problems that computers were not able to do 10 years ago. Many teachers are upset about this and view it as a form of cheating because it can also show your steps – something that computers couldn’t do before.  Therefore, students could use the programme to answer homework questions and not really learn the math.  That said, there are some great applications for this programme, used in many engineering circles that are enormously practical.  It really provoked thinking in me that I’d like to share.

While it is essential that our students learn how to do math, I think that in certain contexts this would be an amazing tool to use in our classrooms. The article invites interesting questions about what the purpose of education is. Is the purpose of learning math simply to solve problems, or, are there more important applications to math that could better prepare our students for the realities of their future workplace?  If so, shouldn’t we expose students to them?

There are so many facets of education where the jury is out on such issues.  Take handwriting for example. While it can be legitimately argued that we need to focus more on handwriting because of what it does for brain development, it is an antiquated skill. After all, how much modern work-flow depends on handwriting? Outside of prescription writing and waiting tables (oh – and writing IB exams!), I can’t immediately think of an industry that depends on it.  I know there are more, but I can’t immediately think of them.  Writing is still a necessary and important skill, but handwriting… maybe not so much?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that our city is less than a year away from piloting driverless, flying cars. I can’t build or fix a car, but can operate one.  Cars are an important part of modern life that I can’t do without, (which is regrettable for so many reasons). I’m never going to be a mechanic, but as long as I drive cars, I will always need to know a mechanic. If we look differently at tools like Wolfram Alpha, will we be better equipping at least some of our students for that world than being able to do the math?  There will be students who can do the math (the mechanics) and others who can use it (those who fly the cars).

On the flip side I am reminded of a story I read in high school that has always stuck with me (I can’t remember the author – Asimov? Bradbury? – no matter).  The story was set in the future.  A man who lived on a desert island came to civilization and became revered as a god because he could do math in his head. That story always stuck with me as an educator because I know that if we can’t do the basics, then we give away at least some of our power when it comes to more complicated thinking.  It’s why air-traffic controllers still need to learn meteorology even though complex radar systems do a much better job of detecting storms. While some tin-pushers I know think it’s a useless skill, others (mostly older ones) value it enormously.  I wonder what the future will hold for meteorology when we’re all flying around in drones!

As indicated in the Ms. Biddle’s article above, education is slow to change, but it is changing.  Spoiler alert – digression ahead! Socrates decried writing things down because he thought it made his students “lazy”. They didn’t need to remember anything because they could go back to the writing. He also thought writing ideas down mitigated their substance. He did not believe writing could truly encapsulate an idea as words are (were?) limited. He simply did not believe a thinker could communicate their ideas in writing with purity.  True story, but do you know what else is true?  Writing (though not necessarily by hand) is hugely important.  And, had Plato not written down Socrate’s ideas, we would never have heard of him, let alone reference him in this mid-summer deluge on the state of education in a technological world.

The point I am trying to make is that as the world changes, education should adapt.  The purpose of education is for students to learn.  That is it.  Whether they learn how to do the math or how to ask a computer to do it, we should do both Programs like Wolfram Alpha can help us do that in two ways.  For those who view it as cheating, we can create more authentic class-based assessments of their computational abilities in math.  For those who see it as a tool, it can allow students engage in their own application based projects.  At UAS, we will work hard to do both so that every one of our students can identify and achieve their Personal Best.

I hope you’re all having as great a summer as I am!  In my next post I will be sharing the lessons I learned on my trip to the Arctic!