New Generation, Much of the Same

Researchers over analyzed and stereotyped baby boomers, Gen X, and Millennials (aka Gen Y), so now it’s time to do the same to Gen Z. And Adobe is right on the job with a new report on Gen Z in the Classroom.

For the study, they interviewed around a thousand students ages 11-17, plus 400 of their teachers. And what did they discover…

Gen Z students are most likely to describe themselves as “creative” and “smart.”

Gen Z students have mixed emotions when it comes to their future after they finish school – their top emotions are “excited” and also “nervous.”

Both students and teachers feel that Gen Z is only somewhat prepared for their futures after school.

Many students feel uncertain about what they want to do, worried about finding a job and concerned that school has not properly prepared them for the “real world.”

All of which could have been said about any group of teen agers in the US for decades. At 16, didn’t most of us think we were smarter than our parents? Were excited and nervous about the future? And were very uncertain about where we would be in ten years?

Being a technology company, a large part of Adobe’s focus in the survey was about the Gen Z group’s relationship with technology. But even then, most of the results are hardly surprising or particularly unique.

Both students and teachers agree that growing up in the age of technology is the defining characteristic of Gen Z – and technology provides more digital tools and outlets for creativity.

Computers & technology classes are the “sweet spot” – not only a favorite class, but also a top class to prepare students for the future and a top class for creativity.

Most say that increased access to digital tools and technology will make Gen Z more creative and better prepared for the future workforce. Still, some students and teachers think Gen Z’s reliance on technology is holding them back from thinking “outside the box.”

I always wonder when people use that phrase “outside the box”. Who gets to define “the box” and what’s inside or outside? In the case of kids, it’s the adults, of course.

Anyway, my favorite “findings” from the executive summary are in section Insight 3.

Both students and teachers alike agree that Gen Z learns best through doing/hands-on experience (e.g., lab work, creating content).

Both audiences wish that there was more of a focus on creativity in the classroom.

Teachers say that having more opportunities for this type of hands-on learning is the number one way they can better prepare Gen Z students for the workforce. Most feel that the technology is already in place, but the curriculum needs to catch up.

I’m not sure we needed more research to arrive at those conclusions. And I don’t believe they are unique to one generation. Millennials, Gen Xers, even us old Baby Boomers, all learned better through experiences rather than lectures, and most of us would have been better served if we could have had more of it during our time in school.

In the end, some variation of this report could have been written about any group of students from the past sixty years. The question is, why has American education not changed to better meet their needs in that time?

Rebooting School

Following up on my previous rant about the PISA tests, Yong Zhao had a wonderful post about them from a few years ago that is still very relevant. In it he imagines a great educational conspiracy: “I would suggest that PISA is a secrete plan of Western powers to derail China’s education reforms.”.

However, Zhao notes evidence from right here in our backyard that argues against the existence of such a plot.

Seeing the damaging effects of PISA on Western education systems debunks my conspiracy theory. PISA, rather than an evil ploy hashed out by Western powers to keep East Asian countries from being innovative, is an ironic tragedy of the 21st Century born out of ignorance. The genuine anxiety over their low rankings, the sincere admirations (or envy) of Shanghai’s status, the eager actions to borrow from top performers, and the authentic efforts to emulate Asian education are all evidence that political leaders of many Western nations, particularly the U.S., England, and Australia did not work together to use PISA to derail education reforms in Asia. They are truly concerned about improving their own education, but they have been misguided by PISA.

There is no question that education in the West, and for that matter everywhere in the world, needs transformational changes, in the face of transformative changes in the world. Education in the U.S., for example, is far from adequate to prepare citizens for the future. It is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm. However PISA is not offering such a paradigm. The top performers of PISA are simply better implementation of the old paradigm—the Prussian industrial model of education, which many Western education systems, including the U.S. system, are based on.

In other words, the PISA does not only have the effect of discouraging East Asian systems from abandoning their old paradigm, but also luring Western countries to fix the old paradigm by shaming them for not having been as perfectly obsolete as their Asian counterparts. It keeps them fixated on things (e.g., test scores) that matter little for the future, while neglecting the work they should be doing—inventing a new paradigm.

The US certainly has been “misguided by PISA”. We look at international rankings such as these without understanding how little they actually say about both our system of public education and those of the other countries. Even worse, we fail to question whether the data they produce is relevant to efforts to improve that system.

However, for me, the key concept in Zhao’s post (taken from his excellent book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?”) is the middle sentence in the middle paragraph: “It [education] is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm.”

Reproducing the old educational paradigm in structures like charter schools, automated learning systems, or online classes is not reform. None of the common tweaks offered as “change” will prepare kids for a new, transformational, and very uncertain future.

We need to start at the beginning. We need a serious discussion about the purpose of school and the role it plays in our society. One that can draw on traditions, but cannot be rooted there. A discussion that includes students, dropouts, recent graduates, parents and other important stakeholders, not just politicians and business people.

School Math is Void of Common Sense

A research mathematician turned teacher has a word problem for you: “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?”

Most adults would quickly come to the conclusion that there is not enough information to find an answer. Not most students.

Now consider that, according to researchers, three quarters of schoolchildren offer a numerical answer to the shepherd problem. In Kurt Reusser’s 1986 study, he describes the typical student response:

125 + 5 = 130 …this is too big, and 125–5 = 120 is still too big … while … 125/5 = 25 … that works … I think the shepherd is 25 years old.

Remarkable. In their itch to combine the numbers presented to them, students negotiate three solutions. They show some awareness of context in dismissing the first two candidates. But a 25-year-old farmer is plausible enough for students to offer it up as their answer. The calculations are correct, but they are also irrelevant. Common sense has deserted these students in their pursuit of a definitive answer.

He says those findings are the direct result of the type of problems we ask students to solve during their travels through school math.

Students believe that all math problems are well-defined, usually with a single right answer. They strongly associate mathematics with numbers, to the extent that they will instinctively derive numerical answers to problems regardless of the context. They are subservient to computational procedure and trust that accurate calculations will always lead them to relevant truths. They accept that confusion and ambiguity is a staple fixture of mathematics, willingly offering up solutions that are void of context, meaning or even common sense.

So, what’s the alternative to our current standard math curriculum, featuring repetitive pages of calculations and ambiguous word problems with one right answer? The writer has some excellent ideas. However, they would require completely reimagining the way we teach math.

At the core of those changes is an emphasis on understanding process rather than finding answers.

Mathematics is a journey; it is defined by process, not rigid outcomes. That process can not be reduced to a series of discrete computation steps. It is governed by a flow of reasoning that guides the thinker towards a solution. Problem-solving often an unstructured, messy affair that requires several iterations of developing and testing assumptions. Error and ill-judgement are the most natural components of problem solving; they should be embraced. All mathematicians need pause to reflect on their problem solving strategies; to step back and retain full view of the big picture. Students must be afforded the same opportunities; their development as mathematical thinkers depends on this sense-making.

Artificial Ending

Next week the year in Fairfax County1 comes to an end, with students beginning a nine week or so summer break. This will be the first time in many, many years that I will not be directly involved in closing schools for the year.

And I have absolutely no feelings of loss or nostalgia. None. I will not miss it. At all.

The whole process of closing schools in the spring (around here it’s more like early summer) and opening them again a few months later always seemed like a huge waste of time, money, opportunity, effort – whatever you got. In fact, I suspect most staff in the high schools I worked with have been packing up and doing a lot of reviewing for final exams since standardized testing ended.

But it’s not all about those inefficiencies. The traditional open-in-September-close-in-June calendar (plus or minus a month or so) used in most American K12 schools reinforces several very bad educational practices that need to go. Starting with the concept that knowledge comes neatly packaged in 180 day chunks, and that kids also advance in their learning uniformly over those same 180 days.

Now I’m not one of those who believe we need a longer school year or that more time in the classroom will magically fix all education problems. Instead I’m suggesting there are many opportunities that would come from spreading the time we have more evenly. Something like ten weeks in school with three week breaks.

That approach would allow changes like more flexibility in scheduling and grouping students by factors other than age. The revised calendar could also lead to faster remediation for kids who need it (as opposed to pushing it off to an almost equally worthless summer school) with less “learning loss” from excessively long breaks. Plus other advantages like regular time for professional development.

Yes, I know this idea won’t be popular with those parents and others who consider the summer break as a tradition passed down on tablets (don’t believe that origin myth). Or the tourist industry who count on a large audience for those few months. Everyone will adjust.

However, if American schools are ever going to progress from the 1950’s, Leave it to Beaver model to one more suited for the age of ubiquitous information and instant communication, the traditional calendar is one of the first things that has to go.

The Rising Tide

Politicians in the US have set up the topic of global climate change as a “fair and balanced” debate between two well-supported sides, with a willing assist from news media that love a good fight.

It’s nothing of the sort. You can quibble with the details but there’s just too much credible research piled up leading to the conclusion that the waste products of modern human society are changing the world’s atmosphere, and not for the better.

Rather than jumping into the findings from the 90 something percent of scientists who understand this issue, the writer of a long, and very scary, story in New Yorker Magazine starts with the very personal story from an area of the country that will be heavily impacted by the rising tide: Miami-Dade County, Florida. For them, flooding from rising seas is a matter of when, not if.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century. The United States Army Corps of Engineers projects that they could rise by as much as five feet; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to six and a half feet. According to Wanless [Hal Wanless, the chairman of the University of Miami’s geological-sciences department], all these projections are probably low. In his office, Wanless keeps a jar of meltwater he collected from the Greenland ice sheet. He likes to point out that there is plenty more where that came from.

“Many geologists, we’re looking at the possibility of a ten-to-thirty-foot range by the end of the century,” he told me.

In the Miami area “the average elevation is just six feet above sea level”. There are other cities along the American coasts in similar circumstances, not to mention a large part of the rest of the earth.

Many of the world’s largest cities sit along a coast, and all of them are, to one degree or another, threatened by rising seas. Entire countries are endangered–the Maldives, for instance, and the Marshall Islands. Globally, it’s estimated that a hundred million people live within three feet of mean high tide and another hundred million or so live within six feet of it. Hundreds of millions more live in areas likely to be affected by increasingly destructive storm surges.

Unfortunately, too many people in South Florida, and I suspect elsewhere, are counting on the rapid development of new technologies to protect coastal areas, or even reverse the impact of climate change.

“I think people are underestimating the incredible innovative imagination in the world of adaptive design,” Harvey Ruvin, the Clerk of the Courts of Miami-Dade County and the chairman of the county’s Sea Level Rise Task Force, said when I went to visit him in his office.

I’m not sure faith in an “incredible innovative imagination in the world of adaptive design” is going to be enough. Imagination will probably not spare the people of Miami and elsewhere from our incredibly short-sighted “leaders” who are more interested in the next election or next quarter’s profits.

Anyway, there is much more to this very complex issue, more than can be addressed even in a long article. But this one is a good overview and well worth your time. Maybe even send it to one of those politicians who still believe there are two sides to this issue.