Originally published: EdSurge | By Amber Oliver and Michael B. Horn | Oct 23, 2017
More school leaders than ever before are seeking to harness digital tools to personalize learning and to prepare students for life after school, when creating and thinking with technology will be at the heart of being engaged and productive members of society.
But these goals risk missing the bigger picture. Preparing students to be lifelong learners capable of partaking knowledgeably in both civic life and a rapidly changing workforce requires not just focusing on technology, personalization, or even coding, but the broader content and foundation at the heart of these experiences. The curriculum—what students are learning—matters.
That manifests in different, but related, ways.
For example, as students learn to read, it is critical that they build a strong and wide foundation of knowledge. A learner’s background knowledge is a key ingredient in her ability to learn and absorb information from what she is reading and consuming. Accordingly, personalizing learning through technology will be most powerful when it is coupled with intentional, coherent and rigorous instruction.
Yes, tapping into and developing children’s interests and instilling in them a sense of ownership of their education is important. Yet allowing them unbridled choice of what they learn, especially when they are young, means that in certain cases they will miss building that foundation. Despite the claims from some that content knowledge no longer matters in a world where everything is google-able, possessing deep background knowledge remains imperative for students to be able to read across a wide range of subjects and literary genres and be successful learners.
What we really need is a generation of people with the power to invent, design and think creatively across disciplines using all the tools, including computers, at their disposal—not a never-ending pipeline of programmers.
If students don’t have a working familiarity with a body of knowledge, a new passage on the topic—no matter how elementary it may seem and no matter how strong the reader’s fundamental decoding skills—will frustrate. A famous experiment about baseball illustrates the concept. Given a common passage about baseball, so-called “low-ability” readers who knew a lot about baseball significantly out-performed so-called “high-ability” readers who knew little. The reason is that the high-ability readers did not have the context to make sense of what they were reading. Imagine the bewilderment of someone who knew nothing about baseball trying to understand why the crowd cheered when a runner stole a base—an act that might sound criminal in another setting.
Without at least a working familiarity with a topic, Google—where you have to generate the right question to ask—will only take you so far in the moment. That is because, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote, “Every passage that you read omits information. All of this omitted information must be brought to the text by the reader.”
One challenge for schools is that each student possesses different background knowledge. Students from affluent families, for example, tend to enjoy exposure to a range of experiences outside school that build their knowledge without them even realizing it. They can arguably get away with schools that are less intentional about building knowledge. Low-income students often have a far more limited set of experiences outside of school that leaves them further behind.
Within these broad groupings, the differences are even more disparate. Building learners’ background knowledge in scalable ways that is personalized to their particular needs is challenging. This is where technology can make a big difference. It can help educators personalize—not for its own sake or just because a student likes a particular topic—but so that students learn a solid foundation to participate civically and gain exposure to fields to build passions and even a career.
Similarly, although society’s insufficient STEM career pipeline is one good reason to bring computer science into schools, focusing narrowly on preparing the younger generation for coding careers could have major limits, given that many of these jobs may not exist or be as valued in the future. What we really need is a generation of people with the power to invent, design and think creatively across disciplines using all the tools, including computers, at their disposal—not a never-ending pipeline of programmers.
This again puts the focus on curriculum, as it requires us to rethink how we teach computers in a way that supports students becoming strong computational thinkers and doers in service of being mathematicians, readers, writers, scientists, thinkers and learners. This can’t happen if they don’t have a strong grasp of the content they are meant to be analyzing, organizing, simulating and modeling with their computing skills.
To paraphrase Mitchel Resnick of MIT’s Media Lab and David Siegel, co-founder of the hedge fund Two Sigma: If coding is going to make a true difference in children’s lives, it is important to move beyond the traditional view of the discipline as simply a technical skill, or just a pipeline to getting a technical job. Rather, coding must be viewed as a new type of literacy and personal expression, and a way for people to organize, express, and share their ideas that is valuable for everyone, much like learning to write. Early research suggests that computational thinking—the ability to formulate problems and then use computers to help solve those problems—and computing education have the potential to develop students’ higher-order thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills, which can help them become deeper learners across the curriculum.
Educators’ increasing embrace of technology to personalize and offer computing education is encouraging. But how educators do that—having rigorous content with the opportunities to create at the heart—will matter significantly to the success of students and these efforts in the years ahead.
Amber Oliver is the director of the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, a collaboration between Robin Hood, Overdeck Family Foundation and Siegel Family Endowment. Michael Horn (@michaelbhorn) helped develop the strategy for the Fund and serves on its Advisory Board. He is also an EdSurge columnist and Principal Consultant for Entangled Solutions.