The Truth is Out There

The school at which I teach, PLC Sydney, was in the news this morning regarding a recent assessment task conducted by one of our Year 9 English classes. The article from the Sydney Morning Herald talks about how this class is pushing the “open book exam” concept into allowing students to use resources that take them beyond the boundaries of the classroom and enable them to draw on outside sources – the web, other books, their own personal networks – using whatever tools they choose – mobile phones, computers, iPods, PDAs, etc – in order to be assessed on their learning.

I actually had a meeting with their teacher, Deirdre Coleman, about this idea the other day and we discussed at length some of the pros and cons, what sort of tasks were best suited to this approach, where the boundaries lay between cheating and resourcefulness and so on. While the SMH article is mostly accurate in its reporting, some of the value judgments that appear from reading between the lines are a little off-target, as are many of the comments from readers that have flowed on as a result of the article. Unfortunately, the article almost suggests that at PLC we are not actually teaching these students but rather just setting them loose with a cellphone and a phone-a-friend and seeing what happens. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whether you think that allowing students to use tools like computers and mobile phones during an exam is a good idea or a bad idea is somewhat dependent on what you see the purpose of school to be. It also depends on your world view and whether you see information as scarce or abundant.

It ought to be obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense that the model of school we all know so well – the model in which students come to school as essentially empty vessels waiting to be filled by the teacher – is hopelessly flawed and outdated in this day and age. Sure, there was a time many years ago when most students did not have access to large quantities of information. When I was a kid, the sign that your parents were really interested in giving you the very best educational opportunity was that they bought an encyclopedia for the home. In our house we got the World Book. It still sits on the bookshelf at my mother’s house, outdated and gathering dust, far too expensive to be thrown away despite its expired use-by date.

The idea of buying your kid an expensive encyclopedia was based on the notion that information was scarce… if you didn’t have an encyclopedia then where on earth would you get information from? Those students who did not have an encyclopedia at home were limited to going to the local library. Of course, the other major source of knowledge was the teacher at school, who could teach you all about the things that the curriculum deemed as important. Wonderful things like Euclidian Geometry. Quadratic Equations. Shakespearean Sonnets. The Periodic Table.

The thing is, at 45 years old, I cannot remember the last time I needed to use the Quadratic Equation. Or recite a Shakespearean sonnet. And although I did recently get asked a question about an element on the Periodic Table, I still had to look up the answer anyway.

For the record, I was actually a pretty good student in school. I was mostly bored by school, but I did do ok at it thanks to the fact that I’m relatively smart and was good at remembering stuff in order to pass tests. There was a time when I really did understand and could apply the Quadratic Equation, I knew how a sonnet was structured and I could rattle off at least the first 25 or so elements of the Periodic Table. It’s not like I never learned this stuff… I did actually learn it and passed tests on it with good results.

But so what?

These days, if you ask me to tell you what a sonnet is, I would still need to look it up. I would no longer be able to describe the Quadratic Equation to you with any certainty, and as I mentioned, I’d probably want to double check the Periodic Table before I relied on my own recollections about it. The fact that I did actually once learn this stuff now has little to do with it. The real skill now is not whether I can remember it exactly, but rather, do I have the ability to find, process, use and apply the relevant information in order to solve a problem at hand.

Which brings us to the idea of information abundance. We have to get past the idea that learning is about clinging to the handful of facts and ideas that fill our curriculum. For every concept and idea deemed worthy of inclusion in our curriculum, there are hundreds of others that don’t get included. Why do we learn about the language used by Shakespeare in his sonnets, but not how to write a good press release? Why do we have students who can complete a quadratic equation, but haven’t the faintest idea about how to get a good deal on their first car loan? Why do we learn about volcanos in Science, but not hydrodynamics? Why do we focus on the history of WW2, but not the history of the Central American drug wars? It’s not that any of these things are more virtuous or more important than the other, it’s just that we have only so much time in the school day, and we can’t fit everything in so we choose a more-or-less random selection of ideas and concepts and call that our curriculum. Everything else, regardless of whether students might find it interesting or not, does not make the cut and is therefore deemed as unimportant for learning.

Meanwhile, new knowledge grows at an unprecedented pace. The human race discovers new things almost daily. Thousands of new ideas are patented every year. Billions of webpages hold information and opinions on every conceivable topic you could imagine. Huge networks of people constantly build knowledge and understanding about our world. Information is no longer scarce. We are swimming in it, sometimes even drowning in it.

The real skill, to again quote Seymour Papert, is not that our students should be able to respond correctly to the things they were specifically taught in school. The real skill is that they should be able to respond appropriately to things that they were NOT specifically taught at school. We need to prepare them not to know answers, but to solve problems. And in a world where many of the problems to be solved have not yet even been identified as problems, how do we prepare children for this future that does not yet exist?

I’d suggest that we DON’T do it by presenting them with a narrow body of information dictated by some arbitrary curriculum, and then “test” them on their understanding of it by isolating them and asking hypothetical questions aimed at seeing how much they can remember about it. I’d challenge you to provide a single example, outside of schools and universities, where this type of method is used to determine a person’s real understanding or knowledge.

In any other profession, the idea that you are limited only to what someone has already taught you is absurd. The thought of a doctor only operating within the bounds of her own memory and being forbidden from “looking things up” is ridiculous. I don’t want to go to a doctor who cannot find the information I need when I need it. I don’t want to go to a doctor that is unable to extend their thinking beyond what they were taught in medical school. I need a doctor who can think holistically, use intuition effectively, connect seemingly unrelated ideas, find current research and communicate with other expert practitioners to get the answers I need.

It doesn’t matter what field of endeavour you think about, from archeologists to zoologists the real measure is not how many marks they got in a test of rote memory, but in how well they are able to use the resources at their disposal to solve the problems in front of them. If that means they need to Google for an answer, call someone for a second opinion, or grab the manual to look something up, then that ought to be ok. It’s about getting the problem solved and if they need to use their resourcefulness or contacts or tools to solve the problem then so be it.

The class at PLC is trying to offer students the opportunity to do the same kind of thing. We want our students to think. We’d like them to be creative and resourceful, using the tools at their disposal to find effective answers to the problems they are being asked to solve.

The people in the SMH comments feed who keep referring to this as cheating don’t really get it. Of course, everyone is an expert when it comes to school – after all, we all went to one at some point, so of course we understand how they work. I keep reading comments in the feed that talk about how it was not like this when they were a kid, about how the system of rote learning worked for them (as though the world is still the same), about how we need to teach kids to pass exams because that what universities expect (and the rest of the world?)

Even if I didn’t actually work at PLC, I’d still applaud them for taking these small steps towards something that ought to be so plainly obvious to everyone involved in education… that we need to recognise our students as real learners, doing real tasks in the real world using real tools. We need to stop thinking about how school always was in the past and start getting our students to think about how they should operate in a world that rewards results.

Good on you PLC!

Image: ‘“Studying for class”

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CC BY-SA 4.0 The Truth is Out There by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

42 Replies to “The Truth is Out There”

  1. As I read the original article and some of the feedback, and followed the debate both on Chris’ blog and on the blog written by my Cisco colleague John Connell, I was reminded of a quote from the philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer (German philosopher 1788-1860 – yes, I had to look it up:)

    Every new truth passes through three phases:

    First it is ridiculed
    Second, it is violently opposed
    Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

    Maybe the gloomy German was on to something…

    BTW – Bill Genereux’s point earlier about the risks of people taking the first ‘answer’ they find and assuming it is the right or best one is not a function of having access to Google or an iPod. It is a function of not having developed critical instincts. I can recall many a moment in my education about 400 years ago when boys, eager to just get the thing done, would put down the first bit of information they came across (in a book of course, in those dusty old days)and to hell with it.

    Noone, i think, is arguing that critical thinking is uninmportant. Perhaps even more so now. But access to the new tools of collaboration and information searching are not the culprit…

  2. Chris, the skills you talk about in your post – being able to locate, select, use and apply information, have been taught by teacher librarians for years. We teach our students to be critical thinkers too and to use a wide variety of resources to become information literate. I’m betting your TL was a driving force behind this recent move!School libraries and teacher librarians make a difference to student learning!

  3. Reading the article and feedback I was struck by the response that this reliance on technology will ‘retard’ our students natural intellect. From the description of the assessment model I would think that the task will really challenge the students to be more critical users of appropriate technology to gather and evaluate the information available before they respond. The focus is much more 21st C! The variety of responses and the directions the students take must be so interesting to observe.

  4. Your news made it across the ditch here in NZ as well. Not sure what others thought but it was read on the radio news in a ‘shock-horror’ tone.

    Three years of learning French at High School gets me to… “Le chat et sur la table!’ What the cat would be doing on the table escapes me!

    Je crois que que votre école fait est très brave. C’est un nouveau monde entier là-bas et nous devons bouger avec cela et étreindre la nouvelle technologie.

    Beaucoup de choses que j’ai apprises dans l’école secondaire sont la voie périmée en tout cas. Je ne voudrais pas aller chez un docteur qui a arrêté d’apprendre quand il/elle a quitté la faculté de médecine. Je suis complètement parfait avec mon docteur arrêtant le milieu de la consultation pour vérifier ses informations avant la continuation.

    Close enough to get the message across.

  5. Chris
    I can remember back in high school in 1971, we didn’t have a library and the only sources of information were my teacher, a textbook from the 1950s, my parents (who left school in Year 9) and an outdated (ie 1930s) set of encyclopaedias.
    You were lucky…
    Things have changed slightly since then…

  6. Hi Chris,
    An informative post. An impressive step has been taken. It reflects reality. Deidre Coleman has lit a beacon observed by many around the world. It is neither right or wrong. It is a teaching and learning strategy, an innovative one at that.
    The fact that at least two of your students were also moved to write to the Sydney Morning Herald on the issue is a sign that PLC is certainly preparing its students for the real world. One can still read the thoughts of Kimberley Hew-Low and Lillian Specker. Scroll down each page to catch their thoughts.

  7. Chris a great post which I will share with my leadership team this week. Some of us from the middle years of schooling upwards know that we have to teach students through a rich task or application and support them constructing understands across disciplines. Technology is pushing these same boundries that knowledge becomes inert unless it is used.

  8. Great post, and I agree wholeheartedly on the issue of learners using any and all tools at their disposal. However, understanding the ideas behind Shakespeare’s humanist work, can I feel help us to understand who we are and what aspects of ourselves as humans has or hasn’t changed since he wrote those stories. Art Education Sport, these are all components of how we define ouseleves within our own culture, and I feel being at least AWARE of these issue is fundamental in us understanding who we are and how we fit into our own culture/s.

  9. Exciting times with new technologies to use springing up daily. Always like to see students given much freedom to choose what aspects of a subject they would like to learn or investigate(usually after the basics), however often find majority of students keen for more direction -‘just tell us exactly what to do’. Some will always need more motivation than others. Having access to the internet and a data projector in my classroom this year has been an unbelievably fantastic resource – used at a moments notice to investigate just about anything – whether on the topic or not.

  10. Great post.
    Addresses the fundamental question: Why do we send kids to school in the first place?


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