A Call for Relevant Schooling

A CTO requests using technology to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, today.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Warren Barkley

credit-smart-technologiesLet’s pretend everything we know about the United States education system is suddenly able to be changed. What would we do? How would school work differently?

When I think about education from this 30,000 foot view, the first thing I think about is the needs of the modern workforce: Increasingly, we are seeing organizations embrace a remote, on-demand workforce that collaborates across borders, departments and business units. It is a collaborative, high-tech, diverse, and geographically disparate community of workers collaborating towards a goal.

Teaching pedagogy needs to be revisited to effectively incorporate the edtech available to us.

Yet, our education system is still focused on independent work, measured by individual testing and scores – the same way it has been for nearly a hundred years! At this rate, our children’s children will participate in the same school system that our grandparents did, although the workforce in which they need to succeed is dramatically different.

Teaching needs to change to prepare our children for future leadership roles in our society. The United States is already being left behind which can be seen by the sheer number of highly educated and well-trained workers coming from rapidly developing countries. The United States is ranked 16th for the quality of its workers, despite having the world’s largest economy. And according to a recent AACU report, large majorities of employers do not feel that recent college graduates are well prepared for the workplace. This is particularly true when looking at skills like applying knowledge in real-world settings, critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and communicating with others.

The workplace requires people with passion, initiative, creativity, resilience and self-knowledge. These skills and abilities cannot be fostered in the classroom alone but rather come from group learning. The education system needs to stop placing children on a learning conveyor belt and labeled according to their ability to recall information on a test. Our students need to be taught what educators call the “4Cs”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity to thrive in an increasingly team-oriented and geographically disparate workforce.

That said, 21st-century learning shouldn’t be controversial. Rather, we just need to redefine what modern learning is using contemporary tools. It’s no longer enough to “know things,” it’s more important to stay curious about learning new things. However, massive change takes time and buy-in from various parties. So in the near term, we need to tackle smaller challenges to better prepare today’s students to become future leaders, in the workforce and beyond.

An education system meant for the 21st century

As a CTO, I am a hiring manager and leader, focused on cultivating a high-performing and collaborative team. I need them to be technically proficient in the relevant technology, and I need team members who can collaborate and think critically and creatively to both solve problems and advance our business. I often see young candidates that, after spending years in schools being evaluated by solo testing, tested individually, walk into the workforce being asked to solve problems in a completely different way from how they’ve been trained.

Though technology continues to disrupt and improve industries ranging from media to internet technology to banking, it has yet to find an effective purpose in the world of education.

Teaching pedagogy needs to be revisited to effectively incorporate the edtech available to us. It’s time to retire the teacher-led lectures and the “sage on the stage” approach to teaching. As it stands, children are more or less baby-sat for six hours per day listening to lectures that won’t help them land a job. For example, many U.S. charter and alternative schools have begun revising their teaching pedagogy so that learning is driven by students and collaborative. They’re also leveraging educational software and hardware to create an environment that not only encourages intellectual growth, and the social and emotional skills needed to be successful in today’s working world.

Further, we need to look beyond just incorporating technology for the sake of it. We need to look at including software-based tools that are engaging and that can emphasize the 4Cs approach. Some examples include:

  • Collaboration tools: Email was just the beginning. Today, colleagues conduct business over multiple communication tools at once, such as Slack, Google Hangouts, text messaging, and more. Learning by doing, working with experts, and integrating theory with practice isn’t generally a focus in the classroom. Without learning how to collaborate and work in groups and teams, I fear that many students are simply not prepared to succeed.
  • Integrating Multiple / Personal Devices: Workplaces have adopted “BYOD”, or Bring Your Own Device” policies, enabling employees to access information and communicate with colleagues in and on the technology platforms that are comfortable to them, no matter where they are located. Classrooms need to start teaching students how to use personal technology, such as laptops, tablets and other devices, to share and discuss their ideas. Teachers need tools to see and evaluate each individual’s contributions in a dynamic fashion, and provide feedback and guidance to individuals and / or the group in real time as well as after a lesson or exercise has ended.

Collaborative Teaching Technology at The Core

It’s clear that technology is an integral part of nearly every facet of our lives. So why has it not infiltrated and revolutionized the U.S. school system the way it has how we shop, hail a cab or find a new job?

If education doesn’t advance as other industries have, we will be doing our future leaders a disservice. With businesses moving even faster while education remains stagnant and unchanged, our children will be left behind.

I have no doubt the U.S. can compete in the global economy, but we must revisit our teaching pedagogy to incorporate methods and tools that align with the needs of today’s workforce. We must foster the skills employers are looking for to bring the U.S. education system forward into the 21st-century and ensure our students are prepared to successfully enter the workforce. Collaborative teaching technology is the foundation of this change we so sorely need.

Warren Barkley is CTO of SMART Technologies. Contact him through LinkedIn.

  • HarryKeller


    This column is a polyglot of ideas. Most are too general to implement.

    It begins with a straw man argument, mentioning our grandfather’s education. Just because something was done some way 100 years ago doesn’t make it bad. We have carefully to pick out the best and discard the worst.

    It goes on to make a non-syllogistic statement. “The workplace requires people with passion, initiative, creativity, resilience and self-knowledge. These skills and abilities cannot be fostered in the classroom alone but rather come from group learning.” The first sentence is accurate. The second makes enormous assumptions. Those skills may (or may not) come from group learning.

    Here’s the truth. We teach thinking and communicating skills poorly in today’s schools. This lack is not caused by a dearth of collaborative work. It’s caused by memorizing as the primary tool for test success. Without good thinking and communicating skills, creativity and collaboration will suffer.

    Therefore, we should be focusing on how to remove memorization as the primary success skill in education. When you realize that memory-based teaching and testing is the easiest and cheapest education strategy, you begin to see the magnitude of our problem. It’s hard to deliver thinking-based lessons and harder to design tests for them. I should know. I’ve been writing questions based on thinking skills for 15 years as part of the Smart Science Education Inc. system. The trick is to ask questions that students cannot look up and still have them have multiple-choice answers. To do this well, you must have a deep understanding of the subject matter. In the time that I take to create one good question, I could write a dozen memory-based questions. Many educators could not write any.

    That’s the wall we face and must break down. Test writers who can do this job are few and hard to hire. They cost more. Then, they take longer, and the costs grow greater. Until we are willing to pay those costs, we just won’t have thinking high on our education priority list.

    Communication has similar problems and is done very poorly today. When I read the output of our news media and the advertising companies, I want to cry. The abuse of the English language is not the only issue. Communication these days includes images, videos, audio voice and music, and much more. No one teaches this stuff. It’s time to change.

    Instead of spending tons of money implementing coding for all in our schools, we should be spending that money on developing and deploying serious communication lessons. Communication for all will help many more students succeed in life than will coding for all.

    We should also have segments on creativity in work, not just in arts. Experience in collaborative projects also benefits our students, but don’t get carried away with this activity to the extent that it saps the time from thinking and communicating. Collaboration can be very time-consuming in classrooms.

    Technology can aid teachers significantly in delivering thinking, communicating, creating, and collaborating. However, technology can also detract from these goals. Choose wisely. Implement well.

    Harry Keller, PhD
    President and Chief Science Officer
    Smart Science Education Inc.

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