It had been a long, hot and muggy Chicago summer. I was the principal of a private school that had decided to move to a new building, and I had spent countless hours...
In case you haven’t noticed, our kids spend a lot of time on the computer. ‘Everybody’s gone surfing’ meant something very different when the Beach Boys sang it than it does today. A virtual world of unlimited – but hopefully not unfiltered – information and media content awaits, a simple click away. A dizzying array of choices are offered, allowing them to individually answer the clarion call of ‘where do you want to go today?’ When they enter the world of the Internet they are in charge, the world is at their fingertips and they assume the role of both navigator and pilot.
The traditional classroom, with its traditional curriculum, flies a very different route. Here the child relinquishes the role of navigator to the school board and his pilot seat to the teacher. The student is now told where he or she is going, when he or she is going and how he or she is going. The student is not happy. As we used to say, Duh!
Did we really think our children would surrender their newfound independence without a fight? Flying the skies of unlimited destinations was fun and exciting; being a passenger on the slow boat to Algebra Two doesn’t quite compare. And we wonder why they are bailing out at alarming rates?
The traditional schools heard the rumblings at the back of the plane. They realized that if their schools were to survive changes had to be made. If the passengers aren’t happy, they reasoned, let’s make the flying experience more enjoyable and interesting. The schools thus believed that the fault lay in the presentation. And, edutainment was born. ‘Learning is Fun’, became the slogan of the white-board generation, as new methodologies were employed to somewhat mimic the excitement of the stimulation rich Internet experience. But the rumblings persisted and the bailouts continued.
This initiative failed, because, to quote the child philosopher on the cereal box, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!” Translated to adult-speak it means that only a fool would think that the traditional classroom could compete with the joys of surfing the Net. The misery of being a passenger on a flight to nowhere cannot be mitigated by improving the inflight entertainment. All the excitement a creative teacher might engender in a classroom cannot mask the fact that the students don’t understand why they are on this journey in the first place.
And, perhaps herein lies the solution. The message we must send our children is that learning is valuable, not necessarily fun. We do not have to compete with the Internet experience because we are providing a different experience, at times, a very different experience. Restaurants do not feel compelled to compete with the Internet, nor should schools. Restaurants provide food, schools provide education, the Internet, well, we’re still working on that.
But here’s the catch. Restaurants do not have to compete with the Internet because every child knows why they have to eat. (Of course an improved dining experience might attract customers to your particular establishment, but it is not the reason they eat.) But not every child knows why they have to learn. And, while many might realize that they have to learn something, they do not know why they have to learn the particular subject you might be trying to teach them. And, frequently, other than the fact that it is part of our curriculum, neither do we.
Thus, the problem is in the content, not the methodology. The classical classroom that attempts to match the allure of the Internet will lose every time. If we are to stem the tide of school dropouts we must be able to clearly convey the ultimate value of the educational experience. We must be able to explain to students why they learn what they learn and how this particular program of study will impact their lives and guarantee for them a better future. If we fail to do so, I can envision the day when a teacher will walk into an empty classroom and find a note from the students that reads: Dear Teacher, Everybody’s gone surfing.