[Note: I’ve spent my career studying, teaching, and reflecting on History, and, whenever those above me in the administrative food chain asked my opinion on some academic topic, I was not behindhand in responding.
Here’s an example: as a follow-up to our opening faculty meetings (a one and a half week marathon known as “Faculty Forum”) the principal at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS) asked us what we thought about “teaching 21st-century students,” the theme of those sessions. By the time I received this memo, I’d already informed the school that I planned to retire at the end of the academic year, so, given the imminence of my departure, I didn’t really need to say anything. And yet—I wanted to respond. What follows is a slightly revised version of that letter.]
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Historians are big fans of chronology—sometimes too much so. Time magazine has for months been running stories about significant events of the first decade of the new century. Yet, here at AFPS, we have just begun to ponder how best to teach our students in the 21st century!
(By the way, this development supports a long-held theory of mine: AFPS habitually seems to “recognize” an idea or set of ideas at least five years, and sometimes as much as a decade, after that fad has become the talk of the “educational world.” It’s almost uncanny how, by the time this school gloms on to such a “reform,” the rest of the educational world has turned to another one. But I digress. . . .)
Another problem with the notion of “teaching 21st-century students” is that, based on what I read for this year’s Faculty Forum and on what the folks in my small group session reported about what they had read, this concept was designed by professional “educationists” for public schools. I find this disconcerting because, in my judgment, AFPS has been moving more and more in the public school direction over the last couple of decades. I wish it would stop—and soon!
While we are certainly beyond the stage where we can get by with me on one end of a log and my thirty-four Introduction to History students on the other, we don’t need to drink the “Kool-Aid” being offered by this new “educational philosophy.” Instead, we should be doing our darnedest to distance ourselves from it, or else we are going to have a hard time offering AFPS (with a straight face, anyway) as an alternative to the public school system.
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One challenge we face in this new century is to continue incorporating technology into what we do, and most of us have been working in that direction for several years now. In fact, this past Faculty Forum was the first one in recent memory where we were not presented with some techno-miracle that seemingly was guaranteed to make our jobs easier—remember filing grades and comments online; “curriculum mapping”; “Smart Boards”; a lap top for each teacher; a newly-installed overhead projector with wall-mounted controls (that haven’t worked in my classroom for a number of years now)? Sure you do!
The problem with this approach is that, while the school generously spends money to make these gizmos available, and rightly insists that we—yea, verily, even the most tech-averse among the faculty—make use of them, it has been much less generous in giving us the time to master the technology and then–and only then–make it a regular part of our classroom routine. Instead, at the next Faculty Forum, we are usually (though, admittedly, not this past year) presented with yet another technological challenge to master, once more without the time to do so.
Here’s a metaphor: what if Sir Edmund Hillary had been required to turn back every thousand feet or so and start his ascent of Mt. Everest anew, so that his sponsors could have him use a different brand of ice axe or tog himself in a more luminescent climbing suit? Surely Sir Edmund would either a) have at some point perished in an avalanche; or b) just said, “The Hell with it; no mountain is worth all this aggravation!”
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In a biological sense, of course, “21st-century students” are identical to “20th-century students.” What’s changed is the culture in which they grow up and how it shapes their approach to education. It can be a positive influence, of course, but, as you’ve noted on more than one occasion, it also can be quite toxic.
Much of this toxicity is related to the very same techno-marvels we’ve been encouraged to adopt for our classrooms. For example, when a few teachers decided to use Facebook as a way to communicate with their charges, all of us were told not to do so, because some of our parents weren’t comfortable with Facebook! If AFPS cannot trust its faculty to employ technology in an appropriate manner, there is something seriously wrong with the system.
I even remember (and I’ll bet you do, too) when the school banned the use of cell phones by students (not “smart phones,” mind you, but the early, “dumb,” devices that simply made phone calls), presumably because of that technology’s purported association with greasing the skids of the drug trade.
And, now what? It’s the rare student—or faculty member, for that matter—who does not carry at least one of those suckers (the “smart” variety, now) to school every day, and the faculty is charged with devising “policies” limiting students’ access to these marvels during classes, and, especially, during final exams.
How much time does the average student at this school spend online daily? A lot—and much of it has nothing to do with school work, while a great deal has to do with the toxic culture that surrounds them.
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Another issue I’d like to raise in this connection is the school’s continuing acquiescence in both the demands of the Advanced Placement program and, especially, of the college application process, which continues to morph, like the monster in “Alien,” or, to change the metaphor, increasingly to “wag the dog.” These developments have put unhealthy constraints on the process of curriculum revision and will, I’m sure, continue to do so, because we don’t have the guts to say, “No more!”
As a result, we keep piling more and more “stuff” (graduation requirements, community service activities, technological marvels [see above], use of summer school for forward credit, etc.) on student and faculty plates—and never take anything away! If this keeps up, then the whole thing will one day collapse of its own internal contradictions, like the parson’s one-horse shay.
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What positive things can I recommend as part of our plan to prepare our charges for life in the 21st century, even if we are, as usual, behindhand in devising an approach?
- We need to insist that students continue reading in their courses, and that what they read be more intellectually challenging than web pages or “dry as dust” textbooks. We are copping out on things like summer reading assignments, for example. We also should use supplementary reading during the school year, but, with the pressure to “cover the material” endemic to the Advanced Placement program, less is more, I’m afraid: the textbooks have the answers; no challenging or thought-provoking readings need apply.
- We also must insist that the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation continue to be taught, learned, reinforced, and followed, and that students be penalized when they are not.
- At least in the short run, colleges probably still will require students to do independent research using a variety of primary, secondary, and electronic sources. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us both to teach and to reinforce this process at AFPS. One critical challenge in this regard is to create assignments that do not open the door to plagiarism! I’m not optimistic on this issue, but I believe it’s worth the fight.
- The use of videos will only grow in our courses. Therefore, we must teach our students how to view—and use—such media critically. If they are truly worthwhile, then videos must be discussed in class, and incorporated on tests and other assignments.
- While head of the History Department, I tried to incorporate more non-western history into our courses, at all levels. We’ve certainly made progress since then: in the high school, for instance, “world history” offerings currently include Introduction to History (an elective); History of the Ancient World, a required one-semester course taught with some non-western material included, but one where we’ve still got to get through the European “Middle Ages,” so our livelier students can be ready for Advanced Placement European History (which remains, as the name suggests, very Euro-centric); and History of the Modern World, which is taken by our “regular” students, for the most part.
- Please don’t get me wrong here: I’m not ragging on “regular” students; rather, I believe that Advanced Placement students should also be challenged with non-western history, either in the context of A. P. European History [which means we would have to reduce Euro-centric detail] or in the A. P. World History program that has been around for a number of years but has yet to attract our department’s interest.
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Let me close by reiterating my belief that AFPS remains a first-rate independent school. Coming here in the autumn of 1973 was, in retrospect, the smartest thing I’ve ever done, and I have never regretted that decision. What has made AFPS so good for so many years is that those who run the school hired top-notch faculty and let them teach, trusting in their intelligence, academic training, and professionalism.
I’m afraid, though, that what I’ve noted, as we slouch our way through this “age of accountability” and into the end of the first decade of the 21st century, is a school that seems increasingly not to trust its own judgment, at least when it comes to hiring teachers.
AFPS today builds an environment of technological “toys” that are supposed to make our lives easier but seldom do; electronic paperwork (AKA, “administrivia”) that saps both time and enthusiasm from teachers who are increasingly overworked; a curriculum that can be sclerotic; and an apparent desire to define the kind of school we wish to become without looking closely at the kind of institution we’ve been, successfully, for nearly sixty years.
Please believe that these remarks are written in love, with respect—and perhaps a tad of frustration, too. . . .
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[NOTE: I’ll bet you’re wondering whether my venture into the “bully pulpit” on this issue actually achieved anything: the answer, at least at the time, was, “nah”! Yet, that wasn’t the point, for me. When I responded, I assumed from experience that my individual views would have little or no impact on the issue.
And, in fairness, I should not have been surprised, because, while AFPS was looking to the future, I, staring retirement in the face, was more or less peering from the present to the past (as historians tend to do). Nevertheless, having the opportunity to offer my opinions at least gave me a chance to vent, and I know, from some feedback, that my letter elicited a few chuckles along the way. Oh, and I’m sure my Principal placed that response in an appropriate file, perhaps marked “Be Careful What You Ask For”!]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: