Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Generational Knowledge

When I started teaching at UofL only 5% of my students (or anyone else for that matter) had even heard of the Internet. One of the things I used to like to do to shake up my student teachers was to show them a picture of my 2-month old playing on the computer (literarlly before she could walk or even sit by herself) and suggest that if they wanted to keep up with the students they would be teaching, they had better start becoming computer literate now. Well, that 2-month-old is now a six-year-old entering Grade 1 with an easy familiarity with computers that many senior teachers have still yet to master, and computer literacy has become a defacto entrance requirement to the faculty. But I found a new item to get my student teachers' attention: a Discovery toy DNA sequencer.

I have to admit, this one even makes my brain hurt. But it shows you that the next generation of kids will come into our classrooms taking for granted knowledge and skills that barely existed when we were in school.... Consequently, it is not enough to equip teachers with the latest current skill set; they have to be able to anticipate and start preparing to teach the next generation of kids skills that don't even exist yet-- which means the teachers we graduate have to be lifelong learners and willing to retool every few years.

Comment by P. Freeman, High School Physics Teacher
(Comment was too long to fit in comment function.)
What strikes me as strange is that this DNA sequencer is being offered at
the same time that it has become effectively impossible to buy, say, a
chemistry or mechano set.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this works against there is an
implicit assumption in the demonstrations you refer to (whether
computer-baby or DNA sequencer) that the alteration in background is a
progressive or intensifying one. I'm not convinced that there is significant
alteration in DEGREE of learning (or in the kind of world) here... I think
that this (quite remarkable) toy is another point on a random walk in

What knowledge and approaches kids are presented with changes over time, but
is driven by trends in the perception of science and by fear of same -- not
by any progressive trend in society (or science itself), or any plan by
toy-makers. If something bad happens to create a negative emotional
association with DNA (and we can all think of several possibilitiesl) then
this toy will vanish, to be replaced by something else that will press the
"cool science" buttons of parents without triggering the "evil science"

Thus the tools for learning which a child is exposed to will randomly change
with time, but not in a predictable way. It does not, therefore, follow that
kids in the future will have "knowledge and skills that barely existed", but
rather that they may have a randomly different set of knowledge and skills
than we do (or the students we think we will teach have).

This does not void the requirement for flexibility (For instance I'm already
having to look for a replacement for the "pikachu functions" I've been using
to teach quantum the past few years -- as pokemon fall from grace). What a
'random walk' means is that we cannot say simply "you must be lifelong
learners" but rather "you must learn *what your students have learned*". It
means that you cannot "anticipate and start preparing to teach", it means
you have to 'participate and keep winging it!'

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