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Educating students for the 21st Century
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As superintendent of Ceres Unified School District, I receive an abundance of information and sources claiming to have the one strategy that will prepare our students for the 21st century. The most common thread to these pieces is that we must prepare students for the pace of technological change that they will experience in their lifetimes. Usually, providing students with the newest gadget or software is touted as the answer. While I agree wholeheartedly that we must prepare our students for a world in which the pace of change is ever increasing, seeking a solution based on technology is not the answer.

I'll begin my defense of this statement with a simple story of my own experience to illustrate how fast technology can change during a person's career. Please imagine a loaf of bread, a thumb and a grain of rice. When I first started teaching in 1989, my computer, a Mac Plus, had an external hard drive that was the size of a loaf of bread and had a storage capacity of 25 megabytes. It cost me $400. Today, I have a thumb drive with a storage capacity of 8 gigabytes. It is equivalent to more than 300 of my "loaf" sized hard drive and cost me about $20, or 95 percent less. It is not hard to extrapolate this trend to predict that around the time I retire, a storage device the size of a grain of rice will hold 2 terabytes of information (250 times the capacity of my thumb drive) and will cost about $1. There was no way, in my early 20s, that I could have envisioned the technology I would see over the course of my career.

Let's take this a step further. I was a student in K-12 education 30 to 40 years ago. Could we have envisioned the Internet, cell phones, personal computers, digital cameras or any other number of technological devices as they are today? Likewise, it is simply not possible to predict what today's students will see in their lifetimes. Using today's technology to prepare them for their futures is no different than having proposed to use an old punch card computer to prepare me for my future. That is not to totally discount technology's usefulness in the classroom as a teaching and learning tool. But exposure to the latest gizmo just isn't the answer to the big question of what will prepare our students adequately for their lifetimes.

So if technology is not the answer, what is? I have thought and read a great deal about the dilemma of how to prepare students for a future we cannot even imagine. I have even lost sleep over it. Fortunately, I believe the answer is remarkably simple. We need to teach our students to be excellent problem solvers and critical thinkers. We need them to be able to read deeply and write clearly. (After all, the information they must sift through on the Internet is largely in written form.) They need to be discerning about sources they encounter and be able to decipher conflicting information. In short, the essential skills for students today are no different than they have always been.

While so much of the emphasis of modern learning is on test scores - which are an important measure of student achievement - we must also prepare our students to be ready for the unknowable. To determine whether this is happening, talk with students about what is occurring in their classrooms. Are they engaging in academic discussion with their peers? Are they demonstrating "authentic literacy" (meaningful reading and writing) in class? Are they being asked to defend their reasoning? Only by teaching our students to be capable of deep thinking and self teaching will they be prepared to meet the challenges that await them in the remainder of this century.