Waiting for Catastrophe…

Ten Question Pop Quiz: 

  1. Describe the relationship between the frequency and pitch of sound waves.
  2. How do transverse waves differ from longitudinal waves?
  3. What is the difference between calories and joules?
  4. What are the three different types of predictable wave behaviors, and how are they similar to and different from one another?
  5. What was the Zimmerman Telegram and what role did it play in World War One?
  6. Name the Peace Treaty that ended World War One and explain the impact that it had on the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.
  7. Who was Spartacus and what impact did he have on the Roman Empire?
  8. Who was the Greek God of Fire and Metalwork, and what was his Roman counterpart?
  9. Name three different types of bias used by authors to influence opinions and give an example of each.
  10. Name five different types of figurative language and give an example of each.

How did you do? 

If you struggled, imagine how the eleven-year olds in my classroom feel.  All of these questions come from tests that we have taken in the past few months—and every time that I teach topics like these, I wonder why. 

001365_44 Alvin Toeffler, author and digital revolution expert, would describe the kinds of discrete bits of knowledge required to answer the questions above as "obsoledge;" short for obsolete knowledge.  In a recent interview with Edutopia Magazine titled "Future School," Toeffler argues that this kind of learning dominates schools to the detriment of students.  He writes:

"We have this enormous bank of obsolete knowledge in our heads, in our books, and in our culture. When change was slower, obsoledge didn’t pile up as quickly. Now, because everything is in rapid change, the amount of obsolete knowledge that we have — and that we teach — is greater and greater and greater. We’re drowning in obsolete information. We make big decisions — personal decisions —- based on it, and public and political decisions based on it."

What’s even more frustrating is that our assessment systems are becoming increasingly dependent on mastering obsoledge. In our quest to quantify everything in education, we’ve embraced standardized tests—which are effective, economical and efficient measures of discrete knowledge—as reliable tools for evaluating student achievement and teacher performance.  Portfolios and performance assessments—which would give us a deeper picture of what students know and can do—are too sloppy and expensive.

While few would argue that there are no "basics" that students must master to be fluent adults (I learned that this week when I found out my students didn’t know the boiling or freezing point of water off the top of their heads), the costs of an overemphasis on obsoledge are becoming more and more clear each year. Students buried under a pile of trivia fail to develop the thinking skills necessary to navigate a rapidly changing world where success is determined more by one’s ability to see connections between topics than by the size of one’s mental collection of random facts. 

As Toeffler writes, "Much of what we’re transmitting is doomed to obsolescence at a far more rapid rate than ever before…I just feel it’s inevitable that there will have to be change. The only question is whether we’re going to do it starting now, or whether we’re going to wait for catastrophe." 

(Image retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/magazine/ed1article.php?id=Art_1750&issue=feb_07 on February 2, 2007)