I thought I was being purposefully outrageous – I didn’t realize I was being a prophet.

Early in my career of working with future teachers, I can remember saying to them “What will you do when there is a wrist-watch device that will instantly give you all the information you want?  How will that affect what -and how- you’ll be teaching?  Will you – the teacher – become obsolete?”

The idea, of course, was to get them to step back and start thinking about the fact that  “becoming educated” is much more than – indeed entirely different than – “gathering information”.     At the time (decades ago), such a question was a “thought-experiment” – and an effective one at that, most of the time.  The ‘shock value’ of an instant-information-environment provided an opportunity for future teachers to at least be thinking about some important types of things that could be happening in the classroom, other than rote-learning or memorizing or gathering information.

Now, as we are all aware, such a future is the present!  Such devices actually exist, and even if your ‘device’ isn’t exactly a watch, it is just as accessible for most of us.  For anyone who has a computer – or actually now a smart phone! –  gathering information is a relatively easy task.  And as you think about it, this has drastically changed our lives and our habits.

By the way, interestingly, this almost makes it harder for future teachers to ponder these ideas NOW than back in the “wristwatch thought-experiment” days. Now, students come straight from this environment, so they haven’t even thought about the implications for their future classrooms.  And they have no alternative context to highlight the problem.

The cartoon strip DOONESBURY had a marvelous strip awhile back (6/26/11) that captures this dilemma.  (The cartoon may be seen by going to http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2011/06/26. )  The next-to-last frame there sets up the humorous punch line in the final panel by asking essentially “What does it mean to be a student?”  Ah, but the more crucial, system-shaking question is really “what does it mean to be a teacher?!”

Understandably – but sadly – our educational system is well behind the curve in developing an answer to – indeed even re-asking – this question.    Much (not all of course) of our curricula at almost any level, is still highly information-based.  That’s not necessarily all bad, – and again, it’s certainly understandable – BUT, it seems that none of us is pondering these kinds of questions:   “Now that we are well into the 21st century in a highly technological society, what (and how) do we want our kids to learn?!  Are we teaching kids things they could as easily find on their own when they need them?  If so, how shall we use valuable class time instead? What/how should we be teaching to prepare them for their adult lives in this rapidly changing world?”

These are highly ‘loaded’ questions, of course.  And one person’s answer may be another person’s heresy or nightmare.  But, if we aren’t even asking these questions, how can we go about answering them?  Are we willing to let our students continue to ‘learn’ information?

Henry Taitt once said “Tell [students] what to think, and we make [them] slaves to our knowledge.  Teach [them] how to think, and we make all knowledge their slave”.  The quote is a little narrower than the broad thrust of this piece, but it makes the point:  Which do we want to do, and which are we actually doing?