Students Leading Us to a Future that Still Values Expertise

Let’s play a game, akin to the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others.” Try to guess which one of the following teachers’ workshops would have occurred 15 years ago, versus the others you may have seen on a conference schedule as recent as 2017: Assessments for the Whole Student, Saying Goodbye to the “Sage on the Stage”, Students Leading their Learning, and finally, Unit Planning for the Engaging Teacher. I realize that it’s not much of a challenging game in that the question virtually answers itself. Any educational professional with even a nominal ear to the ground listening for clues to the future of international education as of late will have internalized something very transformative by now about the role of both student and the teacher in the classroom. Namely, we are hearing that all things innovative, forward leaning and authentic in the classroom now embrace the student, his interests and aspirations, and most importantly, her self-directed learning process as the gravitational center of our pedagogical universe.

In the face of increasing global connectivity, escalating social change and the promise of a future brimming with jobs that haven’t even been invented yet, educational leaders must now grapple with and redefine what it means to truly prepare our students for the radically changing world that awaits them. Thankfully, our profession has in recent years begun leaving behind industrial age conventions on uniformity, orthodoxy and teacher-centric doctrines of “what to know to test well” for greener fields seeded in experiential learning, student led inquiry and a more urgent focus on “how to creatively think.” This seismic event impacts virtually everything we talk about when envisioning our schools, from curricula, assessment and teacher training, down to budgeting, the role of technology and even facility planning and construction. Though unclear, and even daunting, we are all excited as educators for what is coming.

Yet in this dizzying, thrilling new egalitarian landscape of the future, where students are not merely part of the conversation in crafting their academic experience, but are now expected to be fully endowed “leaders of their own learning,” we now need to ask what role schools must play in averting what Tom Nicols has ominously called “The Death of Expertise.” How do we create learning environments that celebrate and cultivate student agency and responsibility for their own learning while still inculcating them with that essential respect, and even awe, for the beauty of legitimate scholarship and hard won virtuosity in a given discipline which they have not yet achieved? We as educators are vexed by the paradox of modern technology and the boundless largess of the internet, for with its vast bounty has also risen a parallel challenge where too frequently, it seems everyone’s opinion now has equal weight, regardless of merit or evidentiary grounding. In its worse incarnation, a form of narcissistic intellectual populism has been increasingly driving too much of public opinion on everything from climate change and health to welfare policies and societal responses to income or gender inequality. And we must face the fact that our students are in no way immune to such specious forms of ill-conceived hubris, based all too frequently on no more than a speed reading of Wikipedia.

Many contemporary social theorists are noting that this new age of unlimited information access and its resulting “consumer centered information society,” rather than producing an educated public, has instead birthed whole swaths of ill-informed and all too easily outraged partisans who give proof to perhaps Mark Twain’s most acerbic observation: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Our challenge now as educators tracks closely to how we successfully prepare students for a future where creativity, individuality, emotional intelligence and self-determination will be critical difference makers, while also continuing to instill in them respect for the trials, sacrifices and devotion that are ultimately required in the attainment of genuine knowledge. I like to think we can find a remedy for this conundrum in an even stronger reliance on teaching our students the rigors of critical thinking, hard-nosed source analysis and evidentiary based conclusions. Thus even as we effect this most exciting of transformations that empowers, licenses and validates the student as the primary engine driving the learning process, our task now might demand we hold even more fast to some very fundamental principles that have already been with us a very long time.

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