Be the only person in the world who can do it
by Tim Holt
Posted on December 29, 2008
I really like educator Marco Torres. I first saw him at an event that Apple Computers put on in 2005 for El Paso educators. Over the years, I have seen him speak, have spoken with him, and have become a silent fan. Marco has made name for himself by teaching with technology to students that most other teachers would give up on, in a school that could be described as a “Bowie on Steroids”: 5,000 low income, first-generation American students, 400 teachers, seven head administrators in four years. (Go ahead, Google him. You will be impressed.)
At a conference that I attended, Marco was the closing keynote speaker, and he gave a great talk that I think every one who stuck around for the last day was glad to hear.
Marco had an interesting thought about 20 minutes into his speech. I will generalize here, not quote, but essentially, while presenting at a teacher meeting, he asked the gathered educators what an expert was and why they thought they were experts. The teachers said that the reasons that made them experts were varied, such as degrees earned, certifications, knowledge of a topic, etc. All of the reasons, however, centered on WHAT THEY KNEW. He then looked at the group and asked “So, what knowledge do you possess that a 16-year-old kid couldn’t look up on Google, and in 30 minutes, know just as much as you do about the topic?”
What a great question! What knowledge do you possess that a 16-year-old kid couldn’t look up on Google and become an “instant expert"? He went on to show how his students were able to meet or exceed the “experts” in a variety of fields, including making superior political posters for local candidates, and a 17-year-old who showed Apple how to really make a commercial for its new iPhone. The most impressive was a student of his who turned a dull research assignment about “Voting” into a powerful four-minute video on how one vote has changed the course of history, and, because of it, is now the Executive Director of MTV’s “Rock the Vote.”
I think that the idea of an expert being a person that holds vast sums of knowledge is no longer a viable definition. Information is no longer the purview of the chosen few. The Internet has made information of the uncommon common, or as Thomas Freidman says “Flattened the world.” So just having information does not make you an expert anymore because anyone can access that information, and the collective knowledge of the rest of the world. There is very little that you can tell students about general topics that cannot be found on the Internet, and from a variety of sources, not just your point of view.
So that got me thinking about people whom I now would consider as “experts.” Who is an expert now? Maybe on my list would be:
Doctors, Plumbers, Musicians, Artists.
See what the above list of professions have in common? They all can APPLY knowledge. They can take separate pieces of information and turn it into something meaningful or new. A doctor knows the parts of the body, the symptoms of a disease, the pharmacology of a drug (all discrepant pieces of information by the way) and can take those and synthesize them into a diagnosis with treatment.
An artist can take the knowledge of color, the way paint looks on different media, the look of how a particular brush leaves a mark on a canvas and that artist can synthesize those discrepant events into a work of art.
They take information and transform it into something new. They problem solve, much like Torres’ students who took an empty palette and created new works. He was teaching them how to become experts.
Sound familiar? 21st Century learning skills. The things that businesses are now pleading that our education system teach our children to do.
What are we doing to make the higher order thinking skills a reality in our classrooms and what are we doing to kill the lecture-as-the-sole-source-of information?
The lecture is dead, or at least should be put on life support. I suppose that lectures still will have their place, like in churches, but as for classrooms, well, they should at least be heading towards the door. (If you are a teacher at ANY level, Kindergarten through Graduate school, and your primary method of information delivery is the lecture, then you are out of touch with the realities of students today.)
Not news to anyone familiar with what business and education are calling 21st Century Learning Skills…but it does suggest that there is a big shift coming on what is important in education. Do students really need to know how many people died at the Battle of Gettysburg or merely that the battle took place and the outcome? Now, can I take the information about the Battle of Gettysburg and apply it to today’s headlines, the wars around the world or take the lessons learned and create something new from that knowledge? Ken Burns did a pretty good job of taking discrepant bits of knowledge about the Civil War and creating a masterpiece of television history. (If you never saw Ken Burn’s Civil War, you need to watch it.) Nothing that Burns told was new information to historians, but the technique and the delivery was completely new.
No, the term “expert” has got to be redefined in education. Expert has now got to include the ability to apply the knowledge beyond just knowing something. Expert has to equal problem solver. Someone needs to be able to take knowledge, apply knowledge, and create with knowledge. Just knowing something is no longer how we should be teaching our children.
Teachers of gifted students probably remember the urging from the 1980s to “Move from sage on the stage to guide on the side.” Timely advice 25 years ago, timely advice today.
Prakash Nair, a futurist, and world’s leading designer of education spaces, also bridged the idea of expert when he told his daughter “I don’t care what major you take in college, just make sure that no matter what you do, you are the only person in the world that can do it.”
I wonder how we are training our kids to do that?
Maybe we should ask Marco.
Tim Holt is a 22 Year educator with the El Paso ISD.
-- You can read more thoughts at his website: Intended Consequences Intended Consequences.
-- Read more about Marco Torres at http://snipurl.com/95vie.
-- Read about Prakash Nair at http://snipurl.com/95vj5.
-- Read about 21st Century Skills at http://www.21stcenturyskills.org .
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