No more pencils, no more books

By William Shuttleworth | Dec 02, 2011

Whenever I ride with my wife, she, being some NASCAR descendent, advises me, “sit down, buckle up, hang on.” It is good advice, one that I could also offer to any observer of public schools.

“Those schools aren't what they used to be,” my older neighbor tells me over the fence as he is weeding the garden. Then, he launches into a soliloquy about how our schools today pale in comparison to the one he went to. My dad would do the same about cars, ranting the same mantra, they don’t make 'em like the used to.”

Thank God. My most endearing memory of my dad was bending over the 1947 Nash trying to keep the darn thing running and putting retreads on every 2,000 or 3,000 miles.

The good news is that our schools are not like they used to be.

When I went to school, there was a sense that once I acquired a certain body of knowledge, I was good to go. That body of sacred information certainly included knowing the presidents, often in order; the capitals of states and the 10 major nations in the world; the ‘times’ tables; basic knowledge of the Bill of Rights; correct labeling of most body parts, sans any part that was related to excretory or reproductive functions, of course; a2 + b2 = c2; diagraming sentences (didn’t you just love to do that); and, the ability to write the all important book report, template provided and never to be modified.

Gosh, this knowledge was good enough to get me into college, on the Dean’s list and reasonably successful in life.

What was absent from this education? There was no real teaching of critical thinking skills, little pressure for me to ask the right questions to figure out problems not yet encountered, little application of this learned body of knowledge to real life problems and nary a notion of working in teams. In fact, teachers found group work of almost any kind detrimental to the ‘good order’ of the school and I learned quickly not to turn around and ask another student for help.

My major guide to research was the Encyclopedia Britannica, a bound volume that still had Truman as our president, and, no, I am not that old.

Students were about evenly divided into shop and college bound. I barely escaped the first list, often wished I had not. Those were nice days, just before Sputnik, a lull in the action so to speak, the country cruising along on back of a post-war economy, a time where most mothers were still at home, no race riots, no college uprisings; the "what, me worry?" generation.

Today is a whole new ball game. We can recount the benchmarks that have forevermore altered our lives and society: Kennedy’s assassination, the specter of USSR, RFK, MLK, the Challenger, 9-11, Iraq... the list never ends. In all of that, almost overnight, the world shrank, the demands for brains tripled, sleeping giants like China and India awoke and became stiff competitors for money, power and world dominance.

Schools have to change to keep up.

Enter the digital student. Yes, the one with the iPad, MacBook, earphones, iPhone, blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter and Skype. This is student kid who needs not pencil nor book to do homework. It can all be downloaded in 30 seconds.

This is the student who thinks in groups, seeks input from others, accesses complex information in a heartbeat, and has built a unique virtual world of allies and friends, often people he has never met.

This is the student who challenges authority, does not really need a teacher to get information, is remarkably able to manipulate many ideas at one time, and knows he or she will have at least seven different careers (and that doesn’t scare them). This student remains incredibly resilient and confident as we pump the last gallon of crude oil out of the planet and mortgage futures by indiscriminate spending.

As you visit one of our schools, sit down, buckle up and hold on, and watch this student in action. You are in for quite a surprise.

Our schools cannot remain the same because our kids are not the same. Our society sure is not and the challenges going forward are greater than we can even fathom. No more pencils, no more books, no more... (some things never change).


William Shuttleworth is superintendent of the Five Town CSD and School Administrative District 28. He will be writing a monthly column, challenging educational conventions and the status quo, but always willing to listen and discuss all opinions. His career has been long in working with at-risk youth, and has been a practicing psychological provider and education consultant for a range of purposes: educational reform, gifted and talented, alternative programs, adjudicated youth and adventure-based learning. A grandfather now, he has taught at Maine universities, established the state's first regional school unit, and now lives in Camden, where, among other past-times, he chops woods when not at the office.

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