Teach the Timeless

Version 6.0, 2012

Did you ever see “Shift Happens”? You might remember it as the “Did You Know?” presentation, full of startling statistics about the relative populations of China, India and the United States, and about the exponential growth of technology and information. Anyone who has attended a faculty or parent meeting, an education conference, a professional development day or a graduate course in education anytime in the past six years can hardly have failed to catch it at least once, probably more.  Its six different versions have been viewed over 20 million times.

The first time I saw it, I was startled. “Whoa!” I thought. “We’d better get busy changing education to meet the demands of this scary, new unpredictable world!” The second time I saw it, I thought, “Wait a minute, where are they getting these statistics from? Is this data even accurate? Some of it seems pretty conjectural. But still! Even if some of it is a little sketchy, we need to start responding to these new conditions immediately!”

By the third time, I was starting to get suspicious. “What is the agenda here? Why does everyone keep showing this?” And every other time I’ve been subjected to it, I’ve spent the time constructing arguments in my head as to why the only sensible response to “Shift Happens” is to teach Latin, woodworking, interpretive dance, or animal husbandry.  (You really don’t want me in your grad class.)

Karl Fisch, the Colorado math and technology educator who created the first “Shift Happens” for his colleagues at a faculty meeting, has had mixed feelings about his viral video. In 2007, when it had already been viewed by a few million people, he wrote:

The presentation was intended to be the start of the conversation, not the entire conversation, and that’s part of my concern with how it’s being used. If it’s just shown to educators – or others – without any context or opportunity for follow-up conversation, then it can leave the audience in a state of what Wesley Fryer termed “shock and awe.” If that’s the case, then not only is it not helpful, it’s actually detrimental. Only with context and conversation can we help move the audience(s) past the “shock and awe” stage and into the, “Okay, this is also kind of exciting and invigorating. What are we going to do about this?!” stage.

Because “Shift Happens” proposes no solutions and doesn’t frame a particular problem or question, anyone showing it to a captive audience of educators or policymakers is free to explain how their own pet theories, projects, or products are the obvious response. Some presenters have used it less as an open-ended conversation starter than as a Rorschach test, the open-and-shut case for whatever thesis the presenter cared to argue. It became another stick to beat teachers and schools with, too, yet another way in which schools were failing: apparently, we were not preparing students for an unknowable future. None of this was Fisch’s intention, nor that of Dr. Scott McLeod, who remixed Fisch’s original PowerPoint into the online video most of us saw.

Even if used as intended, though, “Shift Happens” got a few things wrong (anyone can look at the data sources here, and maybe you’ll notice what I did). One widely quoted projection from the original 2006 version is that by 2010, the top ten in-demand jobs would be those that hadn’t existed in 2004. Schools, it warned, were preparing students for careers we couldn’t yet imagine. This statistic doesn’t bear much scrutiny even before you look it up. Most service-industry jobs are not new and not going anywhere. Most healthcare jobs have been around for decades. We still have plenty of attorneys, accountants, teachers, plumbers, landscapers, and retailers and will need them in the future. But don’t take my word for it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the thirty most in-demand jobs from 2010-2020 not only existed in 2004; all of them existed in 1964. The majority existed in 1904. The really scary statistic is on the far right of that BLS chart: only four of the thirty most in-demand jobs require a bachelor’s degree. A third of them don’t even require a high school diploma.

A more trivial topic about which “Shift Happens” guessed wrong was MySpace. If current trends had continued, MySpace would probably have merited a seat on the U.N. Security Council by now. No one could have anticipated Facebook, but that’s precisely the point: current trends do not always continue.

The most significant development not predicted by “Shift Happens,” though, is the global financial meltdown and resulting unemployment crisis, which has been particularly hard on the young. Those bright English-speaking Indian and Chinese students in the presentation were not, as it turned out, the greatest threat to American youth. Our own financial and governmental institutions were.

My point is not to beat up on the creators of “Shift Happens,” who were only trying to begin a necessary conversation and are not, after all, professional soothsayers. They assembled information educators needed to be aware of in an engaging format. My point is that we need to respond to new information by thinking calmly, strategically, rationally, and wisely about the role of technology in education. We cannot simply react, chasing every new trend, struggling to keep up, desperate to prove that schools are hip and relevant in a world that changes too fast. That’s not good for us or our students.

Edtech  gurus understand that preparing students for the future entails changing curricula and pedagogy to include problem-solving, global awareness, critical thinking and many kinds of literacies, incorporating technological tools that help students meet those learning goals. ISTE’s NETS standards are an excellent example of this kind of high-level thinking. But our edtech leaders are often, I’m afraid, naïve about the way their ideas filter down, past the conference and journal level. On the district and building level, administrators and school boards who don’t really understand technology and have no desire to rethink pedagogy or curriculum often simply order teachers to use certain tools in their lessons, or else. The myth of the digital native causes administrators to believe that all students are magically, naturally fluent in every new app that someone develops and to seriously underestimate the professional development and instructional time needed to use the tools competently.  Edtech websites and conferences feature examples of the best student work, not the typical work, and certainly not the work of kids and teachers who haven’t been given sufficient time and resources to master them.

You can find countless websites listing a hundred ways to use Twitter in the classroom, or a hundred free web tools every teacher should be using. Harder to find are serious debates about why and how to reimagine pedagogy in light of these tools, or about the most effective strategies for incorporating technology without letting it drive the curriculum. But what is the alternative to the constant anxiety that we are not doing the New Thing fast enough?  Is the New Thing even worth doing? If “Shift Happens” is correct, then even the most bleeding-edge techno-utopians among us can never catch up, because our children are growing up in a world so entirely different from ours that we cannot  imagine what their future will be like.

Here, then, is the contradiction at the heart of the “Shift Happens” problem:

Proposition 1: The world is changing so exponentially that we cannot hope to fathom the kind of lives our students will have, the jobs they will do, or the problems they will need to solve.

Proposition 2: We need to make students the masters of every new technology that comes along so that they will be prepared for the future.

If 1 is true, then 2 is a waste time. No matter how advanced the technology we teach them today, it will quickly be replaced by something we cannot imagine.

Here is a different set of propositions:

1. Technology is changing very fast and will continue to do so. Consequently, the available knowledge in the world will continue to grow at exponential rates, perhaps forever.

2. Those technological changes cause dramatic economic and social shifts, though much remains unaltered about the human experience, and will continue to do so, perhaps forever.

3. We can make some educated guesses, but we cannot know the kinds of jobs that our students will do in the future. Many of those careers will be familiar to us, but there will be new ones we cannot yet envision.

4. We can extrapolate from current conditions, but we cannot predict the problems our children will face in the future. The previous generation did not anticipate our current crises, and we are equally in the dark. Divination, as Hermione Granger observed, is a woolly discipline.

So how can we pack our students’ suitcases for a voyage to a place we’ve never seen?

For one thing, we can stop worrying about whether our students are using the Top 100 Free Technology Tools For Educators! from the latest conference. It doesn’t matter. The pressure is off. The vast majority of these will not exist in five years.

We can focus instead on teaching students the tools that adults use to do their real work in each content area. What are scientists using today to record and share data and findings? What do historians use to connect new findings with previous knowledge? How do experts in any field communicate with each other about their ideas? How do they evaluate new technology to determine whether it will help them in their work?

When teaching these contemporary tech tools, we can’t just teach where to find the “Rotate” function in a particular program. Rather, we can make each technology experience an explicit lesson in how to learn tomorrow’s technology independently.

Instead of wondering about the “problems we don’t even know are problems yet” that “Shift Happens” warns us about, we can set students to work solving today’s real-life problems, preferably those in their own communities  (we have a number to choose from). Students collecting and analyzing data about how climate change affects the fish in their nearby river, researching the impact on wildife elsewhere, and proposing and sharing solutions with community stakeholders are using technology in the service of a wide range of learning objectives well worth meeting. The learning goals, not the technology, must drive the curriculum.

Finally, we can teach the timeless curriculum, the skills that, no matter what the future holds, every student will need. Here are some I think are important:

  • Teach critical thinking in every subject, every grade.
  • Teach epistemology.
  • Teach the literacies they will need for lifelong learning.
  • Teach the ability to frame and refine good questions, to turn curiosity into inquiry.
  • Teach the research skills they will need to find the answers to those good questions.
  • Teach not only history, but the history of ideas. Patterns repeat.
  • Teach both self-reliance and collaboration.
  • Teach citizenship: local, national, and global.
  • Teach entrepreneurship.
  • Teach health, nutrition, and exercise.
  • Teach compassion.

What goes in your timeless curriculum? Please leave a comment below.


Update: Parts of this essay, along with many other ideas, grew up to be a speech called “An Angel Packs a Suitcase,” which I gave at Montclair University in December 2012 to the New Jersey Educational Computing Consortium. You can listen to it online here.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and In the Meat Department: A Novel, one of which may even be published someday! She is a former candidate for New York State Senate and Rockland County Legislature, and would be only too happy to tell you all about it. You could at one time follow her on Twitter, but she's done with that all that now. Please connect with her on Mastodon instead: https://social.coop/@Julie Mastodon
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7 Responses to Teach the Timeless

  1. Apologies to anyone who read the error-riddled draft that appeared at midnight. Please read this one–it’s much better now. Don’t forget to leave a comment about what you believe should be included in the timeless curriculum.

  2. David Rubenstein says:

    This is a wonderful article. It was suggested to me as a prelude to a discussion that I will be having with my niece, about the broad topic of education. Our discussion will now be a constructive one, rather than adversarial. I believe you have done an especially good service by outlining the “timeless curriculum.” Thank you.

  3. Julie, as a parent who very much resents the panic that is often generated by slightly wrong information presented dramatically on skewed graphs, I thank you for this article. I had almost forgotten about “Shift Happens”… it had become yet another element to the whole “our kids will never catch up to the world” rumors in the back of every parent’s mind (not just Waldorf parents, mind you… anyone who feels that their children are technologically deprived, which is everyone, because who can keep up with statistics like that?). In support of the timeless curriculum being founded on the disciplines of logic and flexibility of thought, I would include storytelling, of course, which synthesizes those two principles, and refines communications skills, memory, basic stick-to-it-ivity… what does the discipline of storytelling *not* refine, for that matter?

    • Storytelling! Yes, perfect. That absolutely belongs on the timeless curriculum.
      The public conversation focuses so much on the way the world has changed and will changed that we lose sight of how much never changes and never will.

  4. Pingback: An Angel Packs a Suitcase | NJECC

  5. Pingback: An Angel Packs a Suitcase | Perfect Whole

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