A Challenge to Doubters: Do Something Impossible

Make Your Own List. Make Your Own Future.

The article "21 Things That Will be Obsolete in 2020" has elicited a range of responses from readers. One describes a school where much of the predictions are already happening, while others convey serious doubt that any of these will come to fruition -- whether it's due to lack of money or dedication to education, fixation on standardized testing, or just plain jadedness about the possibility for change.

I asked the writer, Shelly Blake-Plock, to respond to the comments. Here's his thoughtful observation.

By Shelly Blake-Plock

I've heard the criticisms regarding how outlandish these predictions seem for low-income schools. And I think a lot of it has to do with the transition period we find our selves in as a society and I think a lot of it has to do with the seemingly endless failures that have shaped the view of many an educator when it comes to the word "reform."

And so when it comes to digital technology, folks say to themselves: "I've heard all that before. I've heard about how computers are going to change everything. I heard about how our offices were going to be paperless. Right. I've heard about the latest program that's going to help my kids learn and I've seen all the computer games and seen money wasted on computers that are obsolete by the time they are plugged in."

And I think, by-and-large, those folks making those complaints have been right to do so for years. But what they perhaps aren't getting is that we're not talking about computers anymore. We're talking about the way that we connect to one another as human beings.

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Those connections have changed. We don't need to be broadcasted at anymore. We don't need so many of the hierarchies we used to unwittingly depend upon. Just ask any manager of a CD shop in the mall.

We're in the middle of a transition that extends to every conceivable form of human experience.

Including education.

We're in the middle of a transition period between analog and digital realities in work, school, and life. That isn't to say the analog isn't important -- it's just to recognize that the digital in many ways opens up new opportunities that the analog just can't offer. Anyone who has been able to immediately share pictures and videos of the kids in real-time with family elsewhere in the country can attest to this.

In schools, however, we often act as though nothing beyond the classroom walls and the strict curriculum taught within them matters. And we act as though digital technology is somehow only auxiliary to the experience our kids have in learning throughout the course of the day. So we have "reading time" and "math time" and "tech time" (maybe), but we often fail to integrate those things in the way they are already integrated in reality. We fail to integrate them, we fail to personalize them, and we let ourselves believe that doing so would just take too much effort and not show anything quantifiable for it in the end.

Many of the folks who've criticized my ideas in terms of tech in the classroom have told me it's not feasible because "we don't even have books, how are we going to provide computers?"

And I think that's a fair question. But I'd argue that by-and-large you don't have to spend a ton of money on computers. Because your students are often carrying more technological capacity in their pockets in the form of cell and smart phones than you could ever have imagined years ago.

Many schools are considering "BYOD" (Bring Your Own Device) as a way to fundamentally alter the playing field. The most important thing is being able to connect; it doesn't matter so much exactly on the device. So let kids bring what they have and let them work together and share. Improvise. Experiment. Learn to trust one another and teach one another. Supplement what you actually need rather than spending money on 30 or 60 or 1,000 of the same thing. Manage your class in such a way that some kids can be using the available devices while other kids are doing something else. Not everybody in your class has to be doing the same thing at the same time. Mix it up.

As for books: Think about how much those textbooks cost; and think about how often new editions are printed. Think about how much money you waste on paper, toner, and copy machines. I'd suggest reallocating your funds from perishable forms of information to dynamic and ever-updated forms available online -- and often for free. All you need is to provide the connection.

Now, yes, some things on my list of things that will be obsolete in schools by 2020 may seem extreme. But the idea of something like Facebook connecting 600 million people seemed pretty extreme four years ago. The idea of social media becoming a force in journalism, protest, and organizing seemed kinda extreme. The idea of a Fortune 500 company hiring someone in charge of Tweeting probably still seems extreme to a lot of folks; but go take a look at the Twitter feeds of every major corporation and organization today.

Yes, crazy stuff happens. And maybe if we deal with the poverty and crushed communities that are realities for our lowest income students and maybe if we allowed them to actually have voices and take part in the digital revolution that is galvanizing the spirit of low-income and oppressed people throughout the world into something empowering and reality-changing, and maybe if we got rid of the red tape and the fear that gives us excuses about why there has to be a digital divide, then maybe we'd actually be amazed at what our kids can do.

America doesn't lack money. The money is there. What America seems to be lacking is the will to actually use its strength to empower the folks we've conveniently left behind.

I teach pre-service and young teachers in the grad program at Johns Hopkins University. These teachers work in classrooms throughout Baltimore City Public Schools. Some of them are in places with fresh paint on the walls and computers in the labs, while some of them are in classrooms without enough books for the kids. A few months ago, one of my young teachers found himself in a discussion with the principal about what to do with some recently available funding. He actually managed to convince him to let him pilot a 1:1 iPad program for inner city high schoolers. By all accounts, it's worked out great for him. Another of my teachers started a tech and new media program in an unused room in his high school. His kids are engaged in what they are learning and they are applying real-time learning from the Web to the realities of their lives in Baltimore.

So when I hear people say: "This is impossible," I tend to react by telling them to figure it out and do the impossible. Teachers: you are the most amazing people on the planet. You are gifted with a fine mind and great compassion. You handle adversity and trauma and you inspire the future. You are going to have to be the ones to figure this out. You can't rely on your administrators to do this for you. They are busy. They don't always see what's going on or what's available. So you've got to make it happen. Go to Donors Choose and apply for funding for your classroom. Get a Twitter account and follow #edchat to make connections with like-minded educators around the world. Don't let the reality of whatever condition your school might be in right now dictate what reality will look like in the future. Shape the future you want to see. Organize with the families in your school's community. Find energetic young teachers at your local college and put them to work helping us all create something new.

And your future doesn't have to look like mine. My list isn't some steadfast rule, it's just a silly list of ideas. But I'm trying to do my part to make my silly list of idealistic ideas come true for the teachers I serve in Baltimore City. I'm trying to make it come true for the kids I serve at the little Catholic high school where you can find me most weekdays. I'm trying to make it come true for my own three kids who go to a public elementary school where classes meet in trailers, but nonetheless kids get to present work online. You've got to make your own list. You've got to make your own future. Do something impossible.

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Read more in the School Day of the Future series.

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