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Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Education: Skill Acquisition or Human Formation?

Education: Skill Acquisition or
Human Formation?

          I’ve been involved with education my whole life – as a student, a teacher, and a parent.  There is a phrase I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency over the past few years used to describe a school’s mission – “preparing students for 21st century jobs.”
          The phrase makes sense and so does the idea, obviously.  However, it has been used as a justification for practices that have begun to cause me real concern.  (Of course, I am only speaking to my own experience, which is extraordinarily limited compared to the question of education on a national level).
          Technology has become, in many cases, the new god to be worshipped by our educational system.  I have seen text books replaced by e-books, which have their benefits, to be sure.  But more and more, content is being delivered almost exclusively by video and computer interactive activities rather than by language, especially written language.  Note-taking, in some places, is being replaced by Powerpoint presentations, created by the teacher, and posted on a class Web site for students to download and study.  The need for spelling instruction is questioned since student work is all done on a Word Processing program and emailed, and cursive is being jettisoned even faster.  One principal, at an in-service I attended, even claimed that within a few years, there would be absolutely no paper used in the school.
          Of course, the level of this change differs by state, district and diocese.  And, of course, it all begs the question, “So what?  Given the pace of technology, isn’t this a good thing?”
          I don’t think so, and here’s why.  First, I should point out that I believe strongly in teaching children computer skills and integrating the technology in other disciplines where it’s appropriate.  However, I see many problems with replacing the (paper) notebook with the iPad.
          There is plenty of educational research out there, and anyone with an agenda can find or develop a study to justify his position, so I will allow those who are interested to investigate the research and decide for themselves which conclusions to trust.
          However, I believe strongly in the research that suggests that when educational content is delivered largely through written language, as opposed to video, the brain becomes stronger.
          It’s true that video and interactive computer programs are essential tools to supplement instruction and maximize comprehension of a topic.  Those who lobby for their exclusive use agree that they allow the brain to comprehend without working as hard.  But there also is the problem.  We don’t want to make learning difficult, but we do want to train students’ brains.  Language, note-taking, etc. allow students to strengthen their ability to learn and think at levels an iPad and Powerpoint presentation alone simply can’t.
          There is also the issue that many schools, starting as young as kindergarten, are providing or requiring personal computers for each student for use all day.  There have been a myriad of studies about the negative effects of so much screen time on brain development and attention.
          In a nut shell, the push for “preparing students for 21st century jobs” has shifted the focus from human formation to mere skill acquisition.  This has been happening for a long time in many of our public schools, but the trend is spilling over into our Catholic schools as well.  The Cardinal Newman Society recently reported that Catholic colleges are becoming more specialized, like their secular counterparts, and abandoning a well-rounded curriculum for all students (with a few notable exceptions).
          And it is in our primary and secondary schools that our Catholic school students learn prayer, silence, meditation, focus and higher-level thinking.  This can not help but be compromised if we insist on keeping them glued to a screen for 70% of the school day. 
          Catholic schools more than any other should understand the importance of forming young people mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually as their primary mission, and not just focusing on the acquiring of skills that will one day provide a paycheck (as important as that is).
          As previously stated, these are only trends that I am seeing with increasing regularity; they are certainly not universal.  And my concern is not with the proper instruction and integration of new technology, only the over-indulgence and abuse of it at the price of our children’s overall formation.
          There are some positive trends as well.  Many Catholic schools and homeschooling programs are refocusing on a classical curriculum.  In the end, it is up to us as parents to ensure our children are getting an education that prepares them, not just for 21st century jobs, but forms them completely as people created in God’s image, and ultimately prepares them for Heaven.