Taken-for-granted assumptions: Is it time to do things differently?

We make assumptions all the time. I made one just then, actually. Based on our experiences of life, we make decisions for a future that we are trying to anticipate. In my experience, this seldom works out precisely the way I think it will, and so the question then is why do we make assumptions? How can we try to predict a future that is changing as I type these words? There are a great deal of givens in our society: things that no one questions. We follow through with them because either we believe in their intrinsic value (they are useful to us) or because we are doing them so unconsciously that we don’t even notice we’re doing them. When was the last time you thought about how you walk, for example? I don’t mean the mechanics of the action, I mean, when did you last think about how you place your feet, what your posture is, whether you engage your core when you move? I certainly don’t think of these behaviours unless I’m leaving an appointment at the physiotherapist.

Let’s bring this back to education by looking at a practice I feel is a given for most of us: writing.A great deal of teachers’ time is spent either trying to decipher handwriting, improve handwriting or complain about handwriting. It’s something that apparently has been on the decline year after year. I was one of the markers for the IEB Matric final examinations for two years and just in a single year the number of students who had handwriting concessions had increased exponentially.

When I introduced the idea of the 1:1 iPad programme, one of the biggest concerns was that students’ handwriting would deteriorate. My response was: how much longer are they going to need that skill?

Be honest, when was the last time you had to write something by hand? I am able to type far more quickly and accurately than I am able to write, and my hands don’t get as sore. My computer also compensates for little ‘brain-blips’ I make every now and then (I spelt decipher with a y earlier and my Mac kindly reminded me that that was not correct). The only reason I can see for needing handwriting is because final examinations are almost exclusively written by hand. For now.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make: things are changing.

As far as I am concerned, it would be far more beneficial to teach students to type properly than it is to try to force them to do something that ultimately is a little-used skill nowadays. I will go a step further and say that even typing’s days are starting to be numbered. Just look at how much Siri has developed in the few years it (she?) has been around, and you can see where we’re headed. I do not think it’s too far fetched to argue that in the not-too-distant future, we’re all going to be using voice command for everything and even typing won’t be something we need, let alone handwriting.

There have been studies which argue that memory retention is lower in students who do not write by hand and that students who type during lectures do not absorb as much information. My challenge here is that perhaps we’re looking at the wrong behaviour as the source of the problem. Perhaps we need to look at how we’re conveying knowledge. Students’ way of accessing the world is almost entirely different to how most adults accessed it, and yet we plough on in much the same ways as we’ve always done. I think the world has changed and it’s time our practices followed suit.

We need to move towards new ways of creating and sharing knowledge. We need to teach students how to engage with rapidly-changing technologies, to be excited by new opportunities, to be able to create media that others want to consume, to consume media thoughtfully and with consideration of others and to know when to use which technology and how.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not for the wholesale abolishment of any practice (except, perhaps, homework). What I am a firm advocate of, however, is questioning assumptions. People—all people—should question what they do, why they do it and how they do it. Thomas Edison said, ‘There is a way to do it better. Find it’ and this is advice I feel we should all make an effort to follow.

The next time you start to enforce a practice, or ensure that it forms part of your syllabus for the year, before you type it next to its bullet point or into its box on the rubric, think of Edison. Question whether, in 20 years your students are going to need to use the skill you are so desperately trying to teach them.

This final sentence for example, has been written entirely using my voice and built-in dictation software on my Mac. For how long are we going to need to know how to type let alone write by hand? Something tells me not very long; in fact, I’m sure that within our lifetimes we’re going to see more fundamental changes to the way of life than anytime before. This is something I find deeply exciting and I look forward to the way it’s going to improve our lives and contribute to our making positive changes in the world around us.


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