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Who Needs Long Division?

Fall 2012

Who Needs Long Division?
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Adapting today’s education to tomorrow’s digital workplace.

By Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky is a speaker, writer, and game designer focusing on education and learning. Adapted from Brain Gain: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom.©2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

When I went to school, half a century ago, I was taught to write letters, reports, and essays. All of these were at that time important and widely used. But today, if a student were to go to work, none of those would likely be needed. The worker would write emails, PowerPoint decks, and blog posts.

So is that what we should teach instead? Yes, to some degree. But by the time many of today’s kids are working, those skills won’t be important, either. What skills will? I believe we can already foresee that among the most important ones will be working in virtual communities, making videos (on both sides of the camera), and programming our increasingly powerful machines. So these are skills we should be teaching today.

In continuing to teach old, rarely used techniques, we waste a great deal of our educational time, which is, after all, limited. Not that the old techniques weren’t useful for developing certain mental habits and skills. But if we believe the habits and skills are valuable, we should find useful, modern ways to develop them.

Is it digitally wise, for example, to spend large amounts of time teaching skills that practically all adults now offload to machines? These include, for example, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing large numbers. Do students really need to spend years learning the old methods for doing this (which, by the way, are really just paper-based shortcuts) even as backup? Wouldn’t it be digitally wiser to teach our young people to use spreadsheets and other widely used mathematical tools—and to use them well—from the earliest grades?

In Continuing to teach old, rarely used techniques, we waste a great deal of our educational time, which is, after all, limited.

Many would be loath, for example, to see “mental arithmetic” go. But if we are still going to teach it—along with the fundamental lessons of what math is and means, which are still important—we must figure out how that skill helps twenty-first-century people, enhanced with digital tools. One of the only times when the ability to do quick math in our head is truly important is when we are negotiating: A person who can quickly figure out in his or her head the value of something proposed can have an advantage over someone who must pull out tools to calculate. So I’d be for teaching some mental math to our kids in a modern negotiating context.

But is it digitally wise to spend years and years of their schooling—which should be a useful and inspiring time—forcing kids to practice long division and multiplication solutions to problems that they can easily do in other ways—solutions, moreover, that many of them will never master? (And it is not even clear how long the negotiating advantage of mental math, assuming there is one, will last. More and more people now sit at the negotiating table with their tablet, or whatever will replace it, in front of them.)

Actually, as Conrad Wolfram argues, in the modern context, we get mathematics teaching backward. We spend almost all our time teaching calculation—the part that machines are much better for. We should be putting our focus instead on the setting up of problems in mathematical language and in interpreting the machine-calculated solutions.

Similar issues exist with writing. Is there anyone who works for a living who still writes most things out in longhand? Yes, there still are some novelists and some doctors—including mine—who do, but are they being digitally wise in doing so, or would their writing of nonfiction books, medical records, and notes be enhanced by being done digitally? (Artistic writing can, of course, be done in whatever way the artist prefers.)

Again, when it counts, we get it backward. Instead of making our kids use keyboards to write, which is clearly the best twenty-first-century way, we not only allow them to do it the old way but in many cases even require that they do it by hand. Why?

People have all sorts of explanations for this. I have heard some worry about keyboards changing. Perhaps, they say, we should not teach and require kids to use QWERTY because it might be replaced. Of course it will be replaced—it is an awkward technology. But it’s unlikely to be replaced by another keyboard. Numerous attempts to change have shown that despite its inconveniences, QWERTY is too embedded in our culture for it to be replaced with another, even better, keyboard—in some cases it’s far worse to have two systems than one that is universal. Although it has its flaws, the keyboard is the best text-entry technology humans currently have. It is the one that all businesses use, and the one that all our kids should master—perhaps even before handwriting—so they can write closer to the speed at which they think.

But I do think all keyboards will go away in their lifetime. Humans are in desperate need of a better technology than a keyboard for entering text into a computer. I am confident that a technology will emerge that is universally acknowledged to be so much better than keyboarding or voice that we will all just switch to it in the same way we all quickly switched to automobiles for travel and Google for search. Some still think voice will be that technology, but even when voice-to-text is perfect, there remains the problem of unwanted noise from many talking at once that we already experience with public cell-phone calls. The best candidate I have heard about from people working on this problem is something called “sub-vocalization.” But the eventual winner remains to be seen.

The Tools of the Century

If we really bothered to look at our kids’ curriculum carefully, we would see that much of what we teach is not to their benefit at all. A lot of it is really for our own nostalgic pleasure—teaching kids to do old things because those things once worked for us. (Worse, we sometimes deliberately make students suffer through whatever we had to suffer though; this is typical of doctoral programs.) Today there exist better ways than the ways in which most of us learned to write, read, calculate, and do scholarship. The ironic truth is that while we still teach the old ways to our kids, most of us have abandoned those ways and adopted the new ones ourselves.

But we do still insist on teaching the old ways of writing, calculating, and researching to our kids. Not that the old ways aren’t fun sometimes, or even attractive or useful, but they have effectively become, in the digital context, little more than a hobby for enthusiasts, like writing with a quill in chancery hand. Nothing completely goes away—there are still people in the world making flint arrowheads. But is that (metaphorically) what we want today’s kids to be doing?

Digital wisdom also consists of helping kids understand whywe use technology, which is something we can and should teach not as separate subject, but integrated into all our lessons and classes, just as reading and writing are.

Some do offer serious rationales for continuing to teach the old ways. They make the (valid) argument that the technology we use influences how we think. Writing by hand, some believe, can influence students’ thinking in positive ways.

But even if that’s true, so what? Our kids are not going to think like people in Shakespeare’s time, who wrote with quills, nor do we want them to. They are not going to think like people in the twentieth century, who wrote with ballpoints. They are going to think like people of the twenty-first century, influenced by the tools of that century, the tools of their time. And we should all want and expect them to.

We certainly wouldn’t say to a kid who loses his pen or pencil, “Oh, just write the essay in your head!” It is hard to think of a job or profession where the wise interplay of mind and technology is not important. Medical school without technology, anybody? Even the most menial tasks, such as garbage collection, recycling, or sewage treatment, rely on computers to schedule, report issues, and more and more, to automate the process. We need to teach kids to think and work in this way. Digital wisdom also consists of helping kids understand why we use technology, which is something we can and should teach not as separate subject, but integrated into all our lessons and classes, just as reading and writing are. They should learn in school not to solve puzzles such as Sudoku, for example, but to write the program that creates (and solves) all Sudoku puzzles in one shot.

The questions I believe we should always ask ourselves when deciding what to teach—and when to change over to newer technologies—are, “Is this a digitally wise move?” and, “How can we be digitally wiser about it?” It is not always the case that just introducing technology into classrooms is digitally wise, which is why so much of it sits unused. Potentially, it is a very good thing, for example, that Mark Zuckerberg plans to give $100 million to the Newark, N.J., schools—if it is used in a digitally wise way. That way, in my view, would be to imagine and plan for at least a year (and maybe more) before any technology gets ordered. Doing it the other way around—that is, purchasing and then planning, as too many educators do—means that by the time people finally figure out digitally wise ways to use the technology, it is already a generation or more old and well on its way to becoming obsolete.

Some worry that valuable skills—particularly “thinking” skills—get lost when we integrate technology. I disagree. This may happen in some instances, but it by no means has to be the case. To prevent it from happening, we must ask, for those skills we consider important: “What are ways to use technology to better learn and build these skills?” What we need to find are ways to learn, practice, and master these skills that do not take our young people backward into the past but, rather, move them forward into the future. To teach logical thinking, for example, we no longer have to make our kids spend large amounts of time doing two thousand-year-old geometrical proofs—we can offer them programming, which teaches the same skills and prepares them for twenty-first-century jobs.

There is no time to teach—and no point in teaching—all the curriculum we taught in the past to our kids. We can’t do that in the time we have—or even if we add more—and still prepare our kids for the future. Why is there not more interest in developing a new, twenty-first-century curriculum and not just adding on new skills to the old? If we could all suspend our personal preferences, prejudices, and nostalgic thinking for a bit, it wouldn’t be that hard to do.

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