As I laid out the schedule for our upcoming PE unit on bowling, I told my class I would teach them how to keep score. “But why,” asked a puzzled student, “when the machines will do that for us?”
While it sounds like a line from a science fiction movie, it’s an issue I face daily. As a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m often faced with the question of how useful a skill is now and how useful it will be in the near future. Debates rage in social media over whether we should be teaching cursive, but there are other issues: analog (clock face) vs. digital time; multiplication tables vs. calculators; keyboarding vs. voice (or just thumbs). . .
The list of no-longer-taught items continues to grow: dictionary guide words, the library card catalog, using encyclopedias. But at the same time, the list of necessary new skills also grows: validating online research, uploading an assignment, creating presentations on PowerPoint/Prezi/Keynote, using the Help feature on a new app or program.
When someone says students should know how to write in cursive or read a wristwatch in case their electronics break down, I point out that few of us can saddle a horse, make bread from scratch, or milk a cow. When our cars break down, we find a ride; when we run out of bread or milk, we buy or borrow some. We never go back to “the old ways.” Humans have an amazing ability to adapt and to cope.
There will always be an overlap of new skills with old; for example, sometimes I use Google to look up an answer and other times I ask SIRI. Sometimes I look at an online map before I go and other times I just trust my phone’s GPS. See how quickly new skills become old?
Yes, some day there may be an electromagnetic pulse that will stop all electricity and radio waves, like in sci-fi movies. If that day comes, we will need to learn to live off the land, or use Morse code, or draw water from a well. The “old skills” will become the new ones that everyone needs to know. And we will adapt.
In the meantime, I’m going to sharpen some pencils and teach my kids how to score a strike. For old time’s sake.