Monday, March 11, 2013

It's About Problems

By Dr. Vin Hawkins
Educational Consultant, Former District Leader

Isaac Asimov once stated, “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be…” He continues to imply that everyone must assume a science-fiction way of thinking.

Recently, Jon Stewart invited Michio Kaku, City College of New York professor of theoretical physics, and author of Physics of the Future, to The Daily Show. Dr. Kaku’s interesting discussion about asteroids nearly colliding with earth (recently, a large one) and hitting it (in Russia, a small one) set the stage for informing us that a large asteroid could (theoretically) hit the earth in 2036, after making a rather close pass to our atmosphere in 2029—a viable solution to prevent such a cataclysmic event? Physics indicates that a force of substantial magnitude, like a rocket or hydrogen bomb set off on or near the asteroid, could be used to alter its trajectory out of earth’s path. Now that’s an example of tackling one huge problem by some very smart people.

The electronic revolution has spawned instant access to all the content knowledge and underlying minutia one desires. Solutions to 21st century problems, albeit more earthly than the one cited above, are just as compelling. Previous generations debated what knowledge is of most worth (Spencer), and what content is of most worth (Elliot). Students today (and we are all students), must address what problems are of most worth. Problem recognition and solution must assume a prioritized position in our educational enterprise:

By the year 2025 the number of countries that will experience water scarcity will increase by nearly 100%. That translates to about 10% of the earth’s population. Problems: Governance, etc.

It is projected that by the year 2043, the minority will be the majority in the United States (50.1% non-white). Problems: Geographic shifts, etc.

By the year 2030, 60% of the world’s population will be urbanized. Problems: Public transportation, etc.

By the year 2040, 50% of the world’s countries will be using renewable energy. Problems: Economic, etc.

Problems such as these, categorized as utilitarian, humanity, and/or global community, are indicative of the engine that needs to drive instruction. Problems that are skill-embedded, interdisciplinary, real (not contrived), collected from respected sources, as well as personal curiosity and motivation are best addressed by students who are astute in problem-solving skills such as critical and creative thinking, debate, time management, ethics, rapid-change adaptation, inquiry, dilemmas and decision-making, and are comfortable in integrating historically diverse subjects (content convergence).

At a recent TED talk, (Sir) Ken Robinson stated that a longitudinal assessment of divergent thinking showed a rather stark decrease in student ability in this area between kindergarten and high school. No surprise, given the traditional, industrialized factory model of compartmentalizing both student and subject that contribute to the moribund state of far too many classrooms and schools. Students need to be emancipated from the inertia that restricts their entrepreneurial spirit while balancing characteristics that define an educated person.