Insights from the Head of School

Digital Immigrants
Dr. Michael Chen

students with laptop computers

(This article, written by Dr. Chen, first appeared in the CACE (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education) newsletter in November, 2017.

Re-imagining Christian Schools: Immigrants and Natives

NOVEMBER 21, 2017

At a recent education conference, I was struck by a distinction made by John Couch, the head of Apple's educational arm. He referred to the millennials as digital natives and those of us who are generations above the age of 30 as digital immigrants. To his point, he talked about how we needed to reimagine schoolings with the fast-changing technological environment in mind so that we could best prepare the next generation of students. Meanwhile, my mind drifted to the drastic divide between the natives and immigrants.

Growing up as an immigrant kid, I experienced first hand the challenge of navigating an environment and culture that were not of my own.

  • I did not know that I needed to give a firm hand shake during my college interview as a way to give a good impression.
  • I did not know why I kept getting into trouble for not giving the teachers the due respect by not looking into their eyes when they talked to me.
  • I did not know that there were other career and vocational options beyond the ones that were described by my immigrant parents or other immigrant peers.
  • I did not know that there was a whole world out there that I could explore or that there were a whole host of ways to think about the world or life beyond in this new land of opportunity and beyond what I knew.

The gap between the realities of a native and the immigrant me was just too big for my imagination to bridge.

In a similar way, those of us who are above the age of forty face a great chasm between us, the digital immigrants, and the digital natives. And yet, we are the ones making decisions that aim to prepare the young generation for their future. Setting our pride aside, we must ask ourselves, “how in a world do we know how to prepare this young generation for their future?” This question is in light of the fact that no place in human history have we experienced such technological advances and cultural changes as rapidly as ever before. We have to admit that it is possible that many of our assumptions about how we know what we know (epistemology) and how humans behave and develop (anthropology) are dubious and should be put to question.

Moreover, for those of us who are educators, we have to hold the tension between the tried and true of what works, and what new teaching and learning should be like for the world that we may not fully comprehend. This is a difficult tension to hold because we like to teach the way we were taught, and yet that may not be the best for our students as they face a future that we, as digital immigrants, could hardly imagine.

Whatever your opinion might be of John Dewey, an influential and progressive educational philosopher in the 20th century, we should heed his insights from these words: “if we teach today as we were taught yesterday, we rob our students their future.” These words are particularly relevant in today’s fast-changing digital environment. We must prepare our students, not for our past, but for their future that is unknown to us.

So, what are some features in today’s world that make teaching the digital natives so challenging?

Grant Lichtman, an educational thought leader, describes that our educational paradigm, a remnant of the industrial age, focuses on being scalable, controlled, predictable, measurable, contained, and repeatable. As we think about all aspects of our schools, ranging from teaching in the classroom to curriculum development to homework policies to extracurricular activities, I think we can all find ways to apply the aforementioned characteristics to our schools.

In contrast, Lichtman asserts that the new schooling paradigm should focus on these characteristics:

dynamic, adaptive , permeable, self-correcting, creative, and systemic.

Without fully explicating these adjectives, the point of these descriptors is that the current ecosystem and technological context in which we think about education are both a treacherous wilderness and a land filled with milk and honey. It is fraught with challenges and ripe with opportunity equally. The next question is, how do we get through this? Do we need to wander through the wilderness for 40 years before crossing the Jordan River into the promised land like the biblical Israelites?

In graduate school, I learned that at the foundation of any great idea is a thoughtful theoretical framework from which we develop innovative ideas in order to advance human thinking and doing. In the same way, I suggest that we must start with a foundational question when reimagining schooling so that it may be able to grow and develop along with the pace of our fast changing information age. And this question is:

How do we know what we know?

The answer to this question about the nature of knowledge should shape the design and architecture of a 21st century school.

So, what is your theory about knowledge (epistemology)? Is it consistent with the design of your school (organizational theory)? Can your theory about knowledge adequately respond to the dynamic movement and development of society and world (anthropology and sociology)?

In the next article, I will suggest the application of the epistemological work of Esther Meek to the way we re-imagine Christian schools.

Can you teach a five-year-old Calculus?
Dr. Michael Chen

Can you teach a five-year-old Calculus? Dr. Maria Droujkova suggests that we can and I absolutely agree. “5-Year-Olds Can Learn Calculus,” an article in this month’s The Atlantic, highlights Droujkova’s new book Moebius Noodles: Adventurous math for the playground crowd and her educational approach called “Natural Math.” Instead of talking about the nuts-and-bolts of “natural math,” the takeaway is that complex conceptual mathematical learning can happen early and it can concurrently foster in a child a love for math by engaging their natural knack for observation and play.

Our traditional educational model builds from counting to addition and subtraction, culminating with calculus. But, Droujkova suggests that this is “developmentally inappropriate, [and the learning] experience amounts to torture.” Instead, Droujkova suggests we can teach young children complex concepts by engaging them in easy educational activities introducing them to the “playful universe of mathematics.”

Studies and my teaching experiences suggest that despite the policy tensions between traditional and reform math, textbooks, various institutional constraints, and teachers’ own learning experiences typically shape daily pedagogical choices. 1 And, compared with other industrialized nations, American math education offers “a constellation of features that reinforce[s] attention to lower-level mathematics skills.” 2

This article challenges us to rethink math education practically. And, this also should translate into how we talk about math intentionally and affirmatively to our children, in spite of many of our own negative math-learning experiences. Let’s foster a love for math similarly to reading and the arts and learn to make math meaningful.

Math, a language to explore God’s fingerprints in humanity, should remind us of our patterned, purposeful, and meaningful existence. This should inspire the way we teach math. We have a calling to, as Socrates suggests, “lead the soul forcibly upward” by creating an inspiring math-learning experience for our students. The first step starts with us. As Christian school leaders, we should be steeped in our thoughtful understanding of math the same way we are in other disciplines. We don’t need to solve Calculus problems necessarily; we just need to love and value their complexity. Let’s make exponential progress to this end!

The article was first published by CESA (Council on Educational Standards & Accountability) in 2014.

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1 See Ball, D. L., Hill, H. C., & Bass, H. (2005). Knowing Mathematics for Teaching: Who Knows Mathematics Well Enough To Teach Third Grade, and How Can We Decide?

Schoenfeld, A. H. (2004). The Math Wars. Educational Policy, 18(1), 253–286.

Robinson, S. P. (1996). With Numeracy for all Urban Schools and the Reform of Mathematics Education. Urban Education, 30(4), 379–394.

Silver, E. A., & Stein, M. K. (1996). The Quasar Project The “Revolution of the Possible” in Mathematics Instructional Reform in Urban Middle Schools. Urban Education, 30(4), 476–521.

Tate, W. F. (1996). Introduction Urban Schools and Mathematics Reform: Implementing New Standards. Urban Education, 30(4), 371–378.

2 See Hiebert, et. al. (2005). Mathematics Teaching in the United States Today (and Tomorrow): Results From the TIMSS 1999 Video Study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(2), 111–132.