So what should we be teaching?

We know we need to be doing a better job teaching the basics, but what should really go in a technology curriculum?

A couple of recent posts on this site touched off considerable debate on the state of the American educational system. Overall, most of us thought it should be improved (no kidding) and most of us felt that we need give kids a rigorous education in academic basics (again, no kidding). What was not nearly so obvious was how we could, in the 21st century, get our ipod-deafened kids to use technology as a tool rather than relying on it for quick fixes to academic problems.  It was not clear either how much money was being wasted on unecessary technological expenses, just for the sake of putting technology in the schools.

I don't think that any of us have a good answer for that one. Bill Gates has been on Oprah for the last two days talking about it, though, so hopefully he'll have it all sorted shortly. For the purpose of this post, I'd like to leave that particular problem to Bill and simply think about the pieces of technology that we actually should be teaching our students. Not to sound too cheesy, but the digital age is here and students will leave high school and enter a world so immersed in technology that they will be lost without a reasonable understanding of the tools they have at their disposal.

So what is a reasonable technology curriculum that won't break anybody's budget and gives kids a toolkit with which they can continue learning new technoligies as adults? I've already stated that all students should take a basic class on HTML (Why every student should know HTML) and I still think that's the case. Word is just a glorified WYSIWIG editor, after all and I'm typing this blog in HTML because it's just plain easier than using the WYSIWIG editor that ZDNet gives us bloggers.

How about productivity software? There aren't too many jobs (or college courses) where it wouldn't be really helpful to know one's way around a word processor. Spreadsheets could easily be worked into a personal finance course (probably another good idea, given the new bankruptcy laws) or even used in a number of math courses. And before everyone gets up in arms about kids needing to learn math without calculators, let's agree that the use of spreadsheets in math classes should only be to demonstrate number crunching and reporting and, gosh darnit, no one gets to break out Excel before they can calculate a standard deviation by hand and explain what it represents. The spreadsheet comes out when they want to tabulate data from a survey they design and and implement (or for any other practical application of the math we teachers can dream up). Of course, the results from this survey should be presented graphically, so we should show them how to use presentation software, too. The choice of productivity software, in my opinion, is irrelevant. Whether MS Office, Star Office, WordPerfect Office, or OpenOffice, the concepts students need to learn are the same (see OpenOffice - Have Any Bills to Pay?).

These are actually pretty easy choices and, assuming that your school has at least a couple decent computer labs, are easy to implement across the curriculum. In fact, although specific classes in the various bits of productivity software would be helpful, they probably aren't necessary if teachers are reasonably comfortable with the software themselves. What becomes harder and begins to stretch thin teaching and computing resources is deciding on more advanced offerings. Should kids leave high school with an understanding of a fourth generation programming language? How about web design (beyond basic HTML) or web programming (PHP, javascript, ASP, etc.)? PC repair? Networking? Windows administration? Operating systems? Blogging for fun and profit?

I can't imagine how any of these latter subjects should be a required part of a technology curriculum. It seems far more beneficial for students to learn to seamlessly integrate the technological basics into everyday learning and living. Even Bill and Melinda Gates have come up with a new definition for the 3 R's: Rigor, Relationships, and Relevance. While there's no need to get all touchy-feely here, the rigor and relevance actually make a lot of sense in this context. Make the technology component of the curriculum relevant to what the kids do every day (and will do every day once they leave high school). Incorporate it into a rigorous curriculum of academics. Did it really take the great and powerful Bill to figure that one out?

In terms of the more advanced courses, these can still provide interesting and useful vocational tools for a lot of students. In our school, we offer a small number of computer science courses each year on a rotating basis. This allows students to take a variety of courses, but limits the impact on computer labs and faculty resources. What are you doing at your schools? Give some feedback below and let me know what's working for you (and, maybe more importantly, what hasn't gone well).

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