digital age

Lutheran Education and the Digital Age—Part Two

Bernard Bull The Lutheran Educator Leave a Comment

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Welcome to part two of our four-part series on Lutheran education in the digital age, inspired by the good and important insights described in Will Richardson’s 16 Modern Realities article.

I’ll focus on four of Richardson’s sixteen:

  • Curriculum is just a guess.
  • In fact, instead of being delivered by an institution, curriculum is now constructed and negotiated in real time by learner[s] and the contributions of those engaged in the learning process, whether in the classroom [or] out.
  • The skills, literacies, and dispositions required to navigate this increasingly complex and change filled world are much different from those stressed in the current school curriculum.
  • Current testing regimes are inadequate in measuring a student’s ability to find and solve problems, think critically and creatively, deal well with failure, persevere, collaborate with others, etc., skills that are arguably more important than content knowledge.

Starting with the first point, that “curriculum is just a guess,” Richardson draws from a quote by Seymour Papert, pointing out that what we see in existing school curricula only represents about “one-billionth of one percent” of the knowledge available to us in the world. Given this reality, how did that fraction of the knowledge in the world get selected for schools? How does your school decide what one-billionth of a percent should be included? What voice do students and parents have in that decision? Who should be involved in the decision? How often should this question be revisited? Are you just going with what the state or national standards tell you? How did those get selected? What values, beliefs, and agendas were represented in those standards? (Note: They are often not transparent or even obvious to those who selected them.) Why did they opt to exclude certain knowledge? Curriculum is not nearly as clean, simple, and straightforward as many people like to think. This is even truer given the massive explosion of access to information in the digital age.

What should school look like in a world where the curriculum cannot possibly include 1 percent of all the knowledge in the world? Add to this the fact that we do not know what the future holds for the individuals in our schools and classes. Each student has a unique life path to walk that will include distinct callings. Different life journeys and callings will require different skills, different dispositions, and different equipment. That student in your class who will go on the medical researcher journey will need different outfitting compared to one going on the musician’s journey, pastor’s journey, entrepreneur’s journey. In fact, even within any one of these journeys, we don’t really know how the demands of those distinct journeys will change over the upcoming decades.

This is not to suggest that there are no core concepts, skills, and knowledge bases. Lutheran schools have been built upon the idea that there are certain unchanging truths that can serve as a critical foundations in our faith and life. These are truths that transcend changing times and circumstances. As such, they can be anchors as we live in a world that is otherwise in perpetual ebb and flow. This unique aspect of Lutheran schools is as important as it has ever been.

With this foundation, however, we are drawn back to the conversation about curricula. What about math, science, social studies, language arts, physical education, art, music, and the rest? In fact, are these even the content areas most worthy of inclusion? Or might there be more powerful ways to approach learning through interdisciplinary studies (which mixes different disciplines to tackle problems in the world) or even what some, such as Joi Ito at MIT, refer to as antidisciplinary or adisciplinary studies (those areas that are not easily labeled within any existing discipline or exist largely outside of common disciplinary boundaries)? Complex issues in the world call for people who can think in interdisciplinary ways, even in adisciplinary ways. Limiting ourselves to the dominant disciplinary ways of thinking is likely not adequate to address certain problems and issues in the future. So, how do we equip a generation of students for such ways of thinking?

Yet, when we look at the dominant ways of measuring student learning and progress, we find ourselves in an age that is more focused on standardized testing than any previous generation. These tests measure in the easiest way. This doesn’t mean that they are measuring what is actually most important for our students and their lives after graduation.

A growing number of people are recognizing that tests do not cut it and that what really matters is equipping students with competence, confidence, and a growing sense of agency. Schools are realizing the importance of giving students a growing measure of voice and agency in the learning community. We see this with thousands of schools around the United States where students are equipped to own and shape their own curriculum, with varying degrees of direction from teachers. If our goal is to nurture a group of creative problem solvers who are invested in tackling important issues in their world, community, churches, and families, how do we reimagine curriculum and the school experience to achieve that?

I realize that I am offering more questions than answers here, but questions are a fine starting place. In fact, I am cautious of claims to have this all figured out or ready-made curricular solutions for our schools. These questions warrant prayer, reflection, and discussion in each school community. I contend that they call for input from multiple stakeholders, including parents and students. Further, I suggest that they demand persistent asking of these questions instead of a single monumental effort that culminates in a curriculum and approach that we use for the next decade or several decades.

In fact, consider the possibility of a school community that is characterized by students, teachers, parents, and others grappling with these questions in an ongoing manner. They are exploring the challenges and opportunities in a changing landscape. They are determining, together, what to explore and how to explore it. Again, for Lutheran schools, there is a common core of unchanging truths at our essence, but that common core gives us incredible freedom and courage to then examine these other questions, grappling with the nature of life in a dynamic, connected, and increasingly digital age.


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About the Author

Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is Assistant Vice President of Academics and Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin. He has 20+ years of experience in Lutheran education ranging from middle school to graduate school and parish education. He is also the editor of the forthcoming CPH book, Pedagogy of Faith. Bernard’s work focuses upon futures in education, educational innovation, and the intersection of education & digital culture. You can read his latest posts here.

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