Back to the future

You get to talk to lots of interesting people on airplanes. A while back, I was sitting next to an older gentleman from Texas. He was a grandfather nearing retirement, working in the banking industry. We exchanged the usual family and job facts, and as usual whenever I mention that I work with schools, he wanted to share some stories. Of course, everyone is an expert at school. They went, they have children — it’s the one institution that we all have in common. People like telling their stories.

This particular Texas gentleman had grandchildren ranging in age from babies to teens, and his daughter was a teacher too. “It’s not like back when I went to school,” he said after a time, and I braced for the rest of the sentence. I fully expected it to be something about getting back to basics, or how today’s kids don’t value education and the parents don’t discipline them.

But then he said something completely different. He said that when he went to school, his teachers encouraged him to think, and that they helped students do their work, not just memorize facts. He said that he’s often in his grandchildren’s classrooms and “the teachers talk all the time” from the front of the class. He wondered how anyone could learn like that. “It wasn’t like that when I was young,” he sighed.

Later on, I sat there questioning all my assumptions. Of course not all “olden days” teachers were drilling students. How could I have had that image in my head? When people think about the past, of course we all recall had different experiences. Talking about how school used to be is meaningless; it’s too dependent on your personal experience. Unfortunately, we hear this kind of language all the time, whether it’s to point at the “bad old days” or the “good old days” Neither of them ever really existed.

People are always searching for the new new thing – it’s human nature to enjoy stimulating new ideas. However, things like 21st century skills, where we try to define what students need to know “now” (as if creative thinking wasn’t ever valued,) is a solution to a problem that may not exist. It may just be a reflection of our vast, yet fundamentally faulty collective memory of things that never were.


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