By Erin Medeiros
Most teachers and parents have seen or heard former Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s insight about the state of education: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist . . . using technologies that haven’t yet been invented . . . in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” Or they’ve seen the viral video by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod called Shift Happens, which provides a convincing argument for focusing on “21st century skills.” Though it’s easy to imagine ourselves as the only people who have ever dealt with such mysteries, we do well to remember that humans have only ever lived in uncertain times; for the future, as Oedipus laments in his eponymous play, is unknown: “Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark.” This fact gives rise to a central question for educators and policymakers: what and how should we be teaching students if we don’t know what they’ll need to know?
I often turn to my students for insights into these big questions. By 12th grade, I find their wisdom to be a paradoxical combination of refreshing and familiar. When we veered into this topic as a by-product of a whole class discussion of the novel Frankenstein earlier this year, I was only half surprised to hear my students comment that they know how to use technology but they need to get better at human-to-human communication. Year after year I ask students to evaluate my class and similarly find that their favorite and most valued learning activities in class are small group discussion, Socratic seminar, four corners activities, philosophical chairs, and nearly every other opportunity I provide them to speak with and listen to one another. They seem to be agreeing with something I certainly feel: regardless of advances in technology, the most complicated, intriguing, and engaging problems are human.
So what? I’m just another Gen-Xer who’d rather play a board game and read a real life book than use a digital interface. Yes and no. I love human interaction, but I also enjoy social media. I love to flip pages, but I use my Kindle regularly too. I engage my students in seminars based on ancient Greek methods, but I’m also teaching them how to collaborate online and extend their own knowledge of digital tools. I constantly discover technologies that help to solve human problems in the classroom, because technology feels to me like a companion to or extension of the human experience rather than some distant futuristic ideal. In my mind, coming of age in the digital era has helped me be open-minded about the many efficiencies, delights, and real solutions technology has to offer. I feel like I’ve got one foot in the 20th century and the other in the 21st. As a teacher, I feel like I’m standing strong that way.
A few months ago, in fact, I had the kind of breakdown that challenged me to find a solution using both human and digital resources: my seniors came back from winter break unprepared, tired, lacking energy, and I was disappointed that they weren’t ready to read, speak, and write effectively at 7:45am. Go figure. So the lesson plan went out the window. Instead we circled up as a class and had a conversation. What’s working? What’s not? How can I, as their teacher, meet their needs better? How can they, as students, meet their learning goals more consistently? Thankfully, we’re used to talking to each other. So the conversation was honest, enlightening, engaged, and relatively brief, and we reached a satisfying solution: we agreed to switch over to Google Classroom right then and there (as a school that’s not 1:1, this wasn’t exactly a given). Technology is helping to solve some of our human problems, procrastination and the need for immediate feedback among them.
Still, I can’t help but agree with my students’ earlier observations. Mastering “21st century skills” is not their most pressing problem, nor is ineffective use of technology their tragic flaw. Rather, other humans are still the greatest mysteries of our time, and learning how to deal with other mysterious beings is, in fact, the eternal joy and challenge of human consciousness. If nothing else, parenting and teaching have taught me that there is no challenge greater or more relentless than dealing successfully with other people.
Moreover, studies of what employers want from employees or recent college graduates show that they agree. They’re looking for people who can communicate, lead others, be flexible, work hard, set goals, work in a team, and solve problems. Certainly, employers want these same people to be effective users of technology, but that’s not even close to the first thing on the list. What that says to me as an educator is that we must still prioritize relationships and communication if we are going to use technology in a way that has any efficacy. Human connections and communication must get the top billing that technology does if we want our students to leave high school ready for college and career.
Which is why I can’t wait for the next PD day to be called “Human Ready!” I look forward to all of us who have figured out data teams, GAFE, and Infinite Campus to sit down and talk about the fact that each of our students has an inextricable combination of strengths and challenges that, really, we don’t always know how to address (and that technology can’t “solve”) when we’re in the middle of a lesson on soliloquies or asymptotes. The problems that educators organically return to day after day are principally man made or exacerbated by social institutions: poverty, neglect, violence, depression, substance abuse, trauma, disrespect, racism, sexism. By the same token, the solutions are primarily human: empathy, listening, nonviolent communication, mindful speech, time, attention, and sometimes a hug. Yet, strangely, these solutions are the ones we talk about least these days in any official capacity as educators.
I look forward to all of us focusing less on the imagined skills of the future and instead taking more action to help our students develop the skills they will need every day of their lives. What if all our teachers and students learned active listening, conflict resolution, and mediation skills? What if explicitly teaching habits of mind felt as urgent as teaching the standards? What if students and teachers were as well trained to understand mental health as they are to comprehend the value of physical education and athletics? Imagine how much more peaceful and focused our classrooms, faculty meetings, and administrators’ offices could be. And imagine how much brighter the future would seem if the generation of kids who will have to solve future problems with future technologies arrives at that task with self-awareness, empathy, and the very anti-Oedipal belief that listening to others matters.
I’m all in on the digital revolution. There’s no denying the power, speed, and possibilities that technology offers. But I’m also pretty sure that we could use regular refreshers on how to work best with other people. In fact, I’m reminded of the one and only faculty meeting in my 11 years after which all the teachers clapped (and many gave a standing ovation): the psychiatrist who runs our Mokihana Program came in and talked about trauma, escalation v. de-escalation, and attempting to address the searing problems that many of our kids come to school with everyday. This resonated. After all, most teachers I know are in the profession because, primarily, they love kids and want to make their lives better. Perhaps it’s time we retire the phrase “21st century skills” (we’re 17 years in, after all) and prioritize the timeless and ubiquitous skills that will help us connect as human beings and find more light in the day ahead.
Erin Medeiros is a 12th grade AP English Literature & Composition teacher at Kauai High School and a Hope Street Group Hawaii State Teacher Fellow. She is focused this year on establishing the school’s Peer Mediation program and improving the lives of women and children as a board member of the YWCA of Kauai.