We can't predict the future; we can teach the essential

Every so often educators and reformers think, if we're educating kids for the future, we need to do a better job of adapting our education system to meet the needs of tomorrow. That our education systems needs to, in some sense, ?get with the times? so that we can better serve our students today.

The latest argument to that effect comes from a book (Now You See It) written by Cathy N. Davidson and related blog post from Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times. In her piece, Heffernan argues:

??fully 65 percent of today's grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet?For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it's high time we redesigned American education.?

And so, because today's students will be doing things that we can't imagine, we need to rethink the kinds of work we're assigning today. Including research papers, which Heffernan argues have outlived their usefulness:

Teachers and professors regularly ask students to write papers. Semester after semester, year after year, ?papers? are styled as the highest form of writing. And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.

Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. ?What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school ? the term paper ? and not necessarily intrinsic to a student's natural writing style or thought process?? She adds: ?What if ?research paper' is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook??

Unfortunately, Heffernan seems to have missed her own point. As she implies, we are no better at predicting what today's elementary students will be doing in twenty years than Hanna-Barbera were at painting what 21st century life would look like in the Jetsons. And so, our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing?and often fleeting?technology, but rather to identify the timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment.

To that end, abandoning research papers in favor of blog posts or other multimedia presentations would be a grave mistake. After all, that students can produce ?witty and incisive? blog posts for their peers on topics of their choosing says nothing about their ability to write and speak to multiple audiences or about a variety of topics. (Most multimedia products are necessarily limited and we need to ask more of our students.) And the ability to synthesize complicated information in a persuasive way?grounded in facts, research and reading?is critical and timeless.

Of course, there's nothing to stop students from producing a blog post or multimedia presentation, but those shouldn't be the starting point. In fact, the most interesting and influential bloggers and thinkers?across disciplines and times?have a body of work that goes well beyond their own observations and conclusions and is grounded in real work, research, and thoughtful writing and analysis.

Regardless of what is the hip new medium, we do our students a grave disservice by pretending that pithy diatribes or observational blog posts are on the same level as more thoughtful, well-developed arguments, grounded in evidence derived from texts, with clear theses that come from something other than their personal feelings.

And, I'm willing to bet that that even Davidson's students' blog posts would be far wittier and more insightful if they were better able to develop a thoughtful argument in a paper first.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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