Yesterday, I got into a post-Educon exchange on Twitter that I can’t quite put aside. I took issue with someone’s argument that because there are modern technologies that replace traditional skills and ways of understanding, those traditional things weren’t worth knowing or discussing. I’m not exactly a traditionalist, and anyone who knows me knows how I feel about the latest and greatest pieces of technology, but I can’t quite abide by this line of thinking.
- analog clock
- standard transmission
- manual controls on a camera
- a hand-written letter
- two spaces after a period
According to the “modernity or nothing” approach, none of these are necessary anymore. Some of them, I’m willing to concede that their time may have passed. We no longer need two spaces after typing a period, since there aren’t typewriter tines to get jammed. Though I like analog watches, I’ll agree that maybe being able to tell time on an analog clock is no longer needed, even though I can think of a few that might still be around for the foreseeable future. That’s going to take some time. But I’m not willing to write off basic skills such as spelling just because autocorrect and spell check are ubiquitous. Do we stop teaching people to parallel park their cars because some cars can do it automatically? We probably wouldn’t want to ditch parking as a requirement unless every car on the road could do it automatically — what would happen if you got into a car that couldn’t park itself?
I’ll maintain that learning how to drive a standard transmission makes one a better driver because s/he understands what happens when the car shifts gears. It’s not necessary, but the knowledge helps when trying to understand what came before and what might come next. It’s that thinking that is at the core of a unit that we do called “Play It Forward.” Inspired by a New York Times timeline of educational technology, students investigate the history of a technology, examine its current state, and imagine what is coming next. It helps to know the past.
It’s not enough to ditch the past just because there is a newer alternative. We need to take care to drop old skills and old technologies when the time is right, and not just because there is an easier alternative.
What we need is purposeful change.