A Perfect Storm in Education

As two teachers who have spent a combined 30 years in the classroom, we can tell you there has been a significant change in today’s students. They’re dumber. When compared to their early millennial counterparts, modern students (aka digiLearners) are significantly lacking in the areas of critical and creative thinking, problem solving, ability to focus, and social skills. Lagging test scores in a variety of subjects and skills throughout the United States (especially when compared to international scores) seem to support this. This trend is more pronounced than even test scores can illustrate, and the reality is that it is not their fault. We suspect the root of the problem can be traced to one major culprit: their smartphones.

It all started with the national mandate of No Child Left Behind, which created a national need for high stakes standardized testing as a measure of “student learning”. Even though this 2001 act predates the popularity of smartphones, it set the stage for this educational decline. This mandate required that every student be tested regularly in most core subjects in order to measure, quantify, and validate their learning. Students who didn’t pass a test would often be required to take the course again, and school systems that didn’t have high enough pass rates would be labeled as failures and would lose their accreditation.

This policy received a tepid response from many educators. As any teacher will tell you, measuring student learning is a very complex and difficult task. It takes an intimate knowledge of each individual student, their personality and abilities to truly form an accurate assessment of his or her understanding. Every teacher we know is in favor of high standards. Measuring the attainment of those standards in this way, though, seemed like a fool’s errand.

An impersonal statewide test can really only touch the surface of measuring student cognitive ability. Because of the need to grade an enormous amount of tests in a timely and cost effective manner, many states utilized multiple-choice tests focused on simple knowledge level questions to fulfill their obligation. These questions are easily written and can be graded very quickly. Multiple-choice questions aimed at higher cognitive processes can often be awkward and confusing (see examples of Common Core test questions) and essays and short answer questions take too long to grade. As a direct result of the NCLB mandates, therefore, educators began to focus on fact-based memorization in order to ensure student success on the required tests. Considering the vastness of most teachers’ curriculum, this method of teaching replaced the more productive emphasis on critical and creative thinking.

This unfortunate turn of events happened to coincide with the technological advances in the internet with user-friendly search engines along with the creation of “smartphones”. Now, almost everyone has the ability to reach out to an infinite world of facts with the touch of a screen. Knowledge of facts has cheapened, and with it so has education.

These two developments combined to profoundly shape millennials’ educational philosophy. Their general sentiment towards education seems to be, “why should I have to memorize these facts when I can simply look them up on my phone?” Students have confused their ability to look up a fact and read it aloud with actual knowledge. It has created a type of “artificial intelligence” as students have outsourced knowledge to a type of external hard-drive, storing very little information in their actual brains.

There has been an even more profound shift in the way students think. For their entire educational careers, they have been bombarded with fact based questions that can easily be answered by a quick Google search on their smartphone. Therefore, to them, being Google-like is the pinnacle of educational performance. Even the best students think in terms of a Google search. Ask a modern student a “why” question and all you will get are the “what’s”, the “who’s”, and maybe even the “when’s” — the kinds of things they would come up with if they typed the question into a search engine.

From an educational standpoint, the problems with this are many. First, most teachers still believe that developing deeper cognitive abilities such as critical thinking and creativity are still at the heart of education, not rote memorization.

The second problem is that this misguided attitude completely misunderstands the very nature of learning. Students need to internalize a base level of knowledge in order to foster learning in the future. The existing knowledge someone has is used to help make connections with new information. As students encounter a new concept or idea, they search their internal mental database for related information to help make sense of it. If they can connect this new piece of information to existing knowledge, they are much more likely to remember and understand the new material. If they cannot, the brain is likely to discard the information as irrelevant, making retention much more difficult. A wider breadth of knowledge makes future learning possible as they have more information with which to make new connections. Each bit of information stored in a young person’s brain has the ability to increase learning exponentially in their future. However, without ever internalizing information students today are building their educational foundations in sand. The long term effects of this attitude could very well be a lifetime of difficulty learning and making deeper connections. Students’ smartphones have handicapped them as they become increasingly dependent on the devices to quickly provide the answers they need.

Unfortunately, this problem has created a downward spiral in education. As educational policy has demoted teachers to nothing more than fact disseminators, educational technology has become a very tempting cost-effective alternative. A smartphone, website, YouTube video, PowerPoint, or educational software can be used to convey factual information to students. Educational technology companies have sold students and policy makers on the notion that they have more to learn from their smartphone than they do from their teachers. Further, they present facts with games and flashy multimedia presentations that seem, on the surface, to be superior to any lesson that a “live person” could provide. The biggest problem is that these smartphones and other devices aren’t teaching students how to think critically. They’re making students dumber.