New training, new workforce

200 at luncheon chew over a 21st-century model for education and production

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 

Out with grades and standardized testing, and school and workplace bell-ringing and clock-punching — the fuddy-duddy remnants of the Industrial Age/Education Complex.

In with the Connected Age: an agreeably messy digital landscape where students and workers get points, or "badges," for lifelong learning, where collaborative input is king and where hierarchies are for dinosaurs.

Such was the seismic and necessary shift spelled out Friday by Dr. Cathy Davidson, a distinguished scholar of the history of technology, who spoke to more than 200 people at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

Davidson gave her talk, "Finding Our Future in the Digital Economy," as part of the Columbia River Economic Development Council's quarterly luncheon. It was also part of #nextchapter, Vancouver's annual digital literacy program, aimed at sparking a communitywide discussion of the most compelling trends of the emerging digital economy.

The program's reading selection is Davidson's book, "Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century."

During her presentation Friday, Davidson said we're stuck in Industrial Age thinking, teaching and working even as digital technology rapidly changes everything. The Internet isn't going away, she said, and claims that Google dumbs people down are wrongheaded. Instead, we need a community-based movement to reform education to teach people not only how to use digital tools but to do so ethically and thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, Davidson said, "all schooling (is) rooted in a tradition to retrain human nature" to punch a clock and meet a production goal in a factory-minded setting. And sending kids off to "boot camps" to learn how to choose the right answer from four options on a standardized test is nonsense, she said. "That's not how the real world works," she said.

Not everyone agreed with everything Davidson had to say.

At one point, as Davidson upbraided the clock-punching, top-down ways of our past, a person in the audience could be overheard saying her present-day bakery wouldn't run too terribly well if her employees showed up whenever.

In her 2011 book, "Now You See It," the focus of the #nextchapter discussion, Davidson said multitasking isn't necessarily bad for us. "What if we thought of new digital ways of thinking not as multitasking but multi-inspiring, as potentially creative disruption of usual thought patterns," she writes.

But that and other points in the book have come under attack. In a review of the book on Slate.com, Annie Murphy Paul, an author and journalist who writes about how we learn, cited Stanford University research that shows "people are inherently lousy at multitasking." That research also demonstrates that heavy multitaskers "are actually less effective at filtering out irrelevant information and at shifting their attention among tasks than others," Paul wrote.

Nevertheless, an impassioned Davidson called for big changes, including letting students lead the way in higher education ("They always set the bar higher") and to replace letter grades with a system embraced by the open-source software movement: badges for lifelong learning.

Under that system, people earn points for the collaborative contributions they make in solving problems. "Our education system misses that entirely," she said.

Davidson holds two distinguished chairs at Duke University: the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, where she co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.