PISA surveys are crafted to answer the question: Are students well prepared to meet the challenges of the future? The OECD is not alone in asking. In a provocative opinion piece published recently in The New York Times, Virginia Heffernan cites an astonishing statistic: fully 65% of today’s grade-school students may wind up doing work that hasn’t even been invented yet. For her, the answer to the question is an unequivocal “no”.


Heffernan’s article is largely based on the findings and analysis presented in a new book, Now You See It, by Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. While the book is ostensibly about the brain science of attention, it also, as Heffernan writes, “challenges nearly every assumption about American education”.


Take that old warhorse of secondary and university-level education – the research paper. Davidson, a professor at Duke University, laments the quality of some of the papers her students submit. But, she asks, “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?” (As a former writer of research papers and current editor, who had a prose-saving stint as a journalist in between, I would go out on a limb – a very solid one, I think – to say that the “what if” that opens Davidson’s sentence, and the question mark that punctuates it, could safely be deleted…)


Davidson compares her students’ papers to blogs they have posted and concludes: “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”


So how can education be redesigned to absorb – and exploit – these new realities? Davidson offers a few suggestions: de-emphasise solitary work and focus, instead, on fostering collaboration; devise new ways of measuring students’ progress more attuned to the times in which they’re living; and build on students’ digital literacy, including by encouraging students to contribute to web-based projects.


Davidson’s observations reinforce one of the findings that emerged from PISA’s ground-breaking survey of digital literacy in 2009: Students learn more about navigating their way around the Internet at home than they do at school. They develop these skills naturally, using home computers or hand-held devices, in their unstructured exploration of the web. As Heffernan writes, “We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills [students are] developing on their own.”


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