Davidson on New Learning for New Work

Cathy Davidson argues for a change in educational assessment that better prepares students for the realities of the technologically-mediated workplace.

Instead of testing for the best answer to discrete questions, we need to measure the ability to make connections, to synthesize, collaborate, network, manage projects, solve problems, and respond to constantly changing technologies, interfaces, and eventually, in the workplace, new arrangements of labor and new economies. For schools this means that in addition to the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic, kids should be learning critical thinking, innovation, creativity and problem solving, all of the skills one can build upon and mesh with the skills of others. We need to test students on how critically they think about the issues of the digital age—privacy, security, or credibility. We could write algorithms to test how well kids sort the information that comes at them, how wisely they decide what is or is not reliable information. It would also be easy to assess the effectiveness of their use of new technologies and all the multimedia tools not only at their disposal but more and more necessary for their future employment. If you can’t get on Twitter, you haven’t passed that test. Just as you can build copyright restrictions into online source materials, you could as easily test the ways kids remix or download, testing for creativity and also for their sensitivity to the ethical or legal use of the intellectual property of others.

If change is the byword of a great era of technological innovation such as our own, we need to have methods of assessment that show not how well kids learn how to psyche out which answer among five has the highest probability of being right but how well they can apply their knowledge to novel situations. How flexible and adaptable are they; how capable of absorbing and responding to feedback? I am sure that one reason we’ve gone from 4 to 320 reality TV shows in a decade is that American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway, or Top Chef do a better job of teaching sound judgment and how to react well (or badly) to feedback than most of our schools.

We need to measure practical, real-world skills, such as how to focus attention through project and time management. There is no punch clock in do-it-yourself culture, so where do kids learn how to manage themselves? Similarly, where do they learn, online or face-to-face, at school and in the future workplace, how to work together? Every employer says working well with others is a key to success, but in school every child’s achievement is always weighed against that of everyone else’s. Are you in the top 1 percent or the bottom? How does that teach collaboration? Once we figure out how to teach collaboration, how do we measure it? Kids shouldn’t have to end up at their first job with a perfect report card and stellar test scores but no experience in working with others. When you fail at that in your first job, you don’t get a C. You get a pink slip and a fast walk to the exit door.

We also need to be able to measure how well young people communicate, including with people who may not share their assumptions and background. In social groups, online and face-to-face, we often live in a relatively homogeneous world. But in the workplace, we increasingly face a globalized workplace and a new world of digital communication, which has the potential for interaction with others who may not even share the same language. Through computer translating software, we can exchange words but not necessarily deep and differing cultural values, which is why business schools today insist that “culture* and “context” are the two most important features of global executive education. Executives need to know how to reason effectively, how to use system and network thinking to understand the relationship between one problem and its solutions and other problems that may arise as a result. Bubble tests cannot begin to teach students how to analyze the way parts of a system interact with other parts of a complex system. We need to teach them how to make sound judgments and determinations about what is or is not credible, especially in a digital age when information comes unsorted.


Davidson, Cathy N. 2011. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn. New York: Viking. pp. 127-8. || Amazon || WorldCat


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