Intellectual Cosmopolitanism ☆

| August 19, 2011

A suggestive graphic by

I’m getting excited for the upcoming New York Times’ Schools for Tomorrow conference, and working on my presentation. I’ll be on the “Tools Available (college-level)” panel, and I’d like to convey some ideas about the future balance between tradition and timeliness in the academy. It’s hard to articulate an interesting position in the 5-10 minutes that I’ll likely have. So here’s one idea . . .

Without prognosticating, I’ll sketch out a view of the growing necessity of intellectual cosmopolitanism at the K-12 level—the idea that curriculum must continue to diversify around cultures and cultural practices.[1] Why? Well, as people around the world are increasingly connected, it’ll be harder to maintain a narrow worldview—and related mental habits. Right? (Hey, I’m not suggesting this will happen overnight.) In other words: more tech = more appreciation of diversity.

The import for college-level learning is that students will already have formed a two-pronged approach to education: increasingly relying on personal and non-school tools (more appreciation of diversity = a greater economic incentive to learn) for rote and “professional” learning (including deep expertise in academic subjects) while engaging community-focused and group-based learning in the classroom.

On this view (and let’s say 10-20 years away, just to push the limits of non-prognostication), civics emerges as a dominant theme of secondary formal education, while higher education increasingly becomes grounded in problem-solving (now more fashionably called “design”). Traditional modes of liberal learning (reading, writing, discussing) will not disappear so much as take place outside of formal education (fingers-crossed?). Instead of lamenting this retreat, educators must to pursue ways to connect group work to liberal learning—to make it count, so to speak.

Sound familiar? The more things change . . .

OK, so this isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but I think this perspective allows me to speak to several interesting points:

  • Group work will be standard practice. And it needs to get much better. Mainstream collaboration tools like Google Docs have improved communication and information sharing (full disclosure: I haven’t yet checked for evidence here), but there is room for improvement and specialization. Today, there are dozens of collaborative writing tools for different purposes. We can expect to see these options across all disciplines and modes of knowledge-sharing. Goodbye lectures.
  • Certification will happen outside of school. Yep, that’s right: no more “high stakes” tests in college, at least. Probably K-12 too. Students will still have to take them for a variety of reasons, but they’ll be created and offered by national (international!) consortiums (of one sort or another) and proctored by a handful private companies (want to take the SAT at a Google facility, anyone?).
  • Open data standards don’t matter. Students of all ages will want access to their own data. And they should get it from small companies and large educational organizations alike by virtue of market pressure. But that doesn’t mean companies have to adopt complex systems (like Raymond’s data backpack). I know this is speaking heresy, but this is good news for small companies who would otherwise be squeezed out of the education space but tech giants—a scenario that would be reminiscent of publishing giants dictating curriculum through textbook production.

Thoughts? I still have plenty of time to sharpen my thinking!

[1] I’m not sure if the term “intellectual cosmopolitanism” has been used elsewhere, but I think it poetically captures the force that technologies are exerting on curriculums and teaching practices.