The first books created by Gutenberg on his new invention were designed and printed to look like a handwritten manuscript. When his financial partner, Joachim Furst, took a dozen copies of their Bible to Paris to sell, he received a very hostile reception from the book trade guild. The guild hauled Furst and his newly-printed scriptures off to court, convinced that he was in consort with Satan. Furst’s accusers argued that so many identical texts could have been created only with the assistance of the devil. This story is but one of many anecdotes about the chilly reception that mechanically reproduced texts received in the aftermath of Gutenberg’s marvelous technology. In many ways, the response to electronic texts today parallels those of the printing press. Academic and religious institutions wasted little time in seeking censorship of books. Critics argued that too many books lent themselves to superficial knowledge. Authorities worried that works with illustrations with sexual content or erotic poetry would fall into the hands of the young. Meanwhile, proponents of the handwritten manuscript, often beautiful works of art in and of themselves, denounced printed texts as vulgarizing intellectual life. Academics, initially thrilled to find their works in publication, soon grew nervous. The multiplication of texts meant greater access. Greater access translated into their students becoming independent thinkers. The history of the printed word reveals a concerted effort to limit access to reading. Laws were passed to prevent texts from being printed in the vernacular. Well into the eighteenth century, many European universities limited undergraduate students access to the library to a few hours per week.
The printing press, one of the most important technologies in the history of communication changed everything, including our understanding of education. Digital technology is doing the same thing. Today the pace is radically different. Another brief story as a point of comparison. When Martin Luther posted his “Ninety-five Theses” on the church doors in Wittenberg, his ideas made their way around Germany in two weeks and spread across Europe in a few months. This would have hardly been possible in the age of the handwritten manuscript. Today, we can post an idea on the Internet, and it can make its way around the globe in a matter of seconds. The availability of knowledge and information, without the constraints of time and distance, is changing everything, including how our students are learning. The rapidity at which data moves around the globe is mirrored by accessibility. A middle school student studying the history of slavery has access to historical sources that would have been available to only a handful of scholars a decade ago. Now add to the equation that much of this knowledge and information is free. And this is only the beginning.
What makes the change coming to education unprecedented is the dynamic way in which digital technology scales, i.e., faster, cheaper, better. As heads, it may not feel like it’s cheaper when we look at technology as a line item in our budgets. Tech budgets keep growing because our world (and our students) find more and more ways to harness digital technology. Bandwidth keeps getting cheaper while the demand grows exponentially. In January of this year, you could find 300,000 iPhone apps. It’s November, and that number is now closer to 500,000.
I often reflect on author educator David Warlick’s comment, “For the first time in history our job as educators is to prepare our children for a future that we cannot describe.” As a head of school, I find Warlick’s observation exciting, challenging, fascinating, and sobering. It is because technology clearly changes everything that we stare head on into a future not yet known. Finding ourselves at this historical moment presents interesting questions and challenges for heads of schools. I would like to mention two.
Trying to manage change when one of its largest byproducts is uncertainty is a challenge. It makes predicting enrollment seem easy. I occasionally joke that, if I told people what I really believed will happen to education in the next five to ten years, I would be out of a job. But I’m only half joking. In the past, education has had the luxury of embracing change at a conservative pace, especially in terms of technology. For independent schools, a certain irony may be at work. Our institutions sometimes evidence a built-in resistance to change because we are so successful at what we do. Consider that a quarter of the schools in the 2011 NAIS survey on hybrid/blended learning do not offer or plan to offer online courses. Ironically, it is this independence that should create opportunities to more readily embrace, if not create, change. I am absolutely convinced that education will change dramatically, and it will come sooner than many independent schools expect. Every aspect of our lives is being reinvented by technology, particularly how we learn. If the way our students are learning is dramatically different, then I suggest that teaching should be as well. We have already reached a point where our students live and learn in one type of culture, call it the electronic culture, while education continues to be practiced from a very traditional perspective. So how do we manage an unprecedented wave of change? The truth is that I don’t know. What I do know is that it will require being open to a very different, perhaps radical, way of approaching education that will require us to question our favorite assumptions, to think counter intuitively, and to be willing to take risks in the face of uncertainty. I predict discussions regarding the marvelous benefits of risk and failure in just about everything including education will become a national, if not global conversation.
Most of us have written somewhere in our job descriptions something about being the “instructional leader.” The traditional title of “headmaster” is partially rooted in this idea. And while that role has been marginalized by our ever growing list of responsibilities, we still need to be able to articulate a vision for teaching and learning to all our school’s constituencies. This may present the greatest and perhaps most exciting challenge that technology presents for us as heads of school. Individualized education is a powerful example. If we’re honest with ourselves, I think many of us will admit that our schools still have vestiges of the “one size fits all” approach to learning. Mine certainly does. Yet, in every corner of the marketplace, customization is the order of the day. The new generation of independent school parents don’t just want this, they expect it. And why shouldn’t they? As the new NAIS Trendbook highlights, choice abounds in the educational marketplace. Schools that continue with business as usual will cease to be competitive. Again, technology is the culprit. It creates a myriad of opportunities for independent school teachers to individualize instruction. Pat Bassett wisely observes that in the ever expanding universe of educational choice, differentiated instruction is that one area where independent schools have huge opportunities not readily available to our public schools.
As instructional leaders, in order to create this vision we need to have an engaging dialogue within ourselves about where we believe education is going? What do we really understand about what has changed in the teaching learning process? What fears do we have regarding change in our schools? (I would love to sit with a group of my colleagues and openly discuss this question.) What things are truly worth knowing? What skills are truly worth acquiring? What is our understanding of literacy in a world that is becoming increasingly visual and iconic? These are but a few of the questions that might shape part of that internal conversation. What a daunting responsibility; creating and communicating an educational vision that will prepare young people for the future, but a future that is still very much unknown.
I conclude as I began, with a story. The pencil had been around for nearly 300 years when the first pencil factory opened in the United States in 1861. Around the same time, an enterprising pencil maker decided to add an eraser to the end of the pencil. The fear that combining these two technologies into one writing implement would encourage students to make errors created quite a stir in education circles. The pencil with an eraser was attacked by teachers and even banned in some classrooms. Indeed, technology does change everything.
John Davies is Head of School at Miami Country Day School (FL) and can be reached at email@example.com.