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Sending Students to Barcelona with a map of San Diego

By Bill Madigan

On a recent vacation I found myself lost in a medieval area of Barcelona, Spain.  My wife, Gary Kroesch (an AVID original) and I were trying to find a highly recommended “Tapas” restaurant.  The roads, unlike my familiar downtown San Diego were twisted, curved and nestled among them were very few straight thoroughfares.  In great contrast to what we expect here in our relatively modern cities, there were few if any street signs.  Picture all three of us gawking about looking for the “third left turn after the bronze statue of the pig!” We were the quintessential lost tourists. Some of the roads were as small as sidewalks between tall, brick tenements built in the 15th century and some were the size of a small alleys.  We found ourselves in the same place twice after walking for half an hour, in spite of the fact that we all KNEW where the pig statue was!  Finally, with the help of my shabby Spanish skills, we stumbled on our destination, the storied “La Ribera.”  We were later laughed at for counting the tinier paths as roads.  Considering the positive, we were at least more hungry and relieved.  Our problem was we had American city schemas in our brains, all parallels and perpendiculars.  We carried our mental graph-paper maps and held them up to the “spaghetti” of roads fashioned 600 years ago, only to feel ever more lost.

Most of our students will face this same kind of confusion and disorientation as they eventually enter our ever-changing “global economy.”  Considering the radical pace of technological and economic change, we need a new, quick reassessment of what we teach in order to best guide our students.  Take “Newsweek” magazine for example – the paper, hardcopy.  Ten years ago its editorials would often affect political debate and public opinion. Today, however, journalistic cognoscenti say this journalistic force will be gone in a few short years.  In addition, newspapers are dwindling in number, circulation and influence, so what do you tell your journalism students?  How are they to adjust?  We educators have fretted over the last few years of economic uncertainty. Yet many professions are not only losing job numbers, they are disappearing!

Recently, a staff writer for the local “San Diego Union-Tribune” asked me to proofread an article by directing me to her blog to read it. On her site I noticed in the top right corner the words, “Please donate money.” I dropped my head in pathetic empathy. Her painful attempt to “monetize” her work says more about what she was not taught in school than it does about her capacities or intelligence. We educators taught her how to be a writer but not how to be a marketer, a tech-savvy web creator, or a problem solver. We trained her in a linear sequential way: you like writing, so take journalism class; then apply to a university known for journalism; then graduate, and with your connections find a job with some publication. One thing follows another; it’s a linear approach to learning. Our education systems are built this way. In other words, we are sending students to Barcelona with maps of San Diego! We are giving them a linear “stairway to heaven” as a tool to navigate an organic, twisted, and nuanced landscape. We have taught and trained them to be deft on a flat, concrete pathway, yet, when they graduate, they have to walk the rocking deck of a ship at sea in a storm of change. This new professional landscape is increasingly true of other disciplines such as law, accounting, medicine, and even the U.S. mail service. Linear skills are now being done better, cheaper, and faster by computers. Consequently, we desperately need to change how and what we teach for our students’ sake and for our nation.

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Reader Comments (9)

Thanks for writing about a topic I feel like I have a little knowledge about! In Berkeley, I wrote blogs, and worked in radio and TV journalism, even though that wasn’t my major. I agree that there need to be new ways in which to structure curriculum so that students have a better chance of making an impact in the globalized labor market, and I think you’re right that the same things apply both to journalism and to other fields.

I only took one class that taught me anything about journalism (and it was more about its history than the practice of). More or less everything I learned about the craft came from internships and student jobs throughout my undergrad years. With that said, some undergrad programs combine the practice of journalism with marketing strategies classes and the like, but there needs to be more overlap. I don’t know if something like this already exists, but there should be a “self-marketing” or “self-promotion” class offered somewhere. In order to enter any field (especially journalism), one requirement is a certain level of self-confidence, a belief that you know what you’re doing. You need to be able to tell an employer “this is why I’m the BEST person for what you need.” Sometimes, if you don’t have the needed experience in a field, you can’t be confident enough to say that.

Part of the problem, in terms of a liberal arts education, is that professors are tasked with giving students knowledge about different topics: things like Freudian psychology, the social impacts of the Civil War or the work of John Steinbeck. There seemed to me to be a disconnect between what you learn in class and how to apply that knowledge to real-world situations. Maybe that is less true of math and the hard sciences, and as a U.S. History major, I’m not saying that my education was substandard at all. What I would say it that the way social sciences (and possibly graduate-level programs for professions like journalism) are taught make the training less practical for the real world. Too often, the sentiment among many undergraduate students these days seems to be that they learned more outside of class than through lectures and readings.

Arizona State’s Cronkite School starts with a “boot camp” to help ground students in the basics of what makes good/proper journalism, and then within the remaining time in the program, students choose an emphasis depending on what type of work they want to do. I’ll be interested to see HOW the teach as much as what they teach. Another issue that I won’t go in depth with for now, is that there is very little objective journalism left in the United States. So, high school and college kids who want to be journalists are either watching shows like The Colbert Report (satiric news) or partisan networks like Fox and even MSNBC. This might apply to other too, where kids who want to be lawyers might watch Law & Order and think that it’s a model for the profession. Unfortunately, you can’t remove bias from current news personalities, but there are ways to retrain new journalists to be more objective.

To what I think is one of your main points, schools (professional schools, especially) should change how they teach. But for certain careers like journalism, one of the key ways to become a better journalist is through a combination of experience and learning in the classroom.

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I think you make some excellent points here. The world is becoming increasingly complex, access to information is exploding exponentially, and the job market is shifting. But my question is, if our education system is built around a linear sequential system, what would the alternative look like (practically speaking)? Do we incorporate web design and marketing into general education? How do you build a curriculum or a course around problem solving? Unfortunately with the rapid pace of change, American education seems to be falling behind. But the solutions seem to be just as complex and obscure as the future the current generation is stepping into.

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBethany Carrillo

We can only attempt to prepare our students for the future world we can imagine. To overcome this limitation, we have to prepare them to be flexible problem solvers, who can benefit from their own imagination and the imaginations of others. Such skills as we know will be comically obsolete when today's baby is an adult. We must provide opportunities to develop the talent of adaption, so that that infant can succeed in the science fiction world we dream of, or a new stone age (should it come). Let's not forget to include the development of curiosity and compassion so that whatever comes our children will know what it means to be good people.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Ernest Nelson

Great article! Keeping our educational system fluid with the changing of time is a necessity. This was a very refreshing read.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSharon

Chris makes a good point about how many learn more "outside" class. I have heard that so many times, and I'm sure most public school teachers and leaders have heard it. The frustration is we all can make this sort of more meaningful and dynamic education happen with a mentor/teacher within schools and in internships and other community connections!

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill Madigan

Thank you Bethany, Chris Nelson and Sharon! Yes we can build schools and programs which are more "aligned" with the changing world. The CSU Cal Poly schools have been doing this for 100 years. They call it "learning by doing." Educators can set up these more organic and problem-solving curricula. The challenge is stepping out of the blinders of "what we know" or are "used to." I'm convinced by the original work of Mary Catherine Swanson - who responded morally and dynamically to the world - and others like the Cal Poly founders, that great work can be done in this changing and flexing landscape: let's make school meet real life!

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill Madigan

As an English major five years out of university, I can't help but resonate with your experience with the winding streets of Spain. The young adults of this country grew up in the boom economy of the 90s and 00's, frequently told by their elders the importance of going to college to avoid the old joke of "flipping burgers" or "pumping gas" for one's livelihood. In stark contrast, as the current reality dictates, a graduate (especially of the humanities) is more than likely to feel lucky to get such a job opportunity.

Not least of all, the psyche of our young people has been broken. For some, the student debt accumulated from mistaking paths for roads will financially cripple them long into the next decade. Meanwhile, parents are scratching their heads in disbelief, not sure who or what to blame: their parenting? the education system? politicians? their good-for-nothing children? Regardless of the reason, the "lost" generation may be more aptly named than we feared merely months ago. We are wising up, but we still have quite a ways to go.

Many changes need to happen in our schools, to be sure, but with an early enhanced emphasis on critical thinking, political awareness, and STEM, the students of tomorrow may avoid the pitfalls of the complacence that infected our country during the past twenty years.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngie T.

I think you bring up an important point that, it seems to me, is most likely being realized by educators everywhere but sidestepped out of uncertainty over how to act on it. Taking a swift look back through history, the world is always changing, society is always changing, and those who succeed are not always those that keep The Fundamental Principles of the Calculus on their bedside tables next to the Good Book, but those whose minds have been nurtured, trained, and prepared to adapt and adjust to this ever-changing life into which they have been hurled. We need to awaken and assume our identities as not only mere students of education, but students of life.

The best approach to this change is a different beast, but it begins with the concrete awareness that there exists a problem within the current, static educational system that we so often see today. The world- life- is not immutable; it never was and never will be, and we cannot resist impending and irrevocable changes as their enemies; rather, we must embody them and change with them. Integrate new technology into classes and subjects that have traditionally been taught without it. Adpot a more multi-disciplinary apporoach to all subjects- add some worldly psychology to an English class or some practical sociology to math. Students need to be prepared for more than just paper tests because, in the real world, life is not going to hand them three hours and a pencil and push them right along if they ace the Free Response.

Thought-provoking article!

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuzi

As a senior anticipating her degree in journalism this May, I agree that a shift needs to be made. Journalism students, just like any other students, are plunged into a changing world, one that is dominated by a fast-service mentality and what educators are calling "me-dia." There's a greater emphasis on the individual, which is heightening the consumption of entertainment news over politics. Not to mention, the demand for an online presence is calling for smaller newsrooms and lower-paying jobs for entry-level grads. While interning at the San Diego Union Tribune a year ago, there was a massive layoff of over 30 people. These included reporters who had been writing for the community for years. These were household names at the kitchen table, while readers poured over pages during breakfast.

But the thing is, despite the changes, I still have hope.

There will always be a need for storytellers. There will always be a need for someone who can construct a sentence. There will always be a need for journalists.

There's a need for information. How that information is being distributed is changing, not the need to have informants.

Continue to encourage your students to write and continue to point them to the areas of society where voices aren't heard. Continue to stir in them a curiosity for life and a craving to question injustice.

All careers are in the midst of change. As a journalism major, I've learned to adapt. I've had to learn how to put together video packages, shoot photography, and design webpages. And also, I've learned how to write. The tools needed to accomplish the task is growing, just as it is for students studying nursing or business or music. Technology has sent us into transition but that doesn't give us a reason to give up hope.

If anything, help your students become aware of the obstacles ahead of them. Let them know that they may need to be flexible. But if anything, continue to spur in them a desire to pursue whatever calling is set ahead of them. If it's writing, let them write and empower them to do so for pleasure.

The world may be giving them a different map, but give students the shortcuts and detours by preparing them NOW for what's ahead.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaitlin Schluter

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