Are Students Being Prepared to Thrive in a Knowledge Economy?

James M. Loy, Miami University

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Back when he was a high school English teacher, in a large urban district, Marc Nachowitz noticed some common practices that just weren’t working.

On some days, he would walk down the hallways and see teacher after teacher, standing in front of the classroom, reading out loud from books like To Kill a Mocking Bird or The Great Gatsby. Here were classrooms full of students being told what the books were about and even what to think about them.

“The whole thing seemed utterly absurd,” he says. “It made no sense. You are not really helping kids be better readers. You are not really helping kids learn how to think. And you are certainly not teaching kids how to socially construct knowledge.”

Today, Nachowitz is an assistant professor of teacher education at Miami University, where he often shares this story with college students who hope to become future English and K-12 teachers themselves.

His point is to illustrate the pitfalls of an obsolete approach to teaching and learning that can breed apathy and disengagement among students, especially by maintaining a status quo that continues to view students as passive consumers of information. Rather than active creators of knowledge. 

And it’s a concern that’s prompting scholars like Nachowitz to question if schools are keeping up with the way students should now engage with school.

Are teachers presenting content in ways that are relevant to students’ lives? Are students doing more than simply regurgitating the material? Are they really building the kind of literacy and learning skills they’ll need to thrive in a 21st-century society? 

For Nachowitz, the answer to these questions, very often, is, no, they’re not.

New skills for a new economy

“It is a knowledge economy,” Nachowitz says. “Our job is to teach kids to be better readers, better writers, better thinkers, better collaborators. It is not that we just want kids to know novels, or just understand the evolutionary process, or just know about the War of 1812. It’s developing brains that ask questions, that know how to find answers to those questions through social interaction, who can deepen their understanding and feel comfortable challenging each other’s ideas.” 

“It is a knowledge economy. Our job is to teach kids to be better readers, better writers, better thinkers, better collaborators."So the days of pure memorization or fill-in the blank-type methods are over, and Nachowitz believes it is time for an educational paradigm shift. He is much more interested in constructivist approaches to literacy and learning that are meaningfully connected to the way students perceive and interact with contemporary life. 

This idea is part of a major line of research that centers around “knowledge transforming literacy,” which Nachowitz explores in a forthcoming book co-edited by himself and Kristen Wilcox, associate professor of educational theory at the University at Albany. 

Tentatively titled, Bridging the Gap from High Literacy to Knowledge Transforming Literacy, the book brings together studies and scholars from across the fields of literacy and learning sciences, to map out how teachers and practitioners can engage students in a series of deep thinking and learning skills that are now crucial.

“What I am hoping the book will ultimately achieve is to create a new definition of knowledge transforming literacy,” says Nachowitz. “That this is where we are headed if we really want to break the paradigm of school.”

Knowledge transforming literacy

Knowledge transforming literacy puts classroom dialogue at the center of the learning process. It’s about teaching students how to start productive discussions that explore different viewpoints, how to appreciate ambiguity, and how to help students internalize content by making it more relevant. 

So, for example, in an English language arts classroom that’s reading The Grapes of Wrath, the content is not only useful as a lesson on cultural literacy alone. Or, as a classic piece of literature just because somebody else once said so. 

Marc NachowitzMarc Nachowitz Instead, it becomes a lens, a focal point through which productive dialogues can allow students to begin socially constructing new knowledge for themselves.

“I want students to ask, ‘What does this book help me understand about myself? About the world around me? About history? About moving forward?’” Nachowitz explains. “And my job as an English teacher is to teach the literacy skills of deep reading, deep discussion, and deep writing around important content. Are we headed for another Great Depression? Are there signs here? That kind of thinking, we hope, will overcome the disengaged teenager, who often asks, ‘What does this have to do with me?’” 

Nachowitz’s new book, set to be published this fall, will feature studies that show how and why this form of dialogic engagement is critical to the teaching process. 

It will also detail what deep reading, deep writing, deep thinking, and deep discussion actually look like as measurable and observable cognitive behaviors, as well as how these concepts can produce significant gains in literacy skills. 

“I don’t know that it has ever been more important”

These are the kinds of skills that matter. Perhaps now more than ever. 

We live in a culture saturated with countless media outlets, a 24-hour news cycle, and an endless online universe filled with facts and opinions. It’s not all accurate and it’s not all true. But it is instantaneously available and begging to be unsuspectingly devoured.

“I don’t know that it has ever been more important,” says Nachowitz, “for students to not just take information in that’s being shouted at them, and to step back and say, ‘Wait a second. Why do I need to know this? What does this tell me about the world?’”

So to make any sense of it all, students will need to become better critical thinkers. They’ll need to learn how to ask the right kinds of questions and how to be skeptical. They will need to know how to create meaning for themselves. And they will certainly need to do more than simply consume information. 

To illustrate his point again, Nachowitz shares another story. One that’s also probably familiar to most parents and teachers, or to anyone who has worked with young learners today.

“I have a teenage son,” he says. “He spent a month in his 9th-grade social studies class studying World War II. He was assigned to do a project on the Nuremberg Trials. And the other day I was trying to help him get his project together, and rather than looking back at his notes, he just picked up his phone and said, ‘Hey Siri, what were the Nuremberg Trials?’ And he writes that down.”

This example highlights the very definition of information consumption, which provides no meaningful context about why such information may (or may not) be important. It does nothing to help students question how it may relate to their own lives. Nor does it underscore how easily it can discourage and suppress original thoughts. 

“We’ve got to overcome that,” he stresses. “Because the knowledge economy is not automatic access to information.” 

For Nachowitz, the goal of knowledge-transforming literacy is to teach students how to work with knowledge. It’s about learning how to generate ideas and to ask questions, and to challenge, advance, and justify ideas through social dialogue. 

“In short,” he adds, it is about “teaching students generative thinking around content. The objective of my work, and the forthcoming book, is to remind researchers and practitioners that learning how to discuss and advance ideas is a literate skill that we need to teach.”