Education expert explores teaching, learning in digital age

Dr. Arthur Levine at Scarsdale Middle School Feb. 28.

When Dr. Arthur Levine’s grandmother was born, there were no airplanes. By the time his children were born, human beings had landed on the moon.

Levine, a prolific author and educator, lectured at Scarsdale Middle School Feb. 28 on the changing face of education in a talk titled “21st-Century Learning for Generation Z.” The program was sponsored by the Scarsdale Public Library, the Scarsdale Forum, the PTC and the SHS PTA.

In her introductory remarks, Dara Gruenberg, president of the Friends of the Scarsdale Library, praised the sponsoring organizations’ commitment to “promoting learning and education at every stage of life.”

Levine echoed Gruenberg’s sentiments. “Scarsdale’s a village that’s known for its commitment to education,” he said, “and [it] has the capacity to lead the nation into the 21st century.”

Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, a former president and professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, a former senior lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of 12 educational books. He has received 25 honorary degrees, and his written works have been published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

He prefaced his talk at SMS with a disclaimer about the label ‘Gen-Z,’ which refers to the generation born after millennials, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. “This is the last time you’re going to hear me talk about Gen-Z,” he said. “I hate the term. ... I think generational stereotypes conceal more than they reveal.”

Instead, Levine discussed “the world those kids are going to be living in,” defined most significantly by a radically evolving economy, technology and demographics.

Levine drew several historical comparisons, likening the current digital climate to the Industrial Revolution, which occurred between the 18th and 19th centuries. Just as that era marked a switch to manufacturing practices, Levine argued the U.S. is transitioning from an analog, industrial economy — one powered by producing and distributing material goods — to a global, digital economy focused on “the creation and dissemination of knowledge.”

“I feel like Rip Van Winkle these days,” he said, citing the classic Washington Irving story. “Everything’s changing so quickly.”

In this quicksilver environment, he argued, schools are lagging behind.

“Education tends to be abstract in many of our educational institutions,” he said, “and this is a generation of concrete learners.”

Levine explained that schools today often rely on analog media (such as written or recorded materials), while kids at home are digital media experts. Today’s students grew up with tech advances; college students were born after the debut of Amazon and Netflix, and Facebook, Spotify and Twitter predate today’s middle schoolers.

The results are “digital natives being taught by digital immigrants,” Levine said. “Our kids are floating in a sea of breadth.”

Going forward, he anticipates a transition to more in-depth, individually based learning based on personalized curriculums. Some of his more radical, long-term predictions involved the replacement of college campuses with virtual reality portals, the waning of educational systems based on credits and the formation of new credentials that can be earned in shorter spans.

He also noted the nation’s changing demographics, citing the radically growing Hispanic population and suggesting the country will move from a white majority to a white minority by 2025.

“The fastest growing groups of students are those with which our educational system has been least successful,” Levine said. “The country is depending upon those people. ... Those people deserve a different kind of life ... and policymakers [will] demand we do better with those populations.”

He also anticipated that as minority populations grow, so will concerns over college costs.

Levine proposed a multifold approach to contemporary learning focused on building 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, adaptability, media literacy and cross-cultural understanding.

Members of the audience asked Levine about social media, global education and standardized testing. A mother of three asked, “How are [our kids] going to learn everything they need to know when they’re constantly on Snapchat?”

Levine argued using forums that have proven effective with Gen-Z students is the best way to engage them.

“If we can make education engaging, which is what it ought to be,” Levine said, “we can capture kids. ... But it has to reflect [their] lives.”

While many attendees left the talk with fresh insights, several had lingering questions.

New Rochelle resident Susan Kaplan Abramowitz, who attended the program with her 30-year-old son, Matthew, said Levine’s arguments resonated with her work as a guidance counselor for Gen-Z students in the Bronx.

“[Levine] just really stated everything I’ve been feeling and understand about this generation,” she said. “The piece, for me, that’s missing is what’s the next step now with these kids.”

Abramowitz said she was grateful for the conversation about education reform. “It’s important that us older people make sure you get what you need, because if you get what you need, I’m going to get what I need. Some people don’t see that connection, that the young generation is what’s most important,” she said.

Scarsdale High School principal Kenneth Bonamo said he has followed Levine’s career for 20 years and was eager to hear his thoughts on the current state of education — “what we as school leaders and as parents and teachers need to be thinking about to prepare kids in the best way possible for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Bonamo said he appreciated Levine’s insights on technology and interpersonal learning, which he hopes will prompt an ongoing dialog.

“I’m left wondering, how do we scratch that surface?” he said. “How do we respond to the undeniable fact that ... so much learning can be self-prompted, yet the social atmosphere ... that a school provides with student-student relationships, student-teacher relationships, is almost half the game?”

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