Today many of our schools are victims of a "content fetish." Students learn to parrot facts and formulas for tests. However, we know from decades of research that memorizing facts and formulas does not correlate with being able to use them to solve problems. The world is chock full of facts with more discovered every minute. Facts only become important when one knows what to do with them, when they become tools for problem solving, argumentation, and interventions in the world. And then they are retained for the long term, a free benefit of thinking and acting with facts and formulas and not just memorizing them for tests. Of course, our nation will, in the end, suffer when we run short of problem solvers and become a nation of Trivial Pursuit players or, worse, people who just make up their facts for their own ideological ends.
There are many ways to teach for deep problem solving, especially using digital tools. For example, consider video games. Gamers cannot finish a game unless they have mastered it. Indeed, they cannot succeed if they have not mastered a prior level in a way that prepares them well for the next harder one. A game like Civilization contains a myriad of facts about history, but you cannot succeed in the game unless you can use them strategically to solve the sorts of problems civilization builders and historians have had to solve. Games teach by well designed and well mentored problem-solving experiences and they are often associated with interest-driven Internet fan sites devoted to active discussion of the game's design, how to win the game, and how to improve it. Of course, we don't need games to teach this way. We just need good designs, good teachers, good problems, good tools, and good collaborative interactions.
We will never get a new paradigm of learning in our schools unless we change our assessment system. Assessment, especially when coupled with accountability, drives how we teach and learn. Today, digital media allow us to track progress on multiple variables to gauge growth across time and to discover different trajectories towards mastery and innovation compared and contrasted across thousands of learners. Many games today use just such a system. A player can get beautifully designed representations of how he or she is doing across time on a great many connected variables and in comparison to many other players. Game companies can use the same information to improve both their games and their gamers. A single score on a standardized test taken on one day -- a "drop out of the sky test" -- will come to look not just thin, but unethical. Once assessment becomes data mining and powerful representations for learners and stakeholders, learning and assessment will be well integrated and the drop out of the sky test industry will be gone, a cost savings in these hard times. Indeed, I believe such learning/assessment systems will be the new bio-tech, fueling an economy selling 24/7 customized learning of all sorts and in all domains. It is just not clear that our urban schools will become part of this market.