Monday, September 27, 2010

Technology, Talent, and Tolerance

In a speech at the Ideas Festival in Aspen, Professor and urban theorist Richard Florida, author of many books including most recently The Great Reset, spoke on the effects of the 2008 economic crash on American society and America’s cities. In his talk, Florida discussed how urban areas in the United States are changing in this new age, and he calls for people to plan accordingly. As in previous books and talks, Florida stresses that the successful cities of the future will place a premium on the three T’s-technology, talent, and tolerance, as a way to attract creative people who will help certain urban areas thrive while other cities will fall further behind.

As an educator and as a resident of a city, I found Florida’s observations fascinating. However, they should also force those of us concerned about these changes to consider how we prepare our students to be not only people who will benefit from these new directions, but also people who will lead them. In a different age when cities were based on certain types of industries, the role of education was to prepare young men and young women to work in factories, either as laborers or as managers. In an era where creativity will rule, we must consider how we educate young men and young women to take risks of innovation, realize that making mistakes is a part of the process, and that every endeavor is a creative act.

People have been discussing the need for education and schooling, which are not necessarily synonymous, to change in our post-industrial society, so what I am saying is not necessarily anything new. Many institutions are making monumental changes in the use of technology in instruction. Whether it’s schools where every student has a laptop, online schooling, or schools that teach through video games, there are a multiplicity of institutions engaged in the application of technology to education and the research therein. It feels like there’s a gold rush on and educators are scrambling to find the next educational El Dorado through the application of technology.

However, how much better are schools at seeking out and nurturing the latent talents in young men and young women than they were in the past? The inability or unwillingness to bring forth the inherent creativity in every child may be lacking even more today than in the past as we live in an era characterized by a constant focus on standardized testing and the strains imposed by economic distress. As more and more schools concentrate on high stakes testing and eliminate funding for the arts, there is less time and energy to engage students in developing their creativity in all areas. There is only so much time available, and resources feel finite.

In addition, schools continue to grapple with how to educate students for a globally interconnected world where openness to diversity will play a major role. Students must be able to work with different types of people in a variety of settings. Not to do so fails our students and stunts our work force. Unfortunately, here again an emphasis on standardized testing and a limited amount of time will relegate teaching students about diversity to either a superficial add-on or take it out completely.

Florida’s three T’s-technological, talent, and tolerance-are each necessary, but none is sufficient. My fear is that we have jumped on the technology bandwagon because that is the most tangible solution and consequently the easiest problem to address. However, if we stop there and we don’t work on stimulating creativity and teaching tolerance, we will continue to shortchange our students and our cities, and consequently our entire country and society, will suffer.