Student Then and Student Now: What’s Changed?

The word “student” conjures up certain images.  It speaks of rows of children in desks, in a classroom, completing assignments, doing homework, and taking tests.  Being a student is a job we assign to young people from September to June (give or take), for a certain number of hours per day, until they graduate and become part of the real world.  This particular job pays in grades, hopefully good ones, and if all goes well, it’s a job people might even enjoy.  Sound familiar?

This definition of student was written during the industrial revolution, when the focus was more on job training than on fostering a love of learning.  Not an ideal system of education (for students or for teachers), but it did help to encourage a basic level of literacy and numeracy that hadn’t been seen in previous generations.  Anyone reading this post was a student long after the industrial revolution, but most of us will probably recognize at least parts of this older version of student in our own experience of education.  Whether you’re an educator, a parent, a student, or just a concerned citizen, it’s probably becoming apparent that this long-standing notion of student needs an upgrade.

So, why doesn’t this notion of student work anymore? What’s changed?

  • On its own, information doesn’t hold value these days.  Being able to find information is still useful, but knowing how to evaluate it, apply it, and even add to it is what’s essential.  It’s no longer enough for a student to be a good listener.  A student has to be a keen participant in the discussion.
  • The world is a great deal smaller than it used to be, and we’re learning more about other people.  As part of our collective education in diversity, we’re coming to understand that not everyone learns and thinks in the same way.  Terms like Whole Child Education, Neurodiversity, and Multiple Intelligences have become part of our educational lexicon, and students are no longer expected to fit into the same box.
  • There’s really no such thing as a graduate anymore.  We still pass through various levels of formal education and sometimes add letters after our names, but we’re never really finished being students.  The knowledge and skills we learn in school change, new industries are created, and most of us expect to switch careers at least a few times before we retire…if we retire.
  • For better or for worse, social media has created a culture of sharing.  Social media is far from perfect as a forum for education, but its existence does shine a light on our desire to learn both inside and outside of the classroom.  There are teachers and students out there just begging to share ideas online.
  • The definition of “teacher” is changing.  New educational practices like inverted classrooms and inquiry-based learning ask teachers to be facilitators who guide students as they ask their own questions and explore new ideas.  Students, parents, and even community members are becoming a bigger part of the educational equation as well.
  • Students in the 21st century are plugged in.  Not every student has access to the latest in technology, but it is still part of their reality.  They know how to use technology and how to create it, and it’s become part of the way they demonstrate learning and express themselves.

Change of this magnitude takes time, effort and resources, but in the educational community, there’s also great excitement about the possibilities.  As we move further into the 21st century, we’re getting a clearer picture of the kind of student likely to thrive amidst the challenges it presents.  In shifting our expectations of what, who, and even where a student is, we’re much more likely to go beyond just training future workers, and start encouraging thinkers and innovators. 

Amy Leask is VP of Enable Education.

Ami Moore is a Graphic Designer at Enable.