Tomorrow’s Renaissance Student

By guest-blogger Keith Ferrell and cross-posted at Techhappy


Keith Ferrell

It is my great pleasure to present a wonderful educator, Keith Ferrell, on this blog. Keith is technology integration specialist in the Singapore American School and works with third to fifth graders. Thank you very much, Keith!



Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of all time. Part of what’s so amazing about da Vinci is that he was so well-versed in such a broad variety of areas. Music, architecture, math, botany, engineering, art, and more; da Vinci was known as the archetypal renaissance man. During da Vinci’s time, one needed to be a polymath to be considered learned. If you needed questions answered, you would either have to ask your parents, a priest, or hope that you had someone like da Vinci living nearby. Granted, having knowledge wasn’t always regarded as a positive thing by the powers that be, and it could often get one in trouble. We have definitely come a long way since the 15th century, and today’s Renaissance men and women think and learn a whole lot differently than the polymaths of da Vinci’s time.

Is Technology Making us Dumb?

Some case-and-points of negative impacts of technology: I came across an article in LifeHacker this morning about CapSee, an app that will notify you if your capslock is on… Wouldn’t that fact that you’re now typing all capital letters notify you of this? I still remember the phone numbers of Brian Craw, Andrew Smalldon, Jason Hall, Emily Podesta and the local movie theater in the town where I grew up. I used to have to dial (with an actual dial) these numbers. I haven’t called these friends for 25 years, but the numbers still remain in my memory. Today, I do not know any numbers by heart. I checked into a hotel a few days ago and the front desk clerk asked me what time my return flight was. I didn’t know, but was comfortable with the fact that I could login and check my online calendar.

Are we so reliant on technology that rote memorization and instant recall is fading? Or are we simply doing so many more tasks in our daily lives that we don’t take the time to remember simple things that we know are within reach of our nearest computer device?

A Renaissance at Your Fingertips

There’s no doubt that technology is now, and will continue to be embedded into our daily lives. We are continuing to grow ever more dependent on computers and one would have to really make an effort to go a day without directly interacting with, or indirectly being affected by some sort of technology. Today’s da Vincis, instead of being a wealth of memorized information, should know how to quickly access and call up information from various sources. They need to know how to problem solve, collaborate, adapt, manipulate, and utilize information. John Sowash, who writes the Electric Educator, states that:

We are in an age of information. Storing facts in our brains is a pointless exercise (unless you plan on being on Jeopardy!). In the era of the iPhone, any fact, statistic, or desirable piece of information is only a few clicks away. The skill of the 21st century that will set people apart is what they can do with the information that is available to them. What new products, services, or procedures can be improved, created or derived from the information that we have? Knowing is not as important as using.

Tomorrow’s Renaissance Student

So what does this mean for education? How are we preparing our students to be technological polymaths who are able to navigate the sea of information available at their fingertips? According to research released by Project Tomorrow and Blackboard, only a third of parents think that schools are doing a good job preparing students for the 21st century (which is already 1/10 of the way through, by the way). The research also showed that only 40 percent of students in grades 6 through 12 think their schools are doing a good job preparing them for the future.

Learning for the 21st Century, a report from a public-private coalition known as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills offers up the following steps for educational reform to better prepare our students for the future:

  1. Core Subjects: The authors reaffirm the importance of the core subjects identified by No Child Left Behind but challenge schools and policymakers to expand their focus beyond “basic competency” to understanding the core academic content at much higher levels.
  2. Learning Skills: “To cope with the demands of the 21st century,” the report states, “students need to know more than core subjects. They need to know how to use their knowledge and skills-by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, and making decisions.”
  3. 21st Century Tools: Recognizing that “technology is, and will continue to be, a driving force in workplaces, communities, and personal lives in the 21st century,” Learning for the 21st Century emphasizes the importance of incorporating information and communication technologies into education from the elementary grades up.
  4. 21st Century Context: Experiences that are relevant to students’ lives, connected with the world beyond the classroom, and based on authentic projects are central to the sort of education the Partnership for 21st Century Skills defines as the appropriate context for learning in the information age.
  5. 21st Century Content: The report’s authors believe that certain content essential for preparing students to live and work in a 21st century world is missing from many state and local standards. (See list.)
  6. New Assessments that Measure 21st Century Skills: “As pervasive as assessment seems to be today,” the report says, “it remains an emerging and challenging field that demands further study and innovation.” Recommendations include moving beyond standardized testing as the sole measure of student learning; balancing traditional tests with classroom assessments to measure the full range of students’ skills; and using technology-based assessments to deliver immediate feedback.

Gimme Hope da Vinci!

Being a computer teacher at a large international school, I have the privilege of working with some amazing educators and students. Teachers are actively engaged in updating their technology skills and at times, even learning alongside their students (modeling lifelong learning). They are attending workshops and conferences, reading blogs and professional journals, learning via online courses, and even Tweeting with their PLNs and updating their professional blogs. Students are actively engaged in their learning; utilizing appropriate technologies to problem solve, collaborate, communicate, as well as to increase learning and productivity. We are not “there” yet, and our aim is to never actually arrive, but to continue the lifelong journey of promoting each student’s social, emotional, and academic aptitude to develop into the global leaders of tomorrow.

Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!
-Leonardo da Vinci

6 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s Renaissance Student

  1. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the idea that knowledge is no longer important as information is all around us and easy to access… Though I can certainly see the logic of the argument!

    The problem I see is that students today have access to all kinds of information, but often lack the skills to make meaningful use of this knowledge (not sure how many student assigments can be attributed to Wikipedia – CTRL+C – CTRL +V – seems to be loads). I suppose the simplicity of access to information has lead to a greater and earlier need for these higher level analytical skills…

    The question is what practical steps can we take to implement this?

    1. Thanks for the comment Phil. Knowledge is just as important today, if not more so than ever before. The difference now, is that “knowledge” has shifted and multiplied. Our challenge as educators is to get our students thinking beyond the trivial facts and learning how to think outside the box, and expand their ability to use the tools that they have at their fingertips beyond the menial.

  2. I saw an interesting article yesterday:

    It talks about the ‘amateurisation’ of the photography industry, whereby people’s photos on Flickr are eating into the market for professional photographers. This is a common pattern of the ‘digital revolution’ where new tools remove the need for as much ‘technical’ knowledge/skills and increase the relative value of ‘creative’ skills. This is true of digital photography, video production, music production, web design, getting directions for driving from A to B, academic research….

    We need to develop students’ skills in these higher level ‘creative’ or ‘analytical’ skills, more mechanical technical skills run the risk of being replaced.

  3. Keith, thank you for this amazing post!
    You are absolutely right in saying that now we have so much information around us, a true treasure trove of information, but the thing is what we can do to take advantage of all this – how we can categorize it and make use of it properly.
    I will also agree with you on the fact that we have come to depend upon technology so much, that I have caught myself being next to a bus stop (for a bus I will need the next day) and saying to myself “Oh well, I’ll check the stops on the internet. I won’t look now.” Or I know people who no longer wear a watch and look at their cell phone or iPhone or what have you.
    Great post Keith – I loved how you connected it to DaVinci!
    Thank you very very much,

  4. I disagree in part. I love the age of information and I am not a supporter of memorizing facts; however, education is about “becoming” something. Education is not just being able to download information from a cognitive gadget; although, that may be necessary training for the 21st century. A Renaissance person becomes something better than what they were and this process continues in a life long journey. It really doesn’t matter what we know as much as what we are becoming.

    Also, the idea of minimum standards is “off-base” because it caters to the low-achiever in all of us. It perpetuates the idea that an education is just a hoop through which we jump to get to what we really want (e.g. entertainment, adventure, money, etc.). It creates the “bar” or the “hurdle” and teachers/administrators spend a disproportionate amount of time lifting un-motivated or “challenged” students over the hurdle.

    It seems to me that apprenticeship is the best form of education; however, you can’t education the masses that way. The characteristics of it can be reproduced in the classroom or online. It is authentic meaning directly applicable to the “real-world”, not the “lab”. It provides relevant and rapid feedback (not to mention real-world consequences). It is age and ability adaptable. A strong teacher/student relationship is formed that is based less on authoritarian measures and less on “I have power because I have something you want” and more on mutual respect/trust. Testing is adaptive.

    Lastly, the definition of “dumb” or “educated” cages conversations that really matter like “Are we better than we were?” and “What should we be?”. It is amazing that a Jeopardy champ is held so high in standing. What is there marvelous skill? They can recall trivia. Yahoo. Throw them a parade. Let’s get real. You want to know who I think are the really educated people. Mothers who sacrifice for their children. Fathers who are faithful to their wives in thought as well as deed. Philanthropy-minded business owners. Hard working, “take pride in your work”, average-wage earners. Peacemakers who absorb negativity and return kindness. Soldiers (enough said). Explorers. They each know something special, but more importantly, they are something special.

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