The Students of Today & Tomorrow: A Conversation with Mitch Albom

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What does the future of learning look like? In this segment of his radio show on WJR 760, Mitch Albom explores this issue in depth with a panel of the leaders of several current and former superintendents of Michigan schools.
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Here’s something that probably won’t surprise you: The students of today have different learning needs than the students of yesterday.

Following this logic, it stands to reason that the students of tomorrow will also have their own distinct learning needs, some of which we cannot even anticipate yet.

Society and student needs have changed. The current generation has grown up with technology and instant access to goods, services and information. As a result, they think differently and learn differently. They demand access to education in the same way.

That’s what’s so tricky about designing a successful education system: It constantly needs to adapt to the changing needs of students and the ever-evolving capacities of educational technology.

Many educators, however, are still resistant to the notion of a technological classroom. We find ourselves — as an educational culture — between a rock and a hard place, perpetually oscillating between the stark realization that our current methods are not working and the paralyzing fear of change.

But change doesn’t always have to be scary.

As Kevin Miller — superintendent of St. Clair County RESA — explains, “Innovation doesn’t always mean creating something new. It can often mean building on something that already exists or finding efficiencies to make something better.”

For example, one way we’re trying to create positive change is by using county-wide collaborations to reduce the cost of delivering online experiences and empower local educators to serve their student’s online learning needs.

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, we hosted four panel discussions on Mitch Albom’s radio show on WJR 760. In this segment, Mitch Albom explores the evolving needs of today’s students with panel of several current and former superintendents of Michigan schools, including:

Watch the 10-minute video below or read the abridged transcript to learn more about how methods of delivery in instruction have changed dramatically to meet the needs of today’s students.

Want to hear more from Mitch’s conversation with Michigan educators and students? Check out his other panel discussions on our state’s literacy crisishow online learning really works and what factors have historically impeded progress in Michigan education.


Mitch Albom (MA): Let’s talk about new methods of delivery of instruction and why they are necessary. There are a lot of people listening to us who remember when they got the basic Little Reader and how you traced your letters. We all read Sally, Dick And Jane, and, you know, it was almost a prescribed path.

But now, there are so many different things, and, of course, you’ve got Michigan Virtual and online learning. Can you talk about how these things enhance our opportunities with kids and what some of the challenges are in dealing with them? 

David Richards (DR): Well, I’ll take that one. I think certainly technology closes the gap for a lot of kids. Certainly, students have a lot of different learning styles, and the opportunity for any time, any where access gives students that chance to not lose as much learning as they do when they go home on a regular basis.

Dave Campbell (DC): I would take a little different course. The most important thing is the effectiveness of the practices, not necessarily the newness or the innovativeness of it. It’s similar to a medical model. I want my doctor to use the most effective practice for me, not necessarily the newest or most innovative one.

MA: What are the more effective practices when it comes to the new learning, and I’m presuming this means online learning? 

DC: Well, what I think the most effective practice, and this may be contrary, but is having a highly effective teacher every hour of the day for a student. For a state the size of Michigan that has about one million and a half kids, we need about a hundred thousand outstanding educators to be with children. Now, some kids do learn well in an online environment. Some students are motivated to do that, and that works very well for them. But most students really want to develop a more personal relationship, similar to what you had with Morrie —

MA: Well, what I had with Morrie in Tuesdays with Morrie was exceptional, but there’s also the matter of a dying profession involved. We don’t want to bring that on to everybody, but if we need one hundred thousand teachers, how many do we actually have? 

DC: That’s impossible for me to answer. I know it’s nowhere near one hundred thousand. I know there are children in this state — in many urban areas and many in rural areas — that don’t have a teacher today, and it’s May. We were thousands short in the Fall. And I’m talking about outstanding teachers. I’m not talking about somebody just filling the role or somebody who maybe got a certification that maybe a lot of people wouldn’t let teach their own children. I’m talking about outstanding. We need outstanding teachers in every single classroom in the state.

MA: Dr. Rossi Ray-Taylor, do you agree? 

Rossi Ray-Taylor (RRT): Well, yes, in part, and I think that makes the case for why we need to look at education differently. What we need from schools now is much different than what we needed 20 or 30 years ago. Work has changed. The environment has changed. The conditions which kids come up in and that they will work in in the future has changed. We need to be agile to be able to handle that. Now, to have one hundred thousand well-qualified teachers at one time, that’s quite a challenge.

Teachers take time to develop their craft as well, so having the opportunity with blended learning to augment what happens in the classroom just makes it richer, makes teachers more able to get through to the various kids that they have in their classrooms. I would say that one of the things we’re finding in education is that we really need to be resource-rich. That doesn’t mean money-rich, but resource-rich, so that we can get to kids the way they come to us and take them from there to where they need to be.

MA: How much of learning has become a challenge because of the very things you’re suggesting we incorporate? The attention span of children now is gone. I mean, you know, four seconds is an incredibly long time to hold a kid’s attention. Does that almost mandate that you have to start dealing in that hyper-kinetic environment in order to hold the kid’s attention to learn?

RRT: A little bit. But I think you have to understand also how kids learn. Being too hyper-kinetic really can turn some kids off. They totally can’t handle it, so a teacher has to be able to handle managing a classroom that has kids with different needs and be able to meet these needs. We have to look beyond the classroom, so we can look at all the learning environments that we can provide for kids. Again, that’s where things like blended learning and online learning come in.  Things that are experiential, where kids get their hands on and really get to practice what they’re doing. All those things, we’re learning from research, fit how kids think and how kids learn, and we’ve got to bring that to the classroom.

MA: I want to ask all of you when we come back about communication because I have noticed that the children I work with that we are losing the art of communicating with one another. Kids don’t even know how to respond to teachers. They can respond on a screen, they can tap in their response, but in terms of making eye contact with someone and being able to communicate thoughts — which later, of course, rolls into writing and things like that — to find a high school kid who can write and communicate his thoughts well and not in 140 characters is becoming a big challenge. In the workforce you still need to be able to do that. . . In terms of the challenge of communicating in a world where you can just tap in a text response, what are we doing, and how are we making headway in that? 

DC: I would like to go back to my original answer, which was a highly-trained outstanding teacher is going to engage with their students a lot. They’re not going to be sitting in the back of the room grading papers. They’re going to be engaging, and they’re going to be organizing kids into groups so that they can engage with each other to work or with whatever material it is that they’re learning. I would, again, bring it back to: We need one hundred thousand outstanding teachers.

MA: The human resource. 

DC: Yes, the human resource.

DR: You know, I think our kids socialize very different than we did not so long ago. The technology is something they leverage for socializing and communicating with one another. But the reality is that teachers are everywhere. If you ask a student where they’re going to get help when they go home,  generally, it’s YouTube or Facebook or connecting with a friend. So, I think for us as educators, how do we look at our lens of learning very differently? Does our current model of school fit our current student? I think the challenge is talking about learning, rather than school.

MA: How much do you feel that online learning. . . I mean we’re here at Michigan Virtual, that’s really what they’re into. Online learning can be a supplemental thing as well. It’s not a substitution thing. I’ve been fascinated as I’ve gotten to know Michigan Virtual that they have AP classes, that they have languages that you can take that aren’t even being studied at schools. I imagine that goes all the way down to the elementary level, that a kid could come home after a day at school and could be supplemented by the online thing. It’s not one or the other.

RRT:  It can be used in a lot of different ways, and I think a good example is what we call blended learning, where the classroom teacher is doing a project and has children perhaps reading or writing about something that they’re interested in. Then, they can tap into online access and bring in thinking there, bring in another teacher, bring in another part to their project. There are ways that teachers can access curriculum, access lesson plans and other things. In addition to that, they can also get their training online so that they’re not only using it to teach their students, but also to learn themselves. I think if we wrap all that around the child’s experience that we see a lot more opportunities to learn.

Back to your question about communications, I think that the thing we’re learning about teaching today is that we really have to get into allowing students, helping students, guiding students to answer questions, to solve problems. One of the things that teachers learn to do is that they can present a compelling problem or something for students to solve and then they have to figure it out. They lead students in doing that so that they have to go beyond 140 characters. They have to communicate with one another. They have to write about what they’ve learned and what they’re seeing. That gets students get engaged, rather than just that, you know, write a paper about something. I think we’ve moved beyond that with students, and then we can really tap into communications.

MA: Maybe we should all pose the question to all our students: How can we find 100,000 really qualified teachers to teach us? You know, then the kids can solve the problem, and we can all go home. That would be great. I want to thank you, David, David and Dr. Rossi Ray-Taylor for joining us. We’ll continue on another element of our discussions here on education.

Learn more about our latest online learning collaborations

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.