How Childhood Has Changed (and How That Impacts Education)

Digital Learning

How Childhood Has Changed (and How That Impacts Education)

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 11, 2017

How Childhood Has Changed (and How That Impacts Education)

It’s easy to forget that notions of childhood have changed radically over the years—and not all for the better, says Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Helicopter parenting” and habits around carefully guarding, protecting and scheduling kids have their downsides.

The history of the American family and childhood is an area Mintz has long studied. And he keeps that perspective in mind as he works to keep college teaching practices up to date in his other role, as the executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.

EdSurge sat down with Mintz a few months ago to talk about kids today, and about why he thinks higher education is going through a once-in-a-generational transformation to respond to how they’ve changed.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: You’re a historian and still a history professor, in addition to your other duties. And you’ve written acclaimed books about how childhood has changed over the years. What do you think about that changing view of adolescence, and how has that affected the student experience at college?

Mintz: We often think of the history of childhood as the history of its liberation, that is, the kids in the past were servants, or they were apprentices, and that their lives were really regimented. If you were female, you spent your childhood spinning thread or doing menial chores. If you were a boy, you worked in a factory, or you worked in a shop.

We think how much better off kids are today. Abraham Lincoln said that when he was a boy, he was a slave. He was a slave to his father and that it’s not surprising that when his father was dying, Abraham Lincoln made no effort to reach out to him.

But I would at least suggest to you that the story is more ambiguous than a story of liberation. Children and adolescents have much less free, unstructured, unsupervised time than their predecessors did. Parents are putting their kids much more into adult-structured, adult-supervised activities than they did in the past. The geographical range of childhood and youth has contracted over time.

Geographical meaning the landscape they get to play on?

Right, and to ride their bicycle on. A great irony is when we required bicycle helmets, fewer kids were willing to bicycle, because they didn’t want to look like jerks.

Kids spend more time [today] on a screen or more time shopping than they do in what we used to call childhood, which was free, unstructured, outdoor play. That’s a loss, and it’s made it harder for kids to cut the umbilical cord. It’s made it harder to establish an independent identity. It’s made it harder for kids to chart an independent path in life. Sure, it is way better to have a close, intimate relationship with a parent, though I suspect it’s better for the parents than it is for the kids. But it has a cost. One of the values of history is to reject crude, linear notions of progress and to see life really as it is as a much more complicated, ambivalent story.

I think that’s a challenge to parents of young kids—like myself. But it’s hard, right, because there aren’t ... I don’t know. How do you fix that, or what is to be done? Because some of it is changes in density of populations or people’s perceptions of safety. I don’t know.

There are structural reasons for why parenting has changed: the decline in birth rates, the growing fear of crime and sexual abuse, what I call the “discovery of risk,” that is, the worry on the part of parents that almost anything can cause some irreparable accident. The fact that parents have fewer children, and that they’re older and better educated, makes them much more sensitive than in the past to the risks and challenges that young people face.

We live in a more psychologized society. We’re way more sensitive to children’s inner states. In many ways, that’s a good thing, but it’s not an unvarnished good. It is not easy to be a parent today. It’s extremely stressful, all complicated by the fact that we have many more single parents and many more dual-worker families, so that there are time stresses that didn’t exist in quite the same way as in the past.

The great challenge for parents is to do the hardest thing of all, and that is to grant your child the freedom to be a child. We have largely rejected the notion of age-appropriate learning—that one day you don’t know how to multiply and then, suddenly, you do. It’s not because the teacher got better. It’s not because you made them read a book or listen to a tape recording. It’s because they grew, and their brain capacity developed.

So they’re ready for it then.

Exactly, and this challenge to let your child take risks and grow and achieve freedom and confidence on their own. That is the hardest thing for parents who are part of a culture of control.

And it probably affects the professor’s role too, by the time children get to college.

For many professors—and I would include myself in this—for 20 odd years, you sat and you listened to lectures, and now it is your turn to lecture. The most important thing that teachers can do, I am convinced, is to treat their students as partners and as creators of knowledge. In other words, to relinquish a little bit of the control of the classroom. Think of yourself as a learning architect, but not as a sage on the stage. Let your students construct knowledge, let them discover insights on their own. It is not easy to do, but that’s how people learn.

You’ve been working on a project at UT Austin called the TEX platform, which is the Total Educational Experience. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?

TEX is several things at once. First of all, it’s a digital-learning environment that is much more commercial grade, much more immersive, much more interactive than today’s existing learning management systems.

Secondly, it is a system for collecting fine-grained learning data about student performance—that is pace, performance, engagement, persistence and the like. It also has the capability of incorporating information from the student information system, so it can tie student performance data to student profile data—and therefore, allow us to make recommendations, to personalize learning trajectories and to generally improve the educational experience.

Third, TEX is part of a larger educational marketplace. We’re trying to create a platform where multiple institutions can offer courses, and we can provide recommendations so students can develop credentials over time that will help them in the job market.

These are credentials, not the bachelor’s degree, meaning smaller pieces that students can collect even if they’re at different institutions?

Correct. Now, some of these will be degrees, but many of them will be the alternate certifications, like microcredentials or badges and the like. Some will be competencies. We’re extremely interested in the specific knowledge, skills, abilities and capabilities that students acquire through various learning experiences, whether they’re training experiences—like in the military or corporate [world]—or whether they’re academic experiences that take place in a classroom or online.

Give me an example of one or two of those credentials that I might find in your marketplace.

We’re working right now with Army University to try to create what we call a “knowledge graph.” That is, what are the specific skills and knowledge that people acquire in military training programs? This will allow our campuses to award college credit for the skills and competencies that people acquire in the military. Right now, you could be working in nuclear physics in the military, learning a great deal, and find it extremely difficult to transfer that for credit hours. We need to make that simpler. We need to make that more seamless.

In your credentials marketplace, how does someone prove competency?

In our prototype programs, we’re working with standard-setting organizations in the industry and with assessment specialists, like the Council on Aid for Education, to develop sophisticated project-based assessments that really demonstrate what a student can do with their knowledge.

This is not a multiple-choice test?

Correct. Now, most of the areas that we’re working in right now have accrediting exams or licensing exams, like nursing or the MCATs. And so we need to know that students are acquiring the skills that will allow them to succeed in those domains.

Would it be harder in art history or my own discipline of history? Of course it would be more difficult, but large numbers of students are trying to earn job-related credentials and we need to help them do that. If you ask students what is the most valuable part of their college experience, they’re generally going to talk about their co-curricular or extracurricular activities.

That’s a fancy way of saying clubs, parties, frats or whatever it is, right?

Or internships, study abroad, service learning activities or independent research, which is not well-integrated into the college experience. In other words, it’s the active learning experiences that mean the most to students—not the lectures that they sat through or even the seminars that they sat through or even the books that they read independently.

Does your platform capture some of these extracurriculars?

Well, my view is that too often, even today, after all the talk about the learning sciences, many of our classes consist largely of midterms and a final and maybe a paper. That means that a student will respond rationally. They’re going to cram. In other words, they’re going to devote a lot of energy in a very short time, meaning that they have a lot of free time the rest of the semester, time that they could devote to work, or time they can devote to partying or just socializing.

We need to rethink that academic experience. We want to integrate the co-curricular with the curricular. We want to have the educational experience be more immersive, more engaging than it currently is, more all around the student. That way, I think learning will be more intense, learning will be deeper, learning will be richer and it will benefit in a whole variety of ways—including counteracting some of the negative social aspects of the current college experience.

That’s interesting. You think that some of the binge drinking is actually about not enough academic demands to keep students from that?

It’s not just a question of demands are bigger, but it’s that if you don’t feel immersed in your studies, if you don’t find them fulfilling and meaningful and engaging, then you’re going to find fulfillment and meaning and engagement elsewhere, and sometimes not in the areas we’d most appreciate.

The real issues here are bigger than just a digital tool, I guess.

I am a technophile, and I do believe that technology can serve some really valuable roles in a student’s education. I am a great advocate of simulations. For one of my history classes, we created a simulation where you have to sail from Spain to the New World and back using wind and ocean current information. In other words, be Columbus for a moment and try to sail across the Atlantic and see how hard it is to do. We’re creating virtual laboratories. We’re trying to create powerful social experiences online. You and I have powerful social experiences all the time, often mediated through technology, and we don’t see it a problem.

I’m not calling for a totally technologized educational experience, but let’s take advantage of some of the strengths of technology. For example, one of my colleagues at Columbia University had students create websites on every neighborhood in New York City, collecting oral histories and images and other aspects of material culture.

Many people with ‘academic innovation’ in their titles, like yourself, are in jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago. I’m sensing a little bit of anxiety about whether these jobs will stick around for the long haul. Do you worry that?

In roughly 50-year cycles, since the 1850’s, American higher education has gone through some fundamental transformations. Things like grades or credit hours or departments or 15-week terms are not timeless. They’re not written in stone. They were inventions. We’re in one of those once-in-a-generation moments when higher education is in ferment, and it is our job during this period of flexibility to help create new models. Many of us are in the enviable position of helping to shape the future of public and private higher education. It’s a great opportunity and it’s a great burden at the same time. It’s not forever. We all know that.

But I think when we’re done, you’re going to see some really fundamental changes that are really for the best for our learners. Just wait to see when we have 3D reconstructions of historical sights that you can walk through using your virtual reality goggles. You will have a level of immersion that wasn’t possible in the past. If that can’t bring academics to life, I don’t know what can.

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