By Eric Garneau
In a December 2010 essay for the publication Wired, comedian Patton Oswalt foretold of the phenomenon of Etewaf - everything that ever was, available forever. Though he used it primarily to refer to the availability of specialized knowledge treasured by certain subcultures, its application to the world as a whole is clear. Given sizable recent advances in technology and knowledge, human beings are on the brink of having instant access to everything that has ever been known.
That explains the pressure now felt by high school students in AP, or Advanced Placement, courses. Since the program began in 1955 to allow enterprising high school students a chance at earning college credit, knowledge in nearly all of its subject areas has expanded immensely. However, AP curricula have not adapted to the change. Speaking specifically of biology, the New York Times reported that students are currently expected to take in the contents of a 1400-page textbook, any of which is fair game for the year-end AP test, which stands as a monolithic obstacle between high school seniors and college credit.
Though taking college-level courses in high school can produce some stress, it's no surprise that situations like these lead to less-than-ideal conditions for those on both sides of an AP classroom. Teachers race through AP classes at a breakneck pace to cover all the necessary material. They 'teach for the test,' as the saying goes, and have little or no time to foster critical thinking skills or an appreciation of knowledge in their students.
But then, one has to consider Etewaf. How valuable is it to stuff students with facts and memorization when, thanks to modern technology, so much information is literally seconds away from them at any given time? It may instead be better to consider what technology cannot provide as readily. Namely, what do we do with all that information?
The College Board, arbiters of AP curricula, has responded to just those criticisms. They've developed new programs for a number of their courses, set to roll out beginning in late 2011. Gone is the emphasis on needless memorization. Instead, these new classes are designed to foster a critical eye and a sense of wonder in students. Those in biology programs, for instance, will design their own lab procedures instead of using the 'canned experiments' currently popular in AP courses. History teachers will now be free to emphasize events they feel are important, and allow students to come up with their own hypotheses.
This new direction is not without its detractors. The New York Times noted that some teachers wonder if their schools will be able to afford new laboratory equipment required by the overhauled science programs, although AP representatives have responded that changes in lab requirements will be minimal. Similarly, the question stands as to whether teachers so used to old ways of teaching AP classes will be able to adjust to a more open-ended format.
Surely, though, teachers make numerous adjustments to their classes every year, and any change meant to foster critical thinking in their students ought to be seen as a positive one. Though it may take some getting used to, these new AP programs seem especially relevant to modern times. After all, nearly infinite knowledge is there for students to consume; how they use it is entirely up to them.