Miss Champion holding a hornbook, 1661. From Tuer's  History of the Horn-Book

Miss Champion holding a hornbook, 1661. From Tuer's History of the Horn-Book

In what may be an apocryphal story, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus marveled that “you never step in the same river twice.” Everything changes. It’s just a fact of life. Below is a list of things that were once important in education that are now seemingly obsolete. 

Rote memorization

While it may be nice to know that the Cotton Gin was built in 1793, it's no longer necessary to commit this kind of information to memory. Instead, students should be challenged to think about how the technological effect changed the antebellum south. Likewise, I remember spending a couple of weeks in Chemistry memorizing the Periodic table when my time would have been better used exploring the relationship between the different elements. If a student forgets an element on the table, they can just Google it, and if they are combining these chemicals in the classroom, they will learn the names naturally and in context.


Our collective understanding of history is always being challenged, edited, and redacted. Textbooks that were ordered four years ago may now be obsolete. Furthermore, much of the most current information is one internet search away.

Canned Curriculum

Like textbooks, yesterday's curriculum quickly becomes outdated. Schools sometimes treat curriculum as a “magic bullet” that will lead to better student outcomes, but curriculum is only as effective as the teacher that wields it, and the further it is from the teacher's experience, the more un-engaging it becomes. For faculty, teaching lessons and units that they did not create can be a bit like wearing someone else's clothes: nice at times, but a bit awkward and ill-fitted.


I went an entire school year without printing a piece of paper: all the documents I had to sign for I received as a PDF and used an e-signature; all of the letters of recommendations I wrote I submitted to colleges using their online submission system; all the papers students turned in were submitted electronically.


The touch screen and keyboard are the great equalizer. While cursive may be useful to help students with their fine motor skills, it is all but useless as a skill. When was the last time you received a letter written in beautiful cursive? Do you think that a student’s inability to write nice, looping cursive letters will be seen as a deficiency by future employers? Probably not.

The Dewey Decimal System

In second grade, we sat on a rug and listened to a rap to help us understand the Dewey Decimal System. Back then, the Dewey Decimal System was important to know in order to find the book you wanted. In college, when I wanted to find a book, I would just get on one of the computers and search for it. Most libraries have an electronic database that students can utilize to find the book they want.

“Don’t use Wikipedia!”

Wikipedia is one of the largest websites in the world. Rather than telling students to stay far away from the website, we should teach them how to tell a reliable source from an unreliable one.

As Cathy N. Davidson points out, “Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia. It is a knowledge community, uniting anonymous readers all over the world who edit and correct grammar, style, interpretations, and facts. It is a community devoted to a common good — the life of the intellect. Isn't that what we educators want to model for our students?”


According to Wikipedia, the hornbook was used to teach young children the alphabet from the 16th century up until the 19th century. This small wooden paddle usually had the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. It was used as a tool to teach young kids how to read. It is amazing that such a simple technology was used for the better part of three centuries. Think about how different the classroom was just twenty years ago. Things change at an ever faster rate. What current technology will soon be obsolete and how does that effect what we are teaching our students now?