Don’t assume that any technology labeled “educational” is an unalloyed good.
[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]
Two award-winning teachers with more than 30 years of classroom experience say that kids are getting dumber.* The sad part is that they’re getting dumber because of what’s happening in our schools. Teachers today are working harder than ever, parents are paying greater attention, and standards are higher than they’ve ever been.
But the history of education is a history of fads. Remember “whole math” and “open schools”—no interior walls so that ideas would flow freely? Today, “flipped classrooms,” “block scheduling,” and “professional learning communities” are part of a long wave of over–promised panaceas.
No fad consumes decision makers as much as technology in the classroom. Superintendents aim to arm each student with a digital device, or have a bring–your–own–device policy. The assumption is that any technology labeled educational is an unalloyed good. But this assumption needs to be seriously questioned.
“How will the device be used in school?” would be a great start. “How will this help my child?” would be a smart follow up. Unfortunately, teachers or parents who ask such questions are met with patronizing scoffs or labeled as Luddites.
Policymakers are often in the public’s crosshairs, constantly looking for the next great thing that will save education and their own jobs. This fact is not lost on Dell, Microsoft, Apple, and others. Rupert Murdoch described education as an untapped $500 billion market. Firms put together slick presentations, woo policymakers, and suddenly digital devices arrive in the classroom as a solution in search of a problem.
Policymakers sleep better. CEO’s sleep wealthier. Yet students fall asleep dumber. It happens thanks to the disconnect between what is supposed to happen with these devices in the classroom and what actually happens.
Policymakers envision students walking into Mrs. Biederman’s history class where the Smart Board at the front runs a program that captivates them as they wordlessly take their seats. They then turn on their devices and interact with one another and historical characters. They will ask about the costs of the Civil War. Students will tweet questions to a hologram of Abraham Lincoln. He will hold hands as he takes students on a tour of Gettysburg battlefield. Afterwards students will create a journal using Google Docs cataloguing all they have learned and how they feel. They will be a smarter, more cohesive community. Hosannas will rain down.
My two high school teachers explain what actually happens. Mrs. Biederman uses her Smart Board as a screen for warm–up questions about the Civil War. But she has not been properly trained on how to use the Smart Board, so most days it functions merely as a screen. Today, she tries something new. She asks the class for their thoughts. But students are not paying attention. They are watching a hilarious YouTube cartoon of a homicidal llama, or looking at pictures of what their friend ordered last night at Chipotle. Some tweet about how amped they are for Prom, three months away.
Through the cacophony Mrs. Biederman asks students to connect to the school’s network so they can build a word cloud on the Smart Board about the costs of the Civil War. The school’s network is down (again). Mrs. Biederman runs run down to the network administrator. When the network is back up the word cloud starts to build. The first word is “fart.” It goes downhill from there.
Sadly, Mrs. Biederman is being evaluated today. Slump–shouldered she slinks into the administrator’s office. She is shocked that her lesson earned top marks. The administrator knows it did not go well, but the rubric the county uses asks if educational technology is in use and if it gave students a chance to collaborate. Mrs. Biederman and the administrator look sheepishly at one another and sign the evaluation. Later that month, her lesson is highlighted on the county’s website.
This scenario has repeated itself innumerable times. Students learn nothing. They are merely one day dumber. But adults, especially those with a financial stake in the game, have learned that if you promise a school system a cool-looking toy they will buy not one, but a thousand of them.
* Guest writers Joseph Clement and Matthew Miles are both award-winning teachers at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.