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Technology In Education: An Answer In Search Of A Problem?

In a recent blog post, Larry Cuban muses about the enthusiasm of some superintendents, school board members, parents, and pundits for expensive, new technologies, such as “iPads, tablets, and 1:1 laptops."

Without any clear evidence, they spend massively on the newest technology, expecting that “these devices will motivate students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and be engaged in schooling." They believe such devices can help students develop the skills they will need in a 21st century labor market—and hope they will somehow help to narrow the achievement gap that has been widening between rich and poor.

But, argues Cuban, for those school leaders “who want to provide credible answers to the inevitable question that decision-makers ask about the effectiveness of new devices, they might consider a prior question. What is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution?"

Good question. Now, good enough? I am not so sure. It still implicitly assumes an iPad must be a solution to some-thing in education.

But the question did remind me of a speech, given by Albert Shanker some 25 years ago, in which he asked and answered a similar question. In “The Revolution That Is Overdue," Shanker identified two pressing problems that confront schooling—the need to making teaching a more attractive profession, and the need to keep students confident and motivated—and discussed the ways in which schools could be reorganized to help solve them. The following is excerpted from that 1987 lecture:

…What else do we need aside from salaries to attract teachers? Well, we need lower class size because teachers want satisfaction in their work. How do they get satisfaction? The real mission of a teacher is not to give idiot multiple-choice tests, but to get kids to think, to express themselves, to be able to advance arguments, to be able to persuade.

You get kids to do these things by getting them to write, to put their thoughts on paper. Then, the teacher has to mark the paper and spend three, four or five minutes with each student. Then she gets them to redo it and redo it. With constant coaching the student eventually begins to think, to express, to write. Without that coaching and practice, the student will never get there.

But teachers can’t do this today. With 30 kids in a class, five periods a day, 150 students, five minutes to mark each paper and five minutes to coach each student adds up to 25 hours per set of papers. There are not many teachers who will do that or, if they do, for very long…

There is no way to solve this problem given the way that schools are currently structured. Furthermore, even if we were to reduce class size from 30 to 15, it would mean that this country would need 4.4 million teachers. We would need to hire half of all the college graduates in the country just to teach school.

To attract teachers we [also] need to give them time to develop a colleague relationship. Teachers have to be able to see what they do; they have to be able to exchange ideas…

What we need to do in schools is go through a process of rethinking like the one the Japanese [auto industry] went through before they started to compete with us. There are two different philosophies of quality control. In the United States, we go ahead and build automobiles, sell them, and then recall 250 because we didn’t make it right in the first place. Recalling cars is very expensive, not only in money terms but in terms of the loyalty of the people who purchased the automobiles. The Japanese learned that even if it takes longer to get it right the first time, it is always cheaper and better to do so.

With a human being, it is even more essential to get it right in the first place, because you can’t recall students in the same way you recall automobiles. If you have ever been a teacher, you know that at a certain point some kids just lose confidence. They say, "Hey, I'm dumb. I can't learn; I’ll never understand that." Once a kid says that to himself, it is close to impossible to reignite the flame, the willingness to learn. No one ever taught a student anything without the act of cooperation by that student. Once you lose that cooperation, your ability to teach—and the child's ability to learn—is gone…

Consider the kids entering the first grade. We tell all 25 or 30 or 35 of them to sit down. Then we talk to all of them at the same time, write the same materials on the blackboard, ask them al I the same questions. The message to these kids is "You're all six years old and you are all the same and why don't you compare yourselves to each other, because I am going to ask you all to do the same work."

Are they the same? We let them enter school only once a year, and they are all six because their birthdays fell anywhere in the previous year. [But] the oldest child in the class is really one year older than the youngest. And one year makes a tremendous difference at age six…

Let’s think about setting up a school where all students don’t have to be admitted at the same time, and where kids a year older don’t compete unfairly with kids a year younger. Suppose that I am the teacher in that classroom and I start calling on students. Some of the kids always have their hands raised. They love school.…

But then there are other kids who never raise their hands. I had better call on them too. I want them to participate. I want to see if they are learning. I want to try and help them. But every time I call on them, I find out that they are praying. (Whoever says there is no prayer in the schools has never seen a kid who doesn't know the answer.) Maybe the first, second or third time they are silent. Then they make a wild guess and everybody laughs at them. Without meaning to do so, I have humiliated those children in front of the class. I have made them feel dumb and horrible. They would rather be anywhere else in the world…

Maybe we should ask if it is possible to organize school in such a way that a child's learning is relatively private especially in the younger years. Maybe then a pupil won't think he is stupid just because he is learning a little more slowly than the child in the other row… We have to give kids a bunch of different ways of learning, and not just by listening to lectures. We have to provide privacy for pupils so they are not engaged in unfair competition with others and face humiliation… We have to give teachers an opportunity to work individually with students—coaching them in writing, expression, persuasion and critical thinking…

Why should 2.2 million teachers in this country be going home to write lesson plans on how to lecture to students about how Eskimos live in Alaska, or how the Grand Canyon was formed, or what the Founding Fathers said to each other before they signed on. There are video discs or tapes that do a far better job of imparting information than the average teacher can…

Think now of schools that don't have the kind of walls ours have. Think of a school where the teacher is like a doctor, prescribing for the individual student a course of action, saying, "Mary, you can learn this best by reading this section of the book; Johnny, why don't you listen to this audio tape which gives a good dramatization of it...?”…

Since each student is working on his own, on a piece of equipment, or with other individuals, no lecturer is involved. The students are not doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Although we want them all to learn the same things—such as reading at certain levels of ability—they can do it in many different ways…

This is the revolution. We have to use the new technology which we now have instead of the obsolete factory batch processing system which is failing… Schools need no longer assume that the only way to learn is through lecture and blackboard. Students can learn through a videotape, audiotape, computer, an older student or a community volunteer…

I can’t see how an iPad would, in itself, motivate a student, but I do see how technology could be used to help create a more private and positive learning environment for kids, thus reinforcing their confidence and motivation.

I am not sure how a laptop would help students develop 21st century skills (whatever these are), but I do see how using technology to impart information could free up teachers’ time,  allowing them to develop and deliver more individualized instruction in important skills (21st century or not).

If we don’t really know why we do things or what the real issues are, the result of any reform or new approach will be cosmetic, at best. Right now, it does not seem that we are asking good enough questions. Thus, as Cuban points out, the answers – as well as the research supporting those answers – apparently make little difference to some school leaders: “Not to adopt new technologies, even when funds are short, means that district leaders are failing their students and against progress."

We are trying to change education in ways that accommodate the use of new technologies, instead of thinking of ways to change education for the sake of education—and then figuring out whether and how technology can be used to help implement these changes. As a result, our thinking about technology (e.g., classrooms full of iPads) has nothing to do with the revolution Al Shanker envisioned—creating school as “a place that all would enjoy and in which students would learn more effectively."

- Esther Quintero

Comments

Esther, your analysis of the wrong headedness of the approach to change, is painfully accurate. Sadly, until professional educators and subject specialists take on the challenge technology poses at the highest level, culturally and intellectually, the simpler minded zealots and enthusiasts will continue to fill the vacuum with visions, myths and shoals of red herrings that serve only to sell kit or further their self interest.

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