Saturday, February 25, 2012

They Are Willing To Profit From It

It was over a decade ago when our family toured kindergartens, searching for the right place for our daughter. I made a sort of hobby of it, visiting some 40 schools over a two year period. I feel like I got pretty good at it, informally interviewing teachers and parents about their experiences. I developed a whole list of questions I liked to ask, things I thought probed to the core of what really went on at the schools. One thing I never asked about where computers, yet many of these private schools seem inordinately proud of their "computers labs" or that they had a "computer in every classroom." I patently listened as my guides enthused about their digital classrooms, but at the end of the day we were not impressed and none of those school wound up on our short list.

Our reaction was purely instinctual back then, but I really didn't see the point. I remember asking my wife, "How do they know that all these kids are going to want to work for Microsoft?"

I know, I know, it's not supposed to be about the computers per se, but rather it's an "education revolution." It's not just the private schools any more. It started with Bill Clinton's education department, who wanted to see "computers in every classroom," then George Bush's, and now Barack Obama's, all of whom have jumped on the bandwagon of "learning powered by technology." It's one of the few issues upon which all of our elected and corporate leaders seem to agree: get those kids in front of computer screens and, Shazam!, we'll have a generation of Bill Gates clones running the world.

Now don't get me wrong, I appreciate this tool that allows me to do so many things, so much faster than I could before. The internet is an amazing, important place: hey, here we are together right now. But can technology really improve education? That there is little or no evidence to support the assertions being made from the highest places should make us deeply suspicious.

Last fall the New York Times ran an investigative piece of the use of technology in the classroom, reporting that school districts that invested most heavily in technology since 2005 now lag behind more traditional school districts when comparing standardized test scores. And in this article there is this startling quote from Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and investor in educational technology companies:

"The data is pretty weak. It's very difficult when we're pressed to come up with convincing data."

Despite this, he's still trying to sell it, using a sort of faith-based approach, I guess. You see, all he has is a hammer, so of course the whole world looks like a nail. (Should we ignore the fact that as an investor he also hopes to get even richer by selling this particular snake oil?)

Of course, as anyone who reads here knows, I'm just as skeptical about the ability of standardized tests to measure anything other than test taking ability, but here are the education reformers being tripped up by their own tool. Not only that, but the Times article goes on to say:

Some backers of this idea (technology in the classroom), say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don't capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop.

This is exactly what I've been trying to say: standardized tests don't tell us much, if anything at all, about real learning. 

Just as everything else in the corporate education reformers agenda, this too, this fixation on technology, is simply an article of blind faith. But apparently not too blind, at least when it comes to their own kids

The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school . . . So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard . . . But the school's chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

It seems that these guys aren't so stupid after all: they do look at the real research when it comes to educating their own children, the data that is not "weak." Instead they listen to guys like Paul Thomas, former professor of education at Furman University and author of 12 books on education:

". . . a spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning . . . Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking."

Proponents of heavily computerized classrooms reveal their true agenda, I think, when they argue that computer skills are only going to become more important in tomorrow's job market. Of course they're right, but it's not like these are such complicated tools to use that we need 13+ years of rigorous training in order to use them. No, these titans of industry don't see a need for their children to get this kind of education because they expect them to have more "important" jobs, ones that require creativity and critical thinking: it's those other kids who will be populating the cubicles of the future, and they're going to need to be conditioned to spend long hours staring at screens without going insane. 

It goes without saying that these titans of technology also stand to make a lot of money selling both hardware and software to our increasingly technological public schools.

In other words, it is about computers per se, because it appears that the guys selling this technology in the classroom agenda all know that it's emphatically not about education.

They aren't willing to make their own children guinea pigs in this massive experiment in technology, but they are willing to profit from it.

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Meagan said...

I don't think computers are necessarily implemented well in the classroom. They spend hours of school time drilling dull applications that will likely be obsolete by the time kids are ready to enter the work force, if they aren't obsolete already. Computers are so expensive and *important* that they don't really give children the opportunity to play and explore, to make computers into a learning tool like any other, rather than just another lesson children have to learn.

I'll be sending my son to a Montessori: no computers, and yes, my impression is that computer use at home is frowned on as well. I will be ignoring that recommendation. My husband is a hacker for crying out loud. My kid will absolute have the opportunity to learn from counters at home, and probably, to figure out how many ways he can break them. It's just another tool. It's not magical and it's not poison.

Meagan said...

*Computers, not COUNTERS.

elspeth denchfield said...

Hello Teacher Tom, I have been so much enjoying your blog this last month since I came across it and I heartily agree with so much of what you say. I agree too with what you are saying here about computers - I think they have no place in the pre-school environment, which should be true hands on learning about relationships and tools and properties of stuff and concepts etc... However I came across the wonderful work of Sugata Mitra a year or so ago - it is fascinating research. If you don't already know about his work and would like to check him out on Sugata Mitra the child-driven eduaction it is quite moving. Thank you for your blog, it is really inspiring.

Floor Pie said...

This doesn't begin and end with computers, either. The Boy's teacher was telling me the other day how textbook companies and much of the standardized curriculum used by Seattle Public Schools (Everyday Math, Readers' Workshop, etc.) sells the school a whole package. Teachers are "allowed" to supplement with other materials, but it's tricky because these courses are designed to stand alone and often use unique vocabulary, terms, etc., that don't mesh with outside materials. It's a racket.

Luckily, there are still humans in the classroom (and helping the kids with homework at night) who can flesh it out.

Floor Pie said...

I've also heard that when SPS switched over to Everyday Math, they sent school district officials to every building to officially remove all the none-Everyday Math textbooks from every classroom. Creepy.

sachauncey said...

Thank you for adding your deeply caring voice and to this very important discussion. If it’s possible to live in both worlds – the one that sees the potential of technology and the one that recognizes the failed panacea, then I do occupy those worlds. I started my career as an educator (K-6), got my masters degree in a library science in a most progressive and amazing university (Syracuse University’s iSchool), left education and worked in the private sector as a computer consultant for almost 25 years, returned to education as a library media specialist in K-3 school, and now work in a BOCES here in NY. When asked by a friend to recommend some computer applications for her three-year old, I replied, absolutely none. Take him to a park and play – play with him and let him play with other children. Let him talk, imagine, draw, get dirty, play with blocks. The same kind of play and exploration I advocated for my own children one of whom is a computer maven and the other who would rather play the piano and walk in nature today. That being said, technology offers amazing possibilities for children to share their dreams and passions, to connect with others, to take what they created on the computer and act it out on a stage… to satisfy their curiosity and develop deeper interests, to connect with amazing individuals through communications technologies and so on.
I will share a few links that you may peruse at your leisure… – be sure to check out amazing student work (no faces of students shared – but you’ll see them using a wonderful alternative – at my Digital Pencil Project Organizers which I developed using the programming skills honed during my consulting years and soon to be taken to another level with an amazing organization that values literacy and children above all else and a site I created and maintain at no charge to anyone about four years ago. That being said and shared, I cringe and am deeply saddened by Kindergartens (and truth be told all grade levels) that don’t allow blocks and play kitchens but host a bank of computers.

My goal is not to change your mind… but to connect with a “friend” who might someday find himself straddling two worlds.

All for now, Sarah

Michelle said...

I would be better off if I did not see the difference between a (any) child who doesn't get ANY screen time, and a (any) child who gets more than an hour a week of screen time.

Aunt Annie said...

"...all he has is a hammer, so of course the whole world looks like a nail. " Love that, and so true.

Again, you inspire me to share my own experiences in support... I feel a blog post coming on about my year teaching in a cutting-edge 'pro-technology' high school. The reality of it, in a nutshell, was that it was a fiasco trying to run everything through computers. It Just Didn't Work.

Cheers. Sharing this.

Sarah said...

I usually agree with you, but I don't think you're being fair here in calling out the parents who are employees of high tech companies for sending their kids to Waldorf schools. Unless those particular employees are advocating for technology in other schools I don't see the problem here. I work in technology and I am raising my kids without screens. I don't think technology is evil, I just think it has a time and a place. Perhaps these Apple and Google employees feel the same way.

Desna said...

Screen time is definitely a concern! Especially with i-Pads finding their way into so many classrooms. I believe the recommended daily allowance is 2 hours, and how much of that are children getting at school? There is a really interesting Barbara Walters interview with the founders of Google. You can find in on YouTube. In it, she asks them what they attribute their success to. Was it that their parents being college professors...ivy league schools...etc. Both of them attrubute their success to their nursery school (Montessori) that encouraged them to question the world. 21st century skills are skills we have never gave up in play based preschools...problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, taking initiative, and on and on and on. Perhaps with the big shift to 21st century skills, we will get back to the basics. The skills that will transcend any job title.

NestBliss said...

I like the idea of limited use of technology for all kids and kids who have access at home to good technology need to be cut off in the classroom. I think though that there are many kids in this country who need some exposure to technology because they will NEVER make a video on their mom's iphone, or narrate a claymation masterpiece with a cool ipad app, much less even learn basic internet skills without doing it at school. I think your article really speaks to the experiences of wealthy children and not to the needs of our whole society. There are indeed some very cool ways to introduce technology that is really 'creative' as in you use it to create! in the classroom too - but agreed that 99% of classroom technology enables kids to play online flash games.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This was really interesting, and as well I loved reading all the comments and suggestions for more reading you generated with this post.
This is definitely an important and timely subject.
Thanks for the food for thought.

Teacher Tom said...

@Sarah . . . I really don't mean to be calling out anyone other than the people who are using scare tactics and obfuscation to profit from products that they, themselves, won't use. Based on their salesmanship (PR and lobbying/bribing elected officials) they have been part of diverting scarce budgetary resources away from proven teaching methods like teachers, books, and real experiences in the real world, toward unproven computer technology. I mention the employees of tech companies not to call them out, but simply to point out that those who work most closely with these technologies are clearly not sold on them either. I have nothing but praise for anyone who does what's best for their children.

Teacher Tom said...

@sachauncy and nestbliss . . . I'm going to need far more proof that this kind of education actually produces positive educational results before I'm ever going to be someone who straddles both worlds, especially in the early years. What I'm largely objecting to is that these unproven technologies are being used to replaced proven teaching methods like teachers (who are being fired as more computers are purchased), books (which as Floor Pie points out are being replaced by augmentations to software) and real experiences in the real world (such as the example in the article where computers are being used to dumb down Shakespeare instead of trying to elevate the children by having them actually act out the play). I have no problem with these technologies being in the classroom. What I object to is that they are coming to dominate the classroom. Experts tell us that children who spend a lot of time with the screens lack the ability to concentrate and self-motivate: that's the core of a real education!

As for simply "exposing" kids to technology: this is simple stuff to learn. It can certainly wait until middle and high school if there really does turn out to be a hole in their knowledge, it will be easy to fill.

Anonymous said...

I agree that technology exposure should certainly be controlled. However, there are a number of iPhone/iPad apps that can be extremely useful in the education of a young child. For example, one app I found really helpful teaching my kids to learn jazz music was A Jazzy Day app. They found it really fun, and it is very educational. Whether its used in the classroom or at home, I think technology in education is a great thing when used the right way.