Monday, June 11, 2012

Education Reform: Hold On To What Works

I keep thinking about Socrates, there on the streets of Athens, asking questions.  No PowerPoints, no laptops, no iPads, just a man in a toga who hated one-word answers.  He didn’t even have a chalkboard.

Why is educational reform tied to technology?  Technology is a tool, and certainly can enhance teaching, but increasingly, it has become the means and the end to everything.  Jobs depend on how often technology is used.  I know of a principal who insists her teachers use blogs, and demands they force their students to comment on those blogs.  The teachers must turn in a list of blogs they follow.  They must contribute videos and pictures to the school website.  They must maintain class pages, updated at least once a day, if not more often.  Textbooks are pass√©.  Everything that can be known is available on the internet, so who needs a book, right?  Of course, when the technology goes down, as it does so often, the teacher must be quick enough on her feet to pull a lesson out of the air.  And with all this commenting and following and updating, who has time to correct papers or plan interesting and involving lessons?

When did textbooks become the enemy?  When did we give up depth for superficiality?  Forcing someone to blog or comment does not mean he or she has something meaningful to say.  Students fulfill an assignment by typing words, but is this really insightful and enlightening, or is it the 21st century version of busy work?

At the college where I work, every classroom is fully equipped with technology.  The computer is embedded in the lectern, ready to project the lesson on the screen and guide the class through the difficult ideas.  I like this, and I come to class prepared with my flash drive, yet I have had numerous occasions where the technology failed to work properly.  It is not a good feeling to be left standing in front of an eager class without the bells and whistles.  Those are the nightmares of a teacher.

When the technology has worked, I find that students tune out and simply copy what is on the slides, failing to listen to elaborations or discussions.  When I asked why this is, they were happy to tell me.  Too many teachers simply put up a slide and read it to them.  Many wondered why the teacher could not just post the PowerPoint slides online and skip the class meeting altogether.

Education reform does not mean throwing away the past.  I am tired of the charges of “stale teaching” and “dinosaur behavior” hurled at teachers simply because they prefer to keep it “old school.”  There is something to be said for “old school.”  Kids were better educated under the “old school.”  Feel free to disagree, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve seen the results.  And I am a walking testimonial to the success of “old school” methodologies.  Just because a method has been used for decades does not make it faulty.  Just because we ask kids a question does not make us fossils.  A question forces them to verbalize ideas in a coherent, concise, ordered manner.  I am shocked and appalled at how inarticulate students are today.

I often conduct a little experiment in my classroom:  I ask for directions to a nearby landmark.  The first response I get is “MapQuest it.”  When I point out the obvious fact that the students know how to get there, I get an incoherent, jumbled, mumbled “turn here” or “go there.”  They cannot tell me streets.  They cannot tell me directions.  They cannot tell me what neighborhood it is in.  When I push, the student turns red, becomes embarrassed, and repeats the mantra:  “MapQuest it.”  We are producing a generation of people who cannot speak or communicate a thought, but for whom short, highly codified, simplistic nonsense tapped into a miniature keyboard is a top skill.

I don’t want to give up what has worked before.  I believe in thinking and questioning and writing on real paper in real time.  Technology has its place, and definitely has merit as a tool for teaching, but it is not the end all.  We must keep a perspective:  technology is one more tool to reach students and get them involved in active learning.  We still need textbooks, even if they are open source textbooks, or are available online.  There are some excellent books available with additional material online, such as videos, pictures, and interactive maps.  We can update our classrooms and methodologies without throwing out everything we have ever learned from educating kids.

Socrates had the simplest of methodologies:  ask a question.  He knew the secret to good teaching was student involvement in learning.  The fire can be lit in a student’s mind not only with touch screens and smash cut video snippets.  Sometimes, a question will do the job just as well.


  1. Paul, I stumbled on your blog this morning for the first time and have been enjoying reading your posts. Today's regarding technology and education rang true for me because, like you, my classroom is equipped with all the technology I will ever need. And like you, I have found that many of my students (first and second year college) view learning as nothing more than information gathering. Once I ask them to do something more than that, however, many of them flounder. Every answer, at least so they have come to believe, is just a Google search away. When I tell them otherwise, they don't like it. It's a constant battle to get them to go beyond mere information gathering.

  2. Hasn't it always been about getting students to think deeply? I find it is worse now because everything in our culture encourages the superficial, the instantly gratifying. It is an uphill battle, but to give in means cultural failure, and I am not ready to concede the fight. So we go on...

    Thanks for the comment, and welcome to The Teacher's View.

  3. I teach in a private school where technology is still almost completely absent. What I find interesting is that the children always have to make a choice as to whether they will interact or not. This choice remains whether one teaches via old-fashioned or new-fangled means. Children can participate in class discussion, blog posting, etc., or they can daydream - it's up to them.

    I think the problem with technology as a tool for teaching, though, is that it is a highly 'distracted' medium. It encourages a short attention span, since there is always something else new to look at, so even if children make the choice to interact with teachers through blogs and so forth, they no longer have the mentality that prompts them to enter deeply into a discussion and form educated opinions. The difference between my non-technological students and other students I've met, who do use technology, is phenomenal and disheartening.

  4. SolariC,

    You hit it directly and concisely. I have spent my career in private schools, and what I have seen since administrators have begun demanding the use of technology in the classroom is not enhanced learning, but distracted wandering. I think this institutionalized attention deficit disorder is crippling American education. And I am afraid it is not just impacting students, but teachers as well. I find myself fighting to concentrate and sustain a focus. With the computer on the desk, the rapid-fire images from movies and television, the increasingly faster and more superficial pace of culture, we all might find ourselves unable to focus for sustained reading or study. All part of the dumbing down of our world, I guess.

    This summer, I am teaching in a fully outfitted technological classroom. It is the pride of our IT department at the college. I will use the equipment when the lesson can be enhanced by it, but I will not use it just because it is there. There is no point in putting up a PowerPoint slide and reading it to students. Integrating video clips, music, library resources via technology--all good if they enhance the lesson. To me, the through-line of teaching methodology is the relationship between the student and teacher. Two people, interacting and discussing a concept, procedure, or lesson. Technology and everything else can only enhance that basic interaction.

    Thank you so much for your comment. I've printed it and shared it with colleagues because I thought you were so dead on.


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