Columns / Discourse / April 18, 2012

Voice of Reason: Schooling in a technological world

Typically, I decide on topics for my column based on things I read in the newspaper or see online. This week, though, the topic comes from a conversation I had with my younger sister.
My sister is currently in eighth grade. While I was home for the weekend, she shared her displeasure with me over the fact that starting next year, when she leaves her school district for high school, the district will give students in the fourth and seventh grades free iPads, with the goal of every student in the district over fourth grade having one within four years.
My old school district seems to have fallen into the same trap that so many others have, the idea that if something is expensive and shiny, it must, by default, be a great educational tool.
Looking at the nation’s schoolchildren, I have a hard time saying that the most pressing problem facing them is that they just aren’t spending nearly enough time staring at glowing rectangles on a daily basis, whether it occurs in computer, tablet, phone or television form.
Their home lives are dominated by electronics and technology. The Kaiser Foundation released a study showing that they’re spending an average of eight hours a day in front of a screen as it is. They don’t need wired education; they just need better education.
They’re not getting one.
As Mark Bauerlein wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “while enthusiasm swells, e-bills are passed, smart classrooms multiply, and students cheer,” the dirty little secret is that, “the results keep coming back negative.”
Bauerlein cites expensive and failed initiatives in Texas, New York and Illinois. Wireless access, free laptops and innovative new digital tech tools were all rolled out to great fanfare, united only in their failure to produce any statistically significant result in learning outcomes. At that point they are quietly junked while the public is busy gushing over the latest school to abolish textbooks.
If electronics in the classrooms were being used in radically different ways, things would be different, but that is not what’s happening. As Bauerlein puts it, “Educators envision a whole new pedagogy with the tools, but students see only the chance to extend long-established postures toward the screen.”
He’s entirely right.
Don’t think about all of the possibilities of wired education. Think about how it is actually used in practice. Yes, the Internet provides free access to all sorts of great things, but do you really think those middle schoolers with their new iPads will spend their days on Project Gutenberg?
My high school spent thousands of dollars on the computerized chalkboards known as smartboards with the highest hopes of how they would transform learning. Instead, most teachers just ended up using them to do the exact same things they did on regular chalkboards, only digitally.
Even the few teachers who tried to make use of the special capabilities of the smartboards didn’t do anything that exceptional with them. Yes, there were some cool video clips and things of that nature, but looking back there are stick figures teachers drew on chalkboards that stuck with me far longer than any high tech chicanery at a fraction of the cost.
Something my senior year English teacher, a devotee of the stapled packets of photocopies method of teaching, said comes to mind.
He used to tell us that the history of education reform is nothing but the history of going back to the Socratic method, of asking the student questions until he or she arrives at the answer on their own, guided by a knowledgeable authority figure. No bells and whistles have yet been able to surpass the methods of the ancient Athenian agora.
True learning can happen on papyrus just as well as it can happen on iPads. The skills we really need our students to learn (reading, writing, reasoning and creativity) don’t require Wi-Fi.
Google may give you access to thousands of sources, but it can’t help you evaluate an argument or assess evidence. It can never teach you to think.
Throwing money at schools to spend on a bunch of fancy gadgets may salve our consciences, but it is a betrayal of our nation’s children. They deserve better.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.


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