The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If we are on a path of getting nowhere fast, technology is allowing us to get nowhere faster and faster.".... ....John Renesch.

Commentary of the Day - February 26, 2007: The Land of iPods and Honey.  Guest Commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

It's a critical moment for American education.  The Democrats are taking their turn banging the gavels in Congress, No Child Left Behind, the President’s landmark testing fiasco, is up for renewal, and it's the twenty-first century.  Of course, it's been the twenty-first century for seven years now, and in education circles it was almost the twenty-first century for at least the last two decades of the twentieth, but when you're hyping education reform, it's always a good tactic to remind everybody what time it is.

Call in the next ten minutes, and we'll double your order.

Don't misunderstand.  American schools definitely have problems.  So, for that matter, does the Republic in general.  Between Iraq, the federal deficit, the atmosphere, and General Motors, we've got a rash of troubles.  Fortunately, we've also got the solution.  All we have to do is download everything onto iPods.

I know this would help because education experts say downloading things onto iPods would save our schools, and as every politician will tell you, unless he's a Democrat addressing an NEA convention, hardly anything is as messed up as our schools, except maybe Iraq, the federal deficit, the atmosphere, and General Motors.

Not long ago a Washington Post report suggested that schools "reimagine" iPods as "learning tools" instead of as easily concealed devices that enable kids to secretly listen to tunes during algebra class.  According to boosters, these marvels of modern technology miraculously empower students to "go over material outside the classroom anytime they want," as opposed to books that apparently specify definite times and places where they can be read.  Kids can also "go through the information at their own pace" by "slowing down the replay as they study," a feat never before possible, unless you count reading a page slowly a few times until you understand it.  Of course, as one quoted student observed, information is "a lot better to listen to than to read," a less than encouraging testimonial if you're concerned about the future of literacy.

This past fall the Federation of American Scientists offered its prescription for meeting the "urgent need to improve workforce skills and our system of education."  They've launched a campaign calling on schools to start using video games.  Video games purportedly "teach skills employers want," like "analytical thinking, team building, multitasking, and problem solving under duress."

It's a good thing we had video games during the Renaissance and the D-Day invasion, or neither would've happened.

Can we please stop using big words to dress up commonplace activities.  Multitasking means doing more than one thing at a time.  Most humans have been managing that trick since long before video games.  Besides, when it comes to desirable skills, employers even more want employees who can read, write, and work with numbers.  American kids aren't in trouble because they’ve mastered old twentieth century skills and knowledge that no longer apply in the new twenty-first century.  They're in trouble because too few have mastered the age-old skills and knowledge that have mattered throughout the centuries.

Electronic books are riding the cutting edge, too.  These downloadable texts require laptops for every student.  According to a Dallas Morning News profile, students prefer e-books because they’re "a lot lighter" than regular books.  In addition, you can access an e-book "with a click of the mouse" -- once your computer’s booted and online -- instead of having to go to all the trouble of opening a book cover.  E-books also make it "easier to flip from page to page."

I had no idea that turning paper pages presented such an obstacle to learning, or that scrolling through hundreds of video pages was such a treat for the eyes.

Even in the twenty-first century ten-year-olds need to learn many things more important than how to make PowerPoint presentations.  It's alarming when teachers gush that "it's that kind of experience that makes e-books so exciting."  What’s supposed to make books exciting is what's in them, not the tricks you can play with the video portion of the program.  Possessing knowledge is more important than pushing the right buttons.  Instead of effusing over how your student clicked the mouse, ask him to explain what he learned, with words.  Have him write the words down.  When he can do all that clearly and cogently, then tell me how excited you are.

If I claimed that the secret to learning the times tables was putting them on pieces of cardboard, and that having the same number facts flash on a video screen wouldn't work, you'd say I was out of my mind.  That's because the point is the math, not the particular flat surface the math is written on.  Computers can be useful tools, but displaying numbers and letters on a computer monitor can't cure our scholastic decline.

Having kids email each other won't magically teach all the writing skills they haven’t learned with a pen.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution profiled an email-boosting teacher who preaches that writing instruction is too "old-fashioned."  Maybe that's because writing itself is old-fashioned.  Capital letters are capital letters, and sentences are sentences, whether they're on paper or a laptop screen.  Either you know how to use them or you don't.  And if you don't, you don't know how to write.

In the content area, NEAToday spotlighted an "a-ha moment" for an Internet-equipped social studies class investigating the Middle Ages via "live video from the site of the Battle of Hastings."  The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, so unless King Harold and William the Conqueror came back from the dead for the website, I'm not sure how this "a-ha moment" of an empty hill trumps the "a-ha moment" you can get from watching a home movie.  Besides, I try to make history come alive for my students, too, but learning history isn't mostly about "a-ha moments."  It's about laboring through a lot of information and ideas that are often less than magical.

Therein lies the real trouble.  Learning is labor.  We're selling the fantasy that technology can change that.

It can’t.  No technology ever has.

Gutenberg’s press only made it easier to print books, not easier to read and understand them.

2007 Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  Poor Elijah is right about one thing, those who have touted technology as the panacea that will cure all the ills in our education systems have been found to be wrong time after time.  At the same time, technological advances continue at a dizzying pace.  Educators risk irrelevance if they cannot adapt to the cultural changes that are driven by the ubiquitous infiltration of new technologies at all levels of society.  The invention of moveable type made the printed word available to the masses.  With that invention came both opportunity and challenge.  The ideas of the most gifted thinkers suddenly became widely available.  However, they then were in competition with much more mundane musings.  The task of the educator was to help people recognize and distinguish important ideas from the trivial.  Today, it is no different.  It matters little to the IP if a student reads a good book or if he or she reads the same material on a computer or e-book.  Likewise, it matters little to the IP if the student writes well with pencil and paper or with a computer, provided he or she learns to write well.

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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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