"For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three." ....Alice Kahn.

Commentary of the Day - October 9, 2012: The General Must Be Destroyed.  Guest commentary by Edward Carney.

There was a recent study about teenage internet usage which marketed itself to the press with the claim that "teens don't use Twitter."  The headline is heartening, but the context is tragic.  In my naivety, I hoped that the finding meant that teenagers' attention spans are longer than a 140-character limit can satisfy, or that they had transcended interest in such trivial distractions as it provides.  Apparently, the reality is quite the opposite.  The study's authors suggest that teens generally don't possess or use Twitter accounts because the micro-blogging site has come to be defined as a news aggregator, and teens by and large aren't interested in reading news.

This certainly says terrible things about the current teenage population, but they are terrible things that could be instructive to education policymakers.  That teens are avoiding Twitter because of its instructional potential seems to fly in the face of the assumption that modern technology makes kids more engaged with their learning.  I see evidence of that assumption in a variety of stories, such as those about schools spending resources to equip their libraries with lendable e-readers, or about the growing advocacy for "blended learning," which splits students' time between brick-and-mortar classrooms and self-directed online education.

Western New York's Williamsville Central school district inaugurated a program this past year to provide downloadable content in its school libraries, each of which acquired two Nook e-readers to lend to students, with plans for adding more, budget permitting.  Karen Greco, instructional specialist for libraries in the district, said that school librarians in the 21st century "need to give our tech-savvy students the books they need in the formats they want."

No, they don't.  School librarians have to provide their students with the books they need.  That's it.  The format is irrelevant unless you believe that there's some inherent quality to young students' minds that makes words displayed on an electronic screen more appealing to them than words printed on paper.  If school librarians find that children aren't reading, it takes a fairly significant leap in logic to conclude that the reason is that even though they would be interested in the literature, they just can't abide the antiquated way in which it's being delivered to them.

Attempting to increase interest in a book by changing its format is rather like attempting to get a child to eat his vegetables by changing the plate on which it's served.  It may succeed in tricking a few children into trying it, but overall it is not a sensible strategy and it doesn't address the actual problem.  That is what frustrates me so much about these assumptions about the power of technology to turn children into more attentive learners.  It seems to be part of a larger effort to pursue shortcuts to effective teaching, to encourage educators to bend down towards children’s impulses rather than raising the children up to meet the teacher.

You can't trick a child into loving learning.  You have to show him why he should care, and demonstrate how it can improve his life and the world that he will have to live in for decades to come.  You can't expect him to closely engage with his learning because you've made the vessels for it shinier, with more modern accoutrements.  Getting somebody to glance at something is different from getting him to actually pay attention to it.

But the failure to make that distinction has been around longer than the red herring of advancing high-tech education.  It seems to rear its head as a rebuttal to each wave of criticism against the latest insipid work of literature to hit the best seller list.  It takes the form of comments along the lines of, "Hey, as long as it’s getting kids interested in reading," as if reading Stefanie Meyer or Dan Brown is the equivalent of reading Shakespeare or John Locke.  What such rebuttals seem to miss is that the value of reading is not derived from simply moving one's eyes across a printed page; it comes of the author encouraging you to think critically, to deepen your imagination, or to parse verbal aesthetics.

When did we lose sight of this in favor of the goal of getting kids to just obediently go through the motions?  Amidst that effort, many policymakers and educators have seemingly embraced the idea that it doesn't matter what students are reading, while it does matter in what format they’re reading it.  Make the content simpler and the device that presents it more complex and children will come around to paying attention, as an incidental consequence of their social instincts.  But tricking kids into doing things that look like the processes of learning is not the same thing as actually improving their education.

Recently, I re-watched my second favorite episode of my single favorite television series, 1967’s The Prisoner.  That episode, titled "The General," took on the topic of education, and persons familiar with the show may understand why the phrase "the General must be destroyed," became something of a mantra for me in my dealing with education and educational policy.

In that episode, the Village, where resignation to imprisonment wins every resident near-perfect comfort, the powers that be use their prisoners to test a new method of education called "Speed Learn."  It entails watching television for a few minutes at a time and having a series of detailed trivial facts about the course of study subliminally implanted in each subject’s mind.  Nearly fifty years later, the concept may still be far-fetched, but it raises a question that is certainly relevant now:  If such a thing existed, would we use it to instruct our students?  I suspect that we would, because I think that our primary educational goal is the same as the one advertised on the posters for Speed Learn:  "One hundred percent enroll.  One hundred percent pass."

On my most recent viewing of the episode, I felt a particular kinship with the protagonist's ally, Number Twelve, who in one scene watches the participants of Speed Learn, in the midst of a raucous party, being interviewed by a Village reporter who asks each of them identical questions and receives identical answers.  They are all perfectly excited about being able to answer correctly, but none of them particularly cares about actually understanding what they’re saying.  The derisive but pitying look on Number Twelve's face must have been like an expression I often wore during college, when so many people were eager to absorb and regurgitate enough to pass their courses, yet didn't demonstrate much interest in the actual quality of their education.

If the solitary goal of schooling is to compel students to pass the test, then over time we may be able to leverage technology to lead them in that direction, like a piece of bait.  But if the goal is any more ambitious than that, then the policymakers who expect technology to work miracles may find that students respond to it the same way they did to Twitter.  That is, no matter how trendy the delivery method is, when it tries to give them something they aren't interested in, they look for the "off" button.

© 2012, Edward Carney.
Edward Carney is a freelance writer who lives in Buffalo, NY.  He holds a degree in philosophy from New York University, and he publishes the Breaking Point Blog.

The Irascible Professor comments: Edward makes some excellent points.  And, the IP agrees completely with him that there is no technological magic bullet that is going to make students think more logically or learn more effectively in general.  Though, some students may find that the convenience of certain technologies may make them a bit more likely to read or to study.

The IP seldom reads books or newspapers in print any more.  He just finds that reading them on the computer ot the Kindle is more convenient.  So, he has no problem with libraries making books available for electronic delivery.  That's just keeping up with the times.  But he also agrees that a student who almost never reads books in print, isn't going to be much more likely to read them on an e-reader.  At the same time, many students may prefer to add a lightweight e-reader to their backpack than several more conventional books from the library.

The IP also found the comment about Twitter a bit odd.  After all, Justin Bieber has more than 28 million Twitter "followers," the majority of whom probably are in their teens.  So, plenty of teenagers use Twitter to follow their favorite celebrities, even if they don't send their own "tweets" that often.  And, they certainly seem to have their thumbs permanently attached to their cell phones sending text messages that have the same character count restrictions as tweets to their friends.  The IP thinks that texting actually impedes learning; because, students no longer think in complete sentences, nor do they see the necessity to express ideas in depth.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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