"I've always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do." ....Steve Jobs.

Commentary of the Day - November 13, 2011: Zombie Education. Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

I'm not crazy about technology.

I chose the word "crazy" on purpose. That's because many technology boosters say that people who resist the onslaught of silicon gadgets are motivated by fear. They call me a "technophobe," and phobias are a form of neurosis.

I don't accept their diagnosis. Questioning, criticizing, or rejecting something -- in short, not liking it -- isn't the same as being afraid of it. I'm afraid of drunk drivers and riptides, but I'm indifferent to most motorists and fond of the ocean. I don't assume that everyone who vacations in the mountains is afraid of salt water. I do think, however, that anyone who went surfing during Hurricane Irene is a little nuts, or at least stupid. Crazy does exist.

While I doubt we all need to be in constant radio contact with each other, and I'm concerned at how much time we spend staring at liquid crystals instead of at real people, and I consider facebook an exercise in narcissism that's grievously corrupted the word "friend," I don't think every teacher who uses a smartboard is secretly plotting to destroy the intellects of American children. Many are good teachers.

On the other hand there are those, in school and out, who worship a silicon calf. That idolatry does trouble me.

I take antibiotics, I drive a car, and I traded in my Smith-Corona decades ago. I simply recognize technology's limitations. Despite the relentless storm surge of hype, the latest version of every big new thing isn't a wonder drug. If I write more coherently than I did when I was in college, it's not because I changed keyboards.

Technology does do some things well; but, students, teachers, and administrators are typically so distracted by the "trending" gadgetry that learning often actually suffers. Consider the computer teacher, writing in an education journal, who lets students spend class time emailing each other instead of giving them specific assignments. While she concedes she has "little control over the content" of their messages, she's "happy" they're "so comfortable communicating electronically," as if adolescents who can text in their pockets need help getting comfortable. She seems unconcerned, even unaware, that she's traded her curriculum, and her purpose, for what we used to call passing notes in class.

Not every use of technology at school is as daft. But this teacher is writing in a professional journal. You'd be surprised at how many educators and experts would applaud her.

There's little doubt that my computer keyboard is superior to my old typewriter, but that doesnít justify teaching kindergarteners to type, anymore than the existence of hybrid cars justifies teaching five-year-olds to drive. Crayons and pencils need to come first. When typing becomes a practical necessity, that's when you introduce kids to a keyboard. Otherwise you wind up with children who can't write.

I'm even more troubled by the bankrupt ideology that commonly marches along with the machines. Standards promoted by the influential International Society for Technology in Education are typical of the zombie reform notions that, after forty years of failure, still haunt our schools.

ISTE proudly "partners with forward-thinking corporations who share our passion and commitment to education and education technology." Since those corporations include Adobe, Apple, Canon, Cisco, Epson, Intel, Oracle, Verizon, and Hewlett-Packard, it's not surprising that ISTE and its partners view education technology as a positive and profit-generating addition to as many classrooms as possible. This business connection helps explain ISTE's decree that teachers "incorporate digital tools and resources" in their classrooms and embrace a "vision of technology infusion," whatever that means.

But you can't blame the silicon world's corporate masters for ISTEís bad education ideas. Like most reform position papers, parts of ISTE's manifesto sound upbeat and benign. Who could object, for example, to "creative and innovative thinking" or students who learn to "communicate information and ideas effectively." It isnít until you translate the educationese that you can fully appreciate ISTE's classroom vision.

Linked, for instance, to ISTE's call for "creative thinking" is the imperative that students should "construct knowledge." Constructivism is the theory that students learn from their personal experience and therefore need to direct their own education, with teachers serving merely as "facilitators." Its offspring includes "student-centered learning," also championed by ISTE, where students "pursue their individual curiosities," "set their own educational goals, manage their own learning, and assess their own progress."

This folly has bred a host of unsound practices, from schools' current infatuation with student projects, to the touted middle school science program where science books are eliminated, teachers "get out of the way," and twelve-year-olds just "follow the science." This prevalent Information Age reform disdain for directly teaching kids information is in large measure why so many American students know so little about so much.

ISTE's standards incorporate the decades-old reform crusade to teach "critical thinking." Unfortunately, having campaigned for years against teaching kids knowledge, reformers have left most students with little or nothing to think critically about. You'll also find a prescription for "authentic" learning, code for a shrinking role for textbooks and the rise of allegedly real-world instruction and assessment like Vermontís "authentic" math portfolio program that replaced old-fashioned "two trains leave New York and Chicago" algebra problems with, "A community of gnomes in the magic forest is upset because their forest is being bulldozed for a shopping mallÖ"

When ISTE endorses teaching kids to communicate "using a variety of media and formats," it really means less writing and more cut-and-paste slideshows and PowerPoint presentations. Requiring students to "work collaboratively" in "teams" is code for a resuscitation of cooperative learning, where kids spend class time in groups without direct teacher supervision and interaction, and all too often kids get credit for work completed by someone else on their team.

In short, ISTE exalts our obsession with all things silicon, which has already left children increasingly unable to distinguish between friends and "friends" or focus for more than milliseconds on anything that doesn't glow or move, combines that mania with public education's forty-year disdain for fundamental skills and knowledge, and wraps it all in misleading, rose-colored rhetoric. Until we recognize the lethal flaws in campaigns like ISTE's to "advance educational excellence," the forty-year cure we've been force-feeding students and schools will only sicken them further.

© 2011, Peter Berger.
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Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with much of Poor Elijah's criticism of the use of technology in education. Indeed, there are many educators who are infatuated with technology and who find in it an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. In addition, the corporations that push the use of technology in educational settings often are more interested in their bottom lines than in what positive effect, if any, the new technology will have on learning. On the other hand, I don't agree with Poor Elijah that we have learned little or nothing about how students learn and about how to teach them effectively in the last 40 years. There is at least a germ of truth in the constructivist ideas put forth by Piaget. The problem is not with his philosophy, but rather with the extremes to which it has been taken by some of those who have developed new pedagogies. For example, the fact that children develop knowledge by their interactions with the world around them doesn't mean that they can discover every useful fact or idea by trial and error. And, in some cases, even very carefully constructed "guided discovery" activities lead the average student nowhere. In many cases, direct instruction is a necessity. For example, when discovery learning was all the rage one of my colleagues attempted to develop guided discovery laboratory exercises that would allow students in one of our introductory physics courses to "discover" Faraday's law of induction. This effort turned out to be a complete failure. Fewer than 5% of the students were able to arrive at Faraday's Law through their laboratory efforts. It simply was much too abstract a concept for the average student to grasp on his or her own. This was a case where direct instruction was needed to provide the student with a framework of knowledge. Within that framework, hands-on laboratory exercises helped to enhance understanding of the concept for many students. Good teaching requires knowing what mix of direct instruction, hands-on experience, and projects helps to elucidate a subject effectively. If one is teaching a skill, generally more hands-on work is needed. No one becomes a good automobile mechanic by attending lectures only. And, no one becomes good at mathematics simply by playing numbers games. Likewise, completing a few projects on isolated historical events is unlikely to give many students a comprehensive understanding of major historical eras. Technology, can be an aid in the learning process if it is used carefully. But, it does not replace good teaching.


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