Almost two weeks ago now, I wrote about a dangerous trend in thinking about our schools and what can transpire inside of classrooms. This thinking is seen from educational policy wonks to researchers to educational leaders to educational technologists. There’s this crazy belief that education can happen magically with the help of computers and that most learning can occur when student, properly motivated, seek out their own learning. I’m motivated today to write further about this after reading Pamela Paul’s March 17th dispatch in the New York Times entitled “Reading, Writing and Video Games.”
The central question of Paul’s writing, “Do children need videos, dancing farm animals and digital gadgetry to learn?” is answered at the conclusion of her piece: “Let children play games that are not educational in their free time…Then, once they’re in the classroom, they can challenge themselves. Deliberate practice of less-than-exhilarating rote work isn’t necessarily fun but they need to get used to it—and learn to derive from it meaningful reward, a pleasure far greater than the record high score.”
Paul reminds us that games and fun often have their place, but perhaps the classroom isn’t it. Like Paul, I agree. One slippery slope we might imagine is classrooms filled with Wii consoles and students playing first person shooters blasting their way through sentence fragments, misspelled words and dangling modifiers. Sounds like fun, no? Maybe we could Dance Dance Revolution through our times tables.
In my time as an educator from the late 1990s, the perception that learning and education must be fun has blossomed full into a giant canker for us to deal with as teachers. When we think that learning must be fun, we devalue teachers as educators developing critical and civic intellectual capacities and make them more carnival hucksters and Las Vegas dancers. The true stuff of learning is often difficult. There are skills and concepts that are tough to master, and at the same time, important. In English, writing is a central skill. It’s hard to do, hard to teach, and hard to master. But, in every profession, necessary. In History, concepts of the Enlightenment may feel abstract, and yet, they are fundamental to our society and the rule of law by which we live. In math…In science…are examples from each discipline necessary to see the point?
There are studies that look at teacher believe that students are less focused and that new technologies have been a contributing factor. However, I remember some of what I was like as a high school student. I don’t remember being very focused, but I do remember my teachers calling me out for it. I also remember spending a lot of time listening to my yellow, SONY sport Walkman blasting REM, U2, and The Cure through those tiny ear buds. I also remember my teachers saying those Walkmen would be the death of civilization. I think I turned out okay. We need to be careful of such research based in teacher perception.
There’s a different slippery slope that we’re on that’s far more concerning that I’d like to take a moment to bring to light. Some of you may say, Keith, your argument is a slippery slope; however, just because it is doesn’t mean that we’re not sliding.
Educational publishers, educational technology companies and computer salespeople love the argument that education needs to be driven by entertainment and fun. It fuels their sales pitch—that their products will keep students entertained and learning. In New York state, modules are being developed K-12 to provide districts with packaged content that meets Common Core. Nervous administrators, district-level Boards of Education under public pressure, and wrote teachers love this stuff. Everyone gets to say that they’re meeting new standards. Happy? You betcha! In one way, all of these new educational materials seem to be the latest, cutting-edge trends. It’s hard not to see the cool factor in digital technologies in the classroom, and to feel comforted by prepackaged materials from a state education department.
However, don’t drink your Kool-Aid just yet! Anyone would be a fool to think that you could take something prepackaged and just shove it at kids and have it work. Those modules will need to be set to classrooms. They’ll need to be style and adjustment to them to have them work for the personalities in the room.
Put together, all this stuff is the white elephant stuffed with explosives. The danger in itself is educational software, prepackaged units and modules, schools in the clouds, lessons all as videos on demand. Where are the teachers? We don’t need them. Or, really, we need fewer teachers. Who needs experienced teachers when students can access this material with an iPad app? When we have prepackaged modules that lay out objectives, lesson plans and worksheets, why do you need teachers to create that stuff. You only need people to deliver. What we’ll need is teacher aids monitoring students on computers or tablets or sitting in front of video displays. We’ll need aids that can photocopy worksheets and give them to kids. Then, we’ll need a licensed teacher monitoring a half-dozen teacher aids. What a budget-saving boon to districts, to society not having to pay for pensions. If we continue to believe that learning must be fun, that technology is the answer, we’ll continue down this slope I’m talking about.
Common Core and the teacher rubrics adopted in my district offer an opportunity to take our teaching to a new level. This needs to fall somewhere between repurposing the old just for the sake of meeting new standards, adopting what educational publishers push at middling administrators, and throwing all of what we’ve done in the past out to arrive at some new evolution.