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03 June 2012

Gratuitous Repost: Give me 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.

This is another gratuitous repost of yet another one of the posts I put up during my recent spell of blogging over at Joanne's most excellent blog. This piece was called "Give me 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt". Only minor edits have been made, primarily to the penultimate paragraph.

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I was reading this earlier today…
Two schools in the Washington DC area are taking a completely opposite approach to technology in the classroom. One, the Flint Hill School in Oakton, has classrooms filled with latest electronics, and equips all its students with Macbook Air laptops. In the other, the Washington Waldorf School, classrooms look about the same they might have looked at the turn of last century, where pens, notebooks, and a chalk-wielding teacher in front of a blackboard still play the starring roles.
…and it got me to want to blog.  Not about the little article, really, but about the subject of educational technology in general.

My purpose in writing this post isn’t to valorize one model over the other (though I have a marked personal preference for the Washington Waldorf model).  I’m sure that both schools are scrumdidiliumptiously wonderful places for students to learn.  What I want to try to articulate is a series of thoughts about the role of technology in education.  This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit in the last year or so… enough that I feel like taking a stab at setting down some thoughts in writing, anyway.

First, the obvious.  People really like to talk about technology in education.   Just look at the journals:  Technological Horizons in EducationJournal of Educational Technology and Society, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, etc. etc..  Educational Technology Review.  Etc. etc. etc.  When’s the next conference on Educational Technology?  EDUCAUSE is going on right now.   ISTE is next month, as is ICEITGaETC is in November.

Technological fluency (or at least passing a class in educational technology, which isn’t the same thing) is a requirement for most teacher certification programs — as if to say that a teacher cannot be competent at his or her job unless he or she knows Glogster from Twitter, a PDF from an e-Book, Voicethread from Prezi, or a BBS from a Blog.

And let us be frank: if education is to prepare a student for living a flourishing life within his or her society, then that education should probably include — inter alia — the development of an understanding of and an appreciation for the technology that helps create and maintain the society’s infrastructure and economic success.

Yet I have heard, on multiple occasions, people offering lavish praise to their best teachers in something of the following form:
“The best class I can imagine is a log with Mr. (insert name) on one end, and me on the other.”
I haven’t just heard this once or twice… I’ve heard it almost verbatim well over half a dozen times from different people about different teachers at different levels of education.  It’s a lovely thought, and one of the things that is most lovely about it is that the focus in such an imagined scenario is exactly where it should be: on the interaction between the teacher’s mind and the student’s mind.

Teachers are not a necessary part of all education; much can be accomplished in isolation (although even reading a book is a sort of conversation with the author).  But teachers are (or can be) valuable, and to the extent that they have a role to play in learning, it’s an inherently interpersonal one.  I’m not saying you have to like your students, or care for them; you don’t.  (I generally do, but one need not.)  Nor am I saying you need to be empathic and give them hugs.  But you do need to acknowledge them as people, and create a conversation of learning if you want to be a successful teacher of anything.

Technology can make this task much easier in a lot of different ways.  A chalkboard allows a teacher to schematize his or her thoughts on the fly, to put an idea up where it persists long after the echo of his or her voice has faded into the classroom carpet.  A video projector allows the teacher to, with a little planning, instantly display complicated graphs, maps, movies, and important points in much the same way.  Grading software frees up teacher time to focus on teaching.  Turnitin.com allows the policing of academic integrity in a quick, relatively painless way and also gives the teacher insight into some of the writing process.  Clickers can get you instantaneous classroom response that isn’t colored by the social pressure that goes along with shows of hands.

But a classroom without clickers, or without a smartboard, isn’t going to be inherently inferior to one loaded with all the latest gadgets, because it’s not the gadgets that do the teaching: it’s the teacher.  And the teacher should use whatever technology he or she thinks will improve what he or she is up to vis-a-vis the students — no more, and no less.  Whether a piece of technology will be useful and fruitful is primarily a question of how a particular bit of technology relates to that teacher’s methods, personality, and style.

This is the big problem with technology mandates (e.g., “All teachers will use software platform X in their classes…”): not all technology “fits” every teacher’s individual style.  All too often, technology is treated a lot like curriculum is: as a way to standardize teaching and education to such a degree that the teacher becomes just a generic component of some set of committee-approved best practices.

I would love to listen to a lecture by Aristotle, or Avicenna, or Anselm, or even Neitzsche.  But it would be stupid for me to require that they use Powerpoint. (Though I doubt any of them would have trouble picking it up if they thought it would help.)

I worry about the razzle-dazzle of technology when it comes to teaching; I worry about it a lot.  I worry that it gets used for the sake of using it, and not to make things better: a sort of fetishistic totem, the product of a cargo-cult mentality.  I worry that students learn to become dependent on it in ways that undermines their ability to develop the very capacities that  teachers are charged with cultivating.   There is understanding to be had in doing things the old fashioned way, understanding that cannot be obtained if we allow our capacities to atrophy from disuse.  Technology can be an amplifier of our capacities, or a substitute.  I prefer the former.

Teenagers are consistently impressed by the fact that, given a minute or so, I can multiply two three-digit numbers together in my head without using pen and paper.  They think it’s a sort of magic.  This is not an impressive skill, but rather a very basic one that one gets after doing enough pen-and-paper-algorithms.Seeing the structure of the algorithm a thousand times lets you start to understand exactly why it works.  And once you understand why it works, you don’t need to use the mechanical algorithm any more.  You can just break it down in your head. But it’s not something you develop if you have used calculators all your life.  (Some of my critics have said that not everyone would acquire this skill after the same amount of practice, and that I'm being unfair in thinking of myself as a good example; there may be some truth to this.  But even if the effect is less dramatic for other people, I feel certain there would be an effect.) 

I worry that students are allowed to use technological tools to produce elaborate projects that shine and impress, but which have extraordinary little substantive content in them.  Students are often charged with things like creating powerpoint presentations, with huge chunks of the grade depending on the use of pictures, sounds, and video.  (Here’s an example of a rubric that gives 6 our of 27 points for aesthetic design, and here’s one that gives 50%.)

I worry that living in a digital world is, at base, incompatible with living in a world of medium-sized physical objects, and that we’re elevating a pseudo-Cartesian view of the self as a disembodied intellect to a station that far exceeds its warrant.  We might be thinking things, but that’s certainly not all we are.

I saw one of my students writing a paper out by hand once.  Without ever having seen anything she had produced, I knew that her writing would be better than average, though that probably has a lot to do with the student population I work with at UCLA.   You have to think more about what you’re writing when you’re putting ink on a page than you do when every mistake is just a backspace or an update from oblivion; and if you're handwriting, you're actually writing and not simply cutting and pasting from Wikipedia (which in some situations is enough to make the paper above average all by itself). 

I like technology.  I have lots of ideas (most of them none-to-original) on how to use technology in teaching.  But when I hear education professionals talk about it, when it becomes a matter of best practices, policy, professional development, and all that other institutional claptrap, more often than not I yearn for what seems to me at times to be the perfect classroom: a handful of students, 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.

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