Matt Richtel’s panoramic essay, “In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores.” weighs in this morning on the topic of “Grading the Digital School.” I found myself cheering and jeering alternately throughout this piece. Why? Because it so quickly confuses “standards” with “standardized test scores” and technology put into classrooms with “preparing kids for a digital future (actually, the digital present: it’s here, it’s now, like it or not). These confusions are so pervasive in our culture and so urgent that I want to take a moment to focus on them. The essay is well worth reading and you can find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/technology/technology-in-schools-faces…
The article begins with a description of an inventive, imaginative, engaging assignment by seventh-grade teacher Amy Furman who teaches her kids “As You Like It” with all manner not just of technology but of interactivity. The kids are co-creating, they are sharing blogs, and Facebook entries, and finding information on the Internet that applies to interpreting Shakespeare; they are understanding together, they are making connections to their own contemporary culture (Kanye!), and they are doing exactly what seventh-grade kids should be doing for true learning to be happening: they are understanding a complex text and making sense of it within the context of their own lives. No parent wants more, no teacher does, than for kids to be able to not just “read” Shakespeare but to understand why his work still speaks urgently to the present, why it is worth taking the time to read all that odd English from another time. (“Odd” is kids’ talk: I call it exquisitely beautiful, but I’m an English teacher: for a child to realize it is beautiful is what every English teacher hopes for).
So what’s the problem? All this knowledge, all this understanding, even some technology too But American test scores are stagnant. CRISIS! Here’s what Richtel writes: “To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”
Oh, no, no. First, Amy Furman could have come up with the same fantastically creative and interactive technology without the Internet. That might have saved some bucks. But it would have done nothing to help kids understand not just Shakespeare but the implications of their own lives on line. Because they can use technology easily, doesn’t mean they understand it. And that’s a problem. The whole point of living in a “Broadcast Yourself” era is any one of those blogs or Facebook quips can go out into the world instantly. We are not responsible as educators unless we are teaching not just with technology but through it, about it, because of it. We need to make kids understand its power, its potential, its dangers, its use. That isn’t just an investment worth making but one that it would be irresponsible to avoid.
Keep in mind public, compulsory school was invented in the 19th century because of the industrial age which needed a certain kind of focused worker who understood the new divisions of labor. Keep in mind one product of the industrial age was the steam-powered press and machine made paper and ink that put books into the hands of the middle class for the first time in history. Pundits worried that people wouldn’t know how to read those books wisely and well. No preacher mediated the message. But schools could do just that. If our forefathers mandated school for the first generation of mass readers, why wouldn’t we mandate that schools today address the technology that is int he hands of our students today? Wouldn’t that be utterly irresponsible?
What Ms. Furman is doing is exactly right. She is investing in the future of our kids. She is investing in helping them to be responsible citizens of a world that is digital and that has an awful lot of irresponsible citizens. She is teaching a classic and teaching the world of today in which that classic lives and breathes. I applaud her. And those test scores? How can A, B, C, and D multiple choice end-of-grade testing possibly comprehend the complexity and importance of what Ms. Furman is doing in her classroom.
Those tests can’t really. They too were invented for the industrial age, and for a model of efficiency exemplified by the Model T. We cannot keep educating kids for the efficiencies of 1914 (when the multiple choice test was invented). We must, if we are responsible, educate them for the world they already inhabit in their play and will soon inhabit in their work. The tests we require do not begin to comprehend the lives our kids lead. A great teacher has to come up with a workaround, finding creative and challenging ways to teach despite being saddled with the testing apparatus invented for the immigrants coming into America during World War I. [For a fuller discussion of standardized testing, read this excerpt from Now You See It: http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2011/09/02/where-did-standardized-testing-come-anyway}
It is not the test scores that are stagnant. It is the tests themselves. We need a better, more interactive, more comprehensive, and accurate way of testing how kids think, how they learn, how they create, how the browse the Web and find knowledge, how they synthesize it and apply it to the world they live in. As long as we measure great teaching such as Ms. Furman’s by a metric invented for our great grandparents, we give kids not just the limited options of A, B, C, and D in a world where they can Google anything, anytime. Worse, we are telling them that, in the world of the future, the skills they need, they will have to learn on their own. For, after all, they are not on the test.
To my mind, that is not an option. It is a system failure for our current educational system and the way we measure.
At the same time, the issue Richtel raises about costs and investments is exactly the right one. I am highly suspicious of just dumping expensive technology into the classroom. If the motive is profit, not learning, it is bilking not just taxpayers of dollars but our students of real learning. Technology does not teach. You have to teach the world in which students live, and that includes a world of technology. But there are inexpensive ways based in sound pedagogy of doing that. I am as suspicious of dumping high-priced technology into classrooms as I am of spending hundreds of millions each year on the grading, preparing, creating, and prep-school cramming for the current end of grade multiple choice tests. The industrial-educational complex is to be regarded, always, with great suspicion. And “technodeterminism” (thinking of technology as an answer instead of a tool) is just as dubious as “test-determinism”: thinking a test score reveals real learning). And just as costly.
No school should invest in technology without investing in substantial, dedicated retraining of its workforce—which is to say its teachers. If IBM pays the equivalent of $1700 per employee per year to help them keep abreast of new technology, new methods, new tools, shouldn’t we be investing that kind of funding in supporting the professional development of our teachers who are training the next generation of IBM workers? To dump technology without supporting the teachers who are responsible for teaching with that technology is a terrible disservice and an insult to teachers and to our kids.
The point I am making in response to this very long and often exceptionally thoughtful essay by Richtel is that the issue of “technology” is inseparable from all the ways we think, communicate, and interact today. Of course we need to teach kids how to be successful in their world. That also means not “teaching to the test” but working with teachers to teach this technology in the best ways possible. In studying how to do this in the course of my research for Now You See It, some of the most brilliant and inspiring teaching I observed prepared students for technology with things like scissors, construction paper, popsicle sticks. It taught them to think structurally and interactively, not just to Google the right answer. That’s the deal. We are wasting our money and the time our kids spend in school if we just throw a bunch of technology into the classroom without helping them to understand that technology. As Steve Jobs likes to say “technology itself is not enough.”