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Here we go again

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The iPad has arrived and with it the usual claims about the transformation of everything education. I saw that the TLT group here on campus has taken up the issue in the form of a post at Geek Dad. What disappoints me about all this is that it is so predictable and so seemingly ignorant of past prognostications of this type. People have been saying that technology will transform "everything" about teaching and schools since there have been schools. One of my favorites:

"[This technology] appealed at once to the eye and to the ear, thus naturally forming the habit of attention, which is so difficult to form by the study of books...Whenever a pupil does not fully understand, [it] will have the opportunity...of enlarging and making intelligible."

This was said about the chalkboard in 1855. 

My point is that if we want to change schools the place to start is with the teaching. Technology is an amplifier. There is plenty of evidence that technology in the hands of teachers with outmoded pedagogical practices just gives us more and faster outmoded practice. We need to start with a conversation about how to change teaching and then see how technology can support the transformation. I know it sounds obvious, and yet there are so few examples of it happening out there. We are willing to spend huge sums of money to put technology into our classrooms, but are not willing to put more than a pittance in to supporting the teachers in reconsidering how they teach. We are spending money to amplify what is already wrong with schools. It makes me feel like I am watching This is Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel explains the special volume on his custom amps:

"Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where? ...Eleven. Exactly. One louder."

If we don't change the way we think about teaching with technology the iPad in schools will just be one louder.
Another article in The Economist got me thinking this week. Seems the UK is finding that its young students are not reading as much as they used to. This is not really big news and is an international trend. What was interesting was that in "1997 the government introduced a national literacy strategy" to address this problem. The "rigidly-structured daily one-hour lesson" seems to have actually turned kids off of books (do tell). Students asked why it was good to be able to read answered that it would help them do better on tests, not that reading was enjoyable. This seems to me to be exactly where we are headed with the emphasis in NCLB on standardized testing in reading and math (and soon science, which makes me most nervous). Programs emphasizing mechanics will drain critical literacy skills of inherent richness and leave students even further behind and even less interested in school. I can think of nothing more likely to reduce enjoyment of reading than turning it into a highly-structured mechanical activity.  Is the goal of education to create good factory line workers (a job that is increasingly disspearing), or to produce people with intellectual curiosity and deep love of learning?  Obvious answer, but do we really think that creating highly structured (read as teacher proof) curricula is a way to help people learn?  Seems so, as long as the measure of learning is how well you do on a standardized exam -- and hey, there are lots of those in life, so at least we are preparing them for that.

Ironic Children

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This is not a profound one, but one of those stories you just want to remember. My daughters and two of their friends were up in the playroom playing their current favorite game, school. While they were doing this they were blasting the radio tuned to a classic rock station that happened to be playing Pink Floyd's "The Wall". Playing school to "we don't need no education", does it get any better than that?

100% proficiency

In their column for the NYT magazine Freakonomics, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt discussed the problem of getting doctors to wash their hands in the hospital. For me there are clear parallels between this phenomenon and NCLB (No Child Left Behind). Doctors were given free Purell hand sanitizer as they pulled into the parking lot, they were "caught" being good (i.e. washing their hands before examining a patient) and given $10 Starbucks giftcards. All this led to an increase from 65% to 80% proficiency in hand washing. Finally, they cultured the doctors hands and then made a screen saver for every computer in the hospital with a picture of the massive bacterial colonies that resulted. This brought proficiency up to 100% (they claim) and it has stayed at that level since. Dubner and Levitt then point out how the solution to a seemingly simple problem (getting doctors to wash their hand before examining a patient) is often incredibly difficult and time consuming. So, what has this to do with education and NCLB? Well, for me it brings out the massive underestimation of the complexity of learning and teaching on the part of almost everyone. This is exemplified in NCLB, which asks for 100% proficiency among students and proposes punitive measures based on standardized test scores as the motivation. If we compare the complexity of getting all american school children to 100% proficiency to getting doctors to wash their hands, it seems pretty obvious the differences in complexity. Yet, with the doctors all the cohersion (both rewards and punishments) could only get them to 80%. Do we really think that we can legislate a solution to the problem of schools failing to prepare our children? If there are kindergarten classrooms with 35+ students taught by someone with emergency certification (i.e. no preparation to teach), what is a realistic level of proficiency for those students? I don't know what the equivilent of the dirty hand as screen saver is for our educational system, but NCLB is not it.

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