Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Teaching to Technology: Good for the Students?

We live in a culture infatuated with technology. Last week, it seemed that more people cared about Steve Jobs' launch of the iPad than President Obama's State of the Union address. Truth be told, the iPad is certainly more exciting and garners more interest, but therein lies the problem: do people really think that a new tablet computer is more important than the future of the United States moving forward? Or is it just more entertaining and interesting?
I ask this after reading an article in which Israel's Minister of Education declared that,
The school system is not keeping up with breakthroughs in technology, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar said on Tuesday.He argued that schools must adopt new teaching practices for the 21st century. “Nowadays, graduates of the school system live in a completely different world than the one we grew up in,” Sa’ar said, adding that we must make sure to teach them “21st-century skills.”
He then called for more money for Israel's education system, which is of course legitimate and in my mind correct. (What do you cut? Not sure - but that's not Saar's problem.) But the infatuation with technology makes me wonder: what do we want our children learning in school? How does he want technology to enter the classroom? In the frenzy to digitize our classrooms, maybe we need to take a step back and ask: Are the computers really teaching our children anything? An example:
My son (seventh grade) was assigned a project on England. In the "old days", I would have had to write a report, which would include a trip to the library, reading old encyclopedias, a book or two, some magazine microfiche. (Remember scrolling through old newspapers in the library? Ah, those were the days!) But at some point, I'd have to combine those three sources together into a coherent "report" while avoiding blatant plagiarism. Wasn't easy. Took a little bit of thinking, learning research skills, some organizational work, and a tad of effort in the writing. Boy, I hated those reports. My son's project was to put together a Power Point presentation. I must say, he's an absolute whiz at Power Point. It was a great-looking presentation. He knows Power Point better than I do. But he spent far more time with the "look and feel" of the report - getting the transitions right, downloading pictures, inserting the music for the English National anthem - than he did researching or writing. I'm not blaming him at all. He completed the assignment. But did he learn anything about organizing his thoughts, researching (now reduced to a Google search), thinking or organizing? Or was he so distracted by the "bells and whistles" that he learned a lot about Power Point, but little about England, and almost no greater thinking skills at all? The article continues,
Gila Ben-Hor, general secretary of the Center for Educational technology, called on the state to implement educational reform policies to prepare pupils for the changing demands wrought by advances in technology, and to ensure that they can compete with students from elsewhere in the developed world.
Ben-Hor presented figures from a poll compiled by the Center for Educational Technology in January 2010 that found 52% of Israeli students think that schools are not preparing them for the future, and that 82% would prefer a curriculum in which they are required to carry a laptop to class in lieu of textbooks. Students also said that schools should provide laptops to all teachers and students, with wireless Internet access and completely digital classrooms.
Really? What, pray tell, do we think these students will be doing with their laptops in the classroom? Researching mathematical formulas? Writing term papers? Or will they be doing what most college students do during lectures: surf the web, IM their friends, and check Facebook. From what I've seen thus far, it seems to me that school tech serves more as a distraction than a boon to learning.
Yes, we have reached the 21st Century. The iPad might be an amazing device. But Israel won't have the educated population it need to create the next iPad unless it leaves the iPads out of the classroom and the students learn in the best possible way: by teaching critical thinking skills, developing intellectual curiosity, and forcing our children to learn core material instead of exciting digital bells and whistles.
And the ideal way to do that is still by sticking to books.