Technology is Not Magic

Perhaps you read the story this week from the New York times about how technology in the classroom is not showing an improvement in test scores. It may surprise you (unless you know me) to find that I could have wrote that article years ago. Except I would have called it, "New Technology + Old Ways of Educating Lead to Lower Test Scores and Empty District Budgets."

Every day I hear about a new panacea for all that is wrong with education. Often this magic comes from a piece of software, website, or hardware. To hear the marketing departments of these companies talk, you would think you just put ________ into your classroom and everything will right itself.

If this were an infomercial we would all laugh at the hyperbole, but unfortunately thousands of districts flock to these vendors and fork over money like a gambler spending his family's food money. Early in my career, I was given a pink slip in order to shore up budgets. In that same year, millions of dollars were spent on adding interactive whiteboards, clickers, microphones, cameras, etc. I have seen or heard this too many times to feel like my situation was an anomaly.

These technologies are incredibly cool and powerful so why are we not seeing a bump in scores? My first reason that I will only mention briefly as I have spoken on it in the past is the growing disconnect between test scores and learning. There are so many issues and errors with the "system" used to assess learning that I would question every statement that begins or ends with "test scores show" or "led to an increase/decrease in test scores".

The oft cited Tony Wagner refers to the skills needed to close the global achievement gap (video).  If you don't have the time to read them, I can quickly summarize them by saying that they are not skills that can be tested by today's assessments.

Technology can be used for good and evil, it can give us superpowers or add convenience. This is one of the reasons why the Flintstones/Jetsons cartoons are so funny. In the Flintstons you see Fred in his foot pedaled car when he could far more easily walk or run. In the Jetsons, modern society remains exactly the same as it is but with technology (e.g. George walking the dog on a treadmill because for some reason they live in the sky). This is what we have done with technology, spent all of our money on shiny toys only to do things the exact same way as we did before.

Here are a few conversations I have had or overheard over the years:
  • Why should students learn to program, they already have calculators?
    • Problem solving/creative thinking
  • If you give students access to the Internet, all they will do is copy-and-paste.
    • Perhaps your assignment could be updated to require thought.
  • We have to block all social networking and chat on the school networks or students will spend all of their time talking to each other.
    •  Do teachers spend all of their time working alone without collaboration (oh wait, sadly many do).
  • You (Phil) can do all of these cool things you do because you had XYZ technology or laptops.
    • Hahahahahahahahahahhahaha. Have you ever tried to do a boring assignment on a laptop? The lesson is still boring.
  • We can't have cell phones in school. (Never really heard the justification)
    • My dream is to have school in an open field or apprenticing at a lab/workshop. Cell phones could make that possible and they cost far less than the tech we are filling our rooms with.
Here are the marketing companies: Look we took all of your old lessons and assignments and made them flashy and gave the students buttons to push. 

Here is my challenge to our community: Help the students do things that were never possible before.

If your test scores are not going up, don't look to adding some new piece of entertainment, give the students a challenge to create, apply, engineer. If that involves technology, great! If it doesn't then that is probably better.

Subscribe and Connect to BrokenAirplane and stay up to date with the best resources for your classroom.