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Learning at its Best

The gilded classroom

The New York Times ran an interesting story on technology in the classroom this weekend called, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.”

School districts across the country are spending millions of dollars on Smart Boards, laptops, and networking hardware in hopes that technology will boost academic achievement. One teacher explains of students, “They’re inundated with 24/7 media, so they expect it.”

The story continues,

Minutes earlier, [this teacher] had taught a Civil War lesson in a way unimaginable even 10 years ago. With the lights off, a screen at the front of the room posed a question: “Jefferson Davis was Commander of the Union Army: True or False?”

The 30 students in the classroom held wireless clickers into which they punched their answers. Seconds later, a pie chart appeared on the screen: 23 percent answered “True,” 70 percent “False,” and 6 percent didn’t know.

The students hooted and hollered, reacting to the instant poll. Ms. Smith then drew the students into a conversation about the answers.

The enthusiasm underscores a key argument for investing in classroom technology: student engagement.

The problem with this theory, articulated later in the story by Stanford University professor Larry Cuban, is this: “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

* * *

In fact, that’s a recurring theme throughout the story. Technology in the classroom is very, very cool. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that students are learning more as a result of all that spending.

Using technology, students can create Facebook pages for characters in a Shakespeare play! Using technology, students post a video about a Woodrow Wilson speech on YouTube! But assuming that using these new platforms will increase academic achievement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about why young people engage with technology in the first place: they perceive that it adds value to their lives.

Students enjoy being on Facebook because they get to connect with their friends. They like YouTube because it allows them to watch videos that are interesting to them. These new media allow students to customize and personalize important parts of their lives. To force students to use these media in response to a required assignment, on subjects that may or may not interest them, misses the point entirely. On the irony scale, it’s simply off the charts.

Students don’t want adults to pander to them by disguising the classroom as a game show studio. They want to connect with adults who will add value to their lives. To do that, you have to get to know them. You have to ask them what they’re interested in.

When you find out what they’re interested in, then you can make intelligent decisions about what kinds of technology will help them achieve their goals.

Oh, you want to form a fan-fiction writing circle with seven of your friends? You know, you might want to set up a blog where you can post all your writing, then comment on what each other wrote.

Ms. Department Chair, the kids in the marine biology club are saying that the microscopes we have are old and outdated. Do we have money in the budget for new ones?

You know, there are tools in Photoshop that can really enhance the quality of your photographs. Have you ever tried using it?

Using technology in the classroom can have a powerful impact on student achievement, when used strategically in response to the needs of kids. When it’s used to decorate the learning environment, you run the risk of creating a gilded classroom in which the students who used to stare vacantly at a chalkboard are now staring vacantly at a Smart Board, wishing they were somewhere else.

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3 thoughts on “The gilded classroom

  1. As conflicted as I am about our public education system in the United States, I am deeply grateful for and appreciative towards pieces of it, including the school at which I work. This morning Hiromi Johnson gave her annual demonstration of internal martial arts, which she teaches to our students on an opt-in elective basis through advisory time.

    Hiromi spoke of the inner strength – the intent – that internal martial arts allow us to cultivate from the repeated practice and slow mastery of physical forms.

    When I think of technology, engagement, the facts of any war or era, and our schools, I wonder if we practice compassion enough to make it our intent. I wonder if we practice service, sacrifice, self-knowledge, or self-regulation enough to become independently strong at healthy interdependence. I wonder if we are practicing the steps that will let some generation save our world. I doubt that we are.

    If a piece of technology connects a learner to learning with intent, I am all for it. If a piece of technology is their for play and discovery, I am all for it. If a piece of technology is there for achievement, I resist it. There is little in any area of achievement that doesn’t promote some gap or convince someone or some school of his, her, or its inferiority to others and subservience to experts and vendors.

    Excellent learning is self-evident and results in the creation of something personally meaningful that demonstrates the learning and is of lasting value to the learner and his or her community.

    All kinds of vendors have learned to get into the classroom. What have we and our students learned about making and programming? This isn’t a technology issue to me; this is a philosophical and practical one. What kind of learning do we value and how do we go about its business?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 8, 2011, 6:43 pm
  2. This is Jessica Walker again from Dr. Strange’s Edm 310 class. This whole week’s lesson in class we were to read different blog posts and watch videos on the internet about technology in the classroom. It is kind of funny to me that your post is exactly on target to what I have been reading all week.
    Only being 24 years old I can remember that in most of my classrooms growing up there were no computers for the students to use. It was only in my junior year of high school where I was given the option to take home economics or a computer class where we learned how to type. Now that I am in and out of classrooms in the elementary schools for my education classes I see that there is typically a smart board and a computer station in every classroom. I have heard teachers say they never even turn on their smart boards because it distracts the students and they cannot get any work done because of them. I feel like teachers need to use every technology available to them because these children are the future of this world and they need to learn to use technology right and learn to improve it. Giving these students the opportunity to use technology in a controlled environment will help them to know how to use it better in the future. However, I do not feel like technology needs to affect every aspect of the students learning in the classroom. Teachers need to balance different methods of teaching because students have different ways of learning. I for one am a better visual learner and learn best with videos and power points but my sister just has to hear it once and she will remember it forever. Each child is different and like you said teachers need to learn each student and help them the best they can individually.
    Thank you again for your thoughts and I enjoy reading your blogs!
    Jessica Walker

    Posted by Jessica Walker | September 8, 2011, 11:56 pm
  3. Technocrats have offered a bold vision of the future for over a century. Each time it falls short, because it misses the human side and the often layered, complex and conflicting role of technology in our lives. When we treat technology as if it exists in a culture vacuum or worse still as if it exists as a cool sidekick, nothing will change.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 9, 2011, 12:23 am

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