The False Promise of Tech in Schools

Daniel Willingham’s recent opinion piece in the New York Daily News in which he declared that, “it’s time to admit we don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to educational technology” got me thinking.

Willingham makes some initial, balanced observations about school districts where the mass purchase of iPads and eBooks were, in some instances, little more than an extravagant waste of money. Investment without a plan is usually destined to fail. Grand gesture without substance is rarely more than that. However, critics of contemporary realities are often exposed by the limitations of their own, narrow arguments.  When he talks about the supremacy of rote memorization over digital alternatives, Willingham’s allegiance to another world and time is clear: “In principle, you can look anything up, but in practice, we don’t, because it takes effort” … and …“The brain can beat Google for filtering irrelevant information, but the right information must be in your head.”

To be fair to Willingham, some of his writing (published elsewhere) offers a slightly more balanced perspective, such as his belief that, “new technologies do not represent a silver bullet … [because] using a new gadget does not guarantee student learning.” Behind this apparent logic, however, is thinking that yet clings to the 19th century conception of education. For a cognitive scientist, it is interesting to note a fundamental, sweeping disregard for the potential and ability of the human brain. The author’s Twitter profile thus proudly proclaims: “If I tweet it, it means it looks interesting to me. It sure doesn’t mean I agree. I may not have even read it.” This meeting of academia and cynicism is hardly a great advert for traditional education.

Sweeping generalizations on any subject are rarely instructive. While critics  have always attracted attention, it would be unreasonable to dismiss valid questions concerning the effective impact of technology on learning. What we have to be careful to understand, however, is the motivation behind some of these perspectives. One report from Sydney, Australia made the perspective abundantly clear: “A top Australian school has banned laptops in class, warning that technology ‘distracts’’ from old-school quality teaching.” The implication that quality teaching and old school go hand-in-hand provides a revealing insight into the philosophical thinking here and in many similar contexts.

Willingham reveals his hand perhaps most transparently when he goes down the handwriting route and informs us that: “It’s long been known that better handwriting is associated with better grades.” This is where most contemporary perspectives on education diverge. If the end game of schooling is grades – presumably with college admission as the Holy Grail of learning – then an informed investment in modern learning methods and technology is almost certainly a waste. Before we can assess the value of educational outputs and approaches to learning, we must first ask ourselves: what is the ultimate purpose of school?

According to David Price, “the surest way to prepare students for life beyond formal education is to make education as much like that life as possible.” Price also points out that, “It takes a brave education leader, however, to defy the current obsession with testing.” In the immediate absence of a solution to this obsession, perhaps we can, in the meantime, adopt the tongue-in-cheek wisdom of novelist Jonathan Franzen who, in his review of Sherry Turkle’s latest apocalyptic analysis of technology, tells us: “Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.”

At the end of the day, it’s very simple: we can prepare students for the world most of the policy makers, leaders, and reluctant teachers came from – a world that no longer exists – or for the world that our students will, and already do, inhabit. Let’s just engage with that reality and navigate the current implications on learning as opportunities rather than restrictions.

References
Daniel T. Willingham. “Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn?” American Educator. Summer, 2010.
David Price. OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future. Crux Publishing, 2013.
Jonathan Franzen. Sherry Turkle’s ‘Reclaiming Conversation’. The New York Times, September 28, 2015.

Image credit @bryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.