Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Can schools meet the challenges of the digital revolution?

After reading a few things about emerging technologies and what the future world might look like, I'm not sure. As a public school teacher for over 15 years, I know that schools in their current state are not the answer. They often do not serve their populations well. But, I'm not ready to abandon schools just yet.

In an interesting piece by Collins and Halverson, they lay out an argument for why schools reject technology and the digital revolution. There were a few parts of the argument that struck me as very true and some that struck me as not particularly current. The piece is relatively old by digital standards, being published in 2009. I'm sure that in 2009 many facets of the piece were more true than they are now. (In 2009, I didn't have a SmartBoard in my classroom. Now, I can't imagine teaching without one.)  Perhaps Collins & Halverson need to write a follow-up documenting what schools have and have not done to incorporate digital tools into classrooms.

Here are my major disagreements with Collins & Halverson's argument: (1) They put a lot of faith in the ability of computers to respond to the interests of students. I'm not sure that their faith has borne itself out yet. Computers are very good at some things. Interacting authentically with a human is not one of them. No computers have yet been able to pass the Turing test, which is widely accepted as the bar for human-like behavior. Simulations are realistic, but always programmed not authentic. Games can have open-world features but are governed by algorithms; they are not truly interactive. Computers can deliver content but they are not very good at providing personalized feedback. (2) One part of their argument entails giving learners, primarily children, more significant control over what they learn. Obviously children should be encouraged to follow their passions. However, over a century ago, John Dewey warned against the dangers of a curriculum that was too child-centered. Children do not know enough of the world to make the most informed choices. Schools, teachers, parents have a responsibility to expose children to different facets of how we make sense of the world. I know that anecdotes should be taken lightly, but I know that I would never have pursued mathematics without the guidance or the excellent high school math teachers who inspired me with their passion for the subject. (3) It was only a small portion, but the idea that in adult life one rarely needs to have readily available "knowledge in the head" rang hollow for me. When you go to buy a car, do you want the salesperson to know the facts about different models or should they read them to you from the brochure? I can read the specs online myself! I came to the dealership to interact with a person. Would you feel good about an English teacher who needed to check the text of Romeo & Juliet to figure out which one was a Montague and which was a Capulet? Certainly not. I want my physician to know some things about what might be causing my fever and cough even if he/she has to check his/her computer for a backup diagnosis. Internalize knowledge is still important, but so is knowing how to use resources to support your work.

I agree with a lot of what they said. Here goes: (1) Schooling needs to change from knowledge acquisition to learning to learn. This is absolutely true. However, I think they failed to take into account that this kind of schooling is different from what parents experienced. That means that parents will be expected to support their children in a type of education with which they are unfamiliar. The issues with learning to learn is probably most prevalent in mathematics. Many new elementary school mathematics programs focus on ways of thinking instead of fast fact recall. You only have to scroll through Facebook to see the objections to the "new math". Yes, parents object to teachers who want children to think mathematically and construct viable arguments and use multiple representations instead of memorizing facts. Crazy, but true. (2) Math teachers need to stop teaching computation skills and need to teach thinking skills. There are some substantial objections to the Common Core State Standards, but they did put out the Standards for Mathematical Practice. These are ways of thinking and acting that are prevalent in the mathematical sciences but also cut across disciplines. It is far more valuable to have students analyze the conclusions drawn from quantitative data than it is to have them graph a context-free parabola. Mathematics can be co-opted by people who understand it, or who think they understand it, to intimidate people who don't. That's a dangerous situation. 

Can schools meet the challenges of the digital revolution? I don't know. But I hope that schools can make some changes to content and format and pedagogy so that they remain relevant places of learning far into the future. 

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