Response to WSJ article: Does Technology Belong in the Classroom?
What’s the Question?
“Does technology belong in the classroom?” is the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking; “Is the classroom the best technology for this student to learn this lesson?” The answer depends on the student and the content of the lesson more than on the wrapper – classroom, informal group or solo space with distance presentation device.
Classrooms serve several purposes. They can aggregate learning resources: books and materials, fellow students and one or more teachers. They are physical containers that wall out distractions, and house furniture and people gathered together for the purpose of study. But classrooms are also a technology of control within which a teacher can enforce disciplined behavior on children against their will. They provide teachers with captive audiences backed up by threats of confinement, ostracism or even physical violence. As computing devices become smaller and wearable, schools will become less able to ban them from classrooms. The challenge for teachers is to remain (or become) relevant in the minds of collections of learners.
Photo by Antonio Zugaldia
This brings us to ask about new roles for teachers rather than classrooms. Is the role of the traditional classroom teacher diminished? Hardly. The Wall Street Journal article suggests teachers should “focus on teaching their students how to process that information by reflecting deliberately on how it changes their view of the world.” But this is only appropriate when the teacher is the one in the student-teacher pair who is more facile at processing information and has no fear of changing his or her own world view. In many cases the teacher is better off focusing on understanding how the student already thinks and suggesting new approaches based on existing student strengths.
In Favor of Computer Enhanced Classrooms
In her response, Lisa Nielsen advocates using the communication features of modern computing devices to bring the world into the classroom saying: “We know that any connected device provides access to information, resources and experts far beyond what a school building could ever offer students. Why would we limit learning possibilities by not fully taking advantage of that?” She mentions that one role for teachers is to make sure that students are engaged in approved activities while using their devices in class. Another advantage of group learning activities is that students teach each other. Some pick up ideas and skills from watching others. Some students are explaining their actions to both their peers and, often, the teacher. To be successful in this environment the teacher must give up the role of “sage on the stage” and become an expert “guide on the side”. That guide must be an expert at observing learners and gauging when to intervene and when to stand back and let discovery and reflection work their magic. Such a teacher is no longer serving as a single funnel of information into the heads of students. Connected devices give students much broader access to extremely well-crafted didactic instruction. But this frees the classroom teacher to observe and attend to the social and special needs of individual students. From the perspective of the teacher, classroom becomes a much more complex, and more effective, learning environment for all participants.
Arguing for “A Sanctuary of Focus”
“classrooms should be a sanctuary of focus. Children need a place to learn mental stillness, deliberation, critical thinking and human empathy”, suggests Jose Antonio Bowen in his rebuttal to technology in the classroom. Certainly such sanctuaries are sorely needed, but most school classrooms, even before the ubiquitous onrush of electronic devices, have failed to fulfill that function. Computing has increased focus, not diminished it, although students don’t necessarily focus on the topics approved by teachers. We need to respond positively to Bowen’s plea but not by banning all computer-enhanced devices from all classrooms. Rather, teachers should be encouraged to choose the environments in which their professional skills thrive and administrations should promote a variety of classroom styles within their schools. If permitted a choice, students might sort themselves into the classroom that best fit their learning styles — not by chronological age but by interest and social comfort. Sanctuary does not look the same for all students or all teachers.
Computing as the Trojan Horse of Schools
(re: Behold the Trojan Horse: Instructional vs. Productivity Computing in the Classroom by Liza Loop)
Computing has been breaking down the walls of schools since the early 1960s. It lets the outside in. It lets those inside see a much broader horizon and often frees them to walk away. It challenges old methods of control. It presents new skills to master, new ways to communicate, new forms of social organization. These new opportunities are enhancements in the lives of some but threats to others. Rather than search for the one right way, the technological silver bullet for education, we can embrace both the old and the new. “If it works, don’t fix it.” Some learners thrive in traditional school classrooms with blackboards as the most modern technology. Other learners find freedom, engagement and efficiency in surfing solo through the internet. Still others may become most highly educated by a multi-year hike down the John Muir or Appalachian Trail. Whatever your preferences, computing is here to stay and we humans, young and old, must learn to deal with it. Either/or is not the question. It’s when, where, and how?