“Remember everything we learned last class? Well that’s actually not true and we are going to learn something radically different and (slightly) more correct this class,” said every teach you ever had.
I’ve been on a tirade about education lately. With 3 kids in the house, working their way through elementary school, we’re dealing with the discussions about technology in the classroom, standardized testing, and the merits of home schooling. As time has passed and I’ve been drawn into different debates and discussions, I can’t help but wonder if the entire system isn’t just a disaster.
Bear with me a second, I’m not suggesting we scrap the education system in the United States and start over. Well… maybe I am.
This very night, a peer whom I hold in the highest esteem for some of her thoughts about education, shared her daughter’s experience with high school English.
“In our daughter’s freshman year (now a Jr), she asked her English teacher if she should try AP English since she happened to also be the English AP teacher,” shared Lani Rosales, Editor in Chief of AGBeat. “I took all AP, and she likes English, so she thought it was time to step it up (if I could do it, she can too, she’s way smarter).”
The reply from the teacher? “No, it’s the same thing, only more homework.”
“We thought maybe it was a twisted challenge issued,” added Rosales, “or a response to our A+ student’s ability to handle homework, but no, that’s a direct quote. She advised against improving herself and being ambitious.”
I’ve talked about the role (the failure?) of higher education here before. It’s time to talk fundamentals.
Are Teachers Wrong?
Not long ago, reddit exploded over the tongue-in-cheek sharing by a parent of a snapshot of their child’s school exam. The ensuing discourse was not about the merit of said answer, which by the way, is (take a look to the right) correct, but discussion sparked about the process of education.
“Ugh this reminds me of when I was in elementary school,” added one reply.
Teacher: What do we get when we take away a smaller number from a bigger number?
Class: A smaller number than we started out with I guess?
Teacher: Good. Now what about if we take a bigger number from a smaller number?
Me: A negative number.
Teacher: No, we just don’t do it.
Yep, Kindergarten for me (added another reply). Teacher hands out a 10×10 grid and we are told to fill in 1-100 on it. I get through the first ten and begin filing down the last column with 10, 20, 30… I then do the same with the fifth column: 5, 15, 25, 35, 45… Teacher takes my paper away and tells me “that’s not how you do it,” and gives me a new paper with the 10×10 grid.
Teachers weighed in rebutting, simply, that sometimes the truth is withheld so as not to confuse other students.
Education, it seems, is a series of progressively smaller lies. Chemistry was brought up, as the best example of why this must be done: The model of the atom, taught to earlier grades, is overly simplistic and inaccurate (i.e. electron orbitals). As you learn, you have to unlearn stuff you thought you knew.
The discussion continues, arguing that there is nothing wrong with this. That learning is about building more and more complexity from simple models, even if those simple models aren’t accurate. Classical physics isn’t at all accurate, “but you can’t jump straight to Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. You have to get someone moving before you make them run.”
But a square IS a rectangle
Sometimes referred to as a Wittgenstein’s ladder, this “lie-to-children,” as coined by Terry Prachett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen in their popular fiction, The Science of Discworld, is commonplace. Basically, when you grew up, you were told certain “facts” about how the world works. When you first learned about square roots, for example, you were told that you could not find the square root of a negative number. But suddenly in high school, you could — that number was just “imaginary.”
Most children get the impression that planets orbit the sun in little circles (not true of course) so they can apply the idea to the atom’s orbitals.
Seems like the logical approach to teaching, no? But what happens with the child knows better??
You don’t avoid confusing other students by telling the correct student that he or she is wrong. Do we?? In my twisted mind, that approach seems, I don’t know, unethical. Akin to mental child abuse isn’t it?
When a student knows something to be true, from a book TV show, or even their parents, such teachers aren’t just teaching lies, they are saying that our authoritative sources lied: That my parents either lied – or were stupid.
But they weren’t. The student is correct and though the right way to teach younger kids may be to simplify things, the only right, and moral, reply from a teacher when a child says a square is a rectangle is, “correct.”
|Not wanting to explain what’s being taught further, “because kids won’t understand,” is a lazy excuse at the very root our problem in education today. Instead of teaching, the student who is correct, is told he is not while his source of knowledge is questioned. That destroys the merit of education and ruins children who then no longer believe in the role of a teacher in learning.I’m the very evidence of this; I hated school for no reason other than this. I’m not claiming to be smart and certainly, not smarter than most, but I was well read (well, well TV’d) and my parents, very involved in my childhood. I was constantly told that my answers on tests were wrong when I knew them to be correct. I argued with teachers and know, too well, the familiar phrase I’m sure you’ve heard, “That’s not the answer I was looking for.” But it’s the answer to what you asked!|
Teachers, please. Don’t lie to kids. Don’t tell them they are wrong when they aren’t. Don’t penalize the right answer because it isn’t your answer. Remember why you are teaching (I hope) and when a student makes the class go in a more advanced direction, REWARD them and go there. Explain why you can’t go into detail but don’t destroy the child who knows more, who studies more, simply so that you can continue teaching to the lower demoninator.
As I wrapped up my evening with reddit, I saw one final reply, another teacher who remarked, “It bothers me a bit to have to teach them some concepts that I know are slightly inaccurate, but any other way would be just too confusing for that level. I do tell them, that what the text book shows them and what I have explained about the atom, is overly simplistic. Usually, I give them some idea about what they can expect in future chemistry courses if they continue with the subject. Sometimes there are kids that are interested and want to know more, but most of them are happy to keep things simple and easy to understand.” Well there’s something.
Working with Lies
As a father of three, I can’t in good conscience criticize our noble educators without at least offering a better solution. Kai Peter Chang, angel investor, startup advisor, and Co-founder of TEDxBerkeley, shares the story of one of his favorite college professors, Dr. K.
“Now I know some of you have already heard of me,” announced Dr. K on the first day of class, “but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”
By offering an open invitation for students to challenge him, by stating first that not everything he teaches will be accurate, he taught lessons far greater than that which was imparted by the information. He, “taught us to constantly checksum new statements and claims with what we already accept as fact.”
The lectures taught students to work things out, to work together in the ever popular education philosophy that teams and groups are superior, to find his faults. He taught his student to learn.
Chang adds Dr. K’s real legacy:
- “Experts” can be wrong, and say things that sound right – so build a habit of evaluating new information and checksum it against things you already accept as fact.
- If you see something wrong, take the initiative to flag it as misinformation.
- A sense of playfulness is the best defense against taking yourself too seriously.
Simply put, teach, don’t lie. Well, lie appropriately.
Technology in Schools! So we can continue to serve the lowest common denominator?
Oh I’m not done. Have you been sucked into the latest technology discussion at your school? It’s seems our school system is now responsible for teaching our kids to be responsible “digital citizens.” In a time when we desperately need more science, technology, engineering, and math education, educators are turning to technology as a panacea for our slipping standardized test scores.
In 2011, the Kyrene School District in Tempe, Arizona (close to home for me) was recognized as a utopian vision of education’s future. Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software drilled students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies. The ideal was one that I suspect many would agree is just that, the ideal: to transform the very nature of the classroom by turning teacher into guide. Instead of being lectured to, students learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.
In a nutshell though, as schools are spending billions on technology (or asking parents to do the same), and as a rseult, cut budgets and lay off teachers, there is little to NO proof that technology in classrooms is improving academics. “My gut is telling me we’ve had growth,” said David K. Schauer, then Kyrene superintendent, remarking when asked about the impact of the investment in technology. “But we have to have some measure that is valid, and we don’t have that.” Backers of these technology investments say standardized tests, which I know we all love, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. Okay… but the same backers also concede that there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments. The proof is in the pudding, but you don’t like the pudding?
Worse in my mind though is that, in Kyrene, for example, the adverse impact of such budget allocations is clear simply in looking to the rest of academic budgets: teacher layoffs or under-hiring (leading to bigger classes), and fewer periods of music, art, and physical education.
Don’t misunderstand me, I desperately want technology in the classroom. You know what I do for a living; my kids are already learning how to create websites! But I don’t want “technology in the classroom” to be a smokescreen; appeasing parents who simply say, “we need more technology in the classroom!” If it isn’t improving academics, then it’s not being used properly!
Bring Your Own Device
Let’s look at the key tenants of the increasingly popular Bring Your Own Device program schools, throughout the country, are implementing. The idea, overly simply put, is that students can bring their own device to school, to use in conjunction with school infrastructure and applications; helping minimize costs while enabling the tech in schools:
- Students and staff utilize technology to gather, evaluate, and use new information (research and information fluency)
- A+ for this! The BYOD program certainly excels at delivering this for schools but… expecting kids to bring their own device sets an expectation with kids that they have or should have their own device doesn’t it? Even if kids don’t NEED to have technology they can bring (which is the de facto policy), doesn’t this increase the so-called “digital divide” by highlighting the haves and have nots? (What’s the digital divide? Let me get to that in a bit).
- Students and staff utilize technology to build new knowledge and make meaning of new information (creativity and innovation; critical thinking, problem solving and decision making)
- Very cool! BUILD new knowledge and make meaning of information through creativity and innovation! Is that to be taken literally or figuratively though? Are students to utilize the technology to build, create, and innovate? Awesome! Or, as seems to be the experience for most, is technology simply an interface to access information or learn from applications?
- Students and staff utilize technology to share new understandings (communication and collaboration).
- Whew! So it’s not just to access information but to collaborate and communicate. Well that’s good. Clearly, tech in schools enable this so A+ again. Though I’m still not sure the goal of the last bullet point is much more than a digital encyclopedia… are we teaching kids to use technology or simply how to use it?
- Students model digital citizenship and understanding of technology operations and concepts throughout the learning process
- Model digital citizenship as in, know our social norms about how and when to use their smartphone? Really? Teach our kids when it’s acceptable to be on the phone?? You lost me here; there’s this thing called parenting.
- But then it adds, understand technology operations and concepts. Is that an affirmation of my hope for the second bullet point? Teaching kids how technology operates and the concepts therein so they can learn to build and innovate??
One of the 6 key reasons education leaders are encouraged to embrace BYOD is, “A chance to close the digital divide. The historic cost of access to devices and connectivity caused a big gap in the opportunity to learn. But the price of some tablets is less than a couple textbooks. By making the shift to digital, most schools can purchase enough access devices for low income students. Many schools will be able to flip from three or four students per computer to one or two devices per student over time.”
But how does allowing for the kids who can bring iPads to school close the divide with those who can’t even afford a pay as you go smartphone?? It seems to me that the primary goal of BYOD is missed by it’s very existence. But that’s not what really has me scratching my head…
Bridging the Digital Divide
There is no “digital divide” that needs bridging if technology doesn’t more effectively teach, no? Our schools are not funded to play the role of the great equalizer in technology. If we’re concerned as a society that there is a digital divide, that some kids have access to technology while others don’t, that must be because technology is believed to result in more educated students. If it doesn’t do that, what do we care that there is a divide?
Again, I’m not saying we don’t NEED, desperately, technology in schools. Just the opposite. I’m asking you to question with me if it’s there today for all the wrong reasons. Schools have LONG allowed technology in classes to seem more technically sophisticated. You recall, they did it when we were kids and had to get TI-85 calculators, “because that’s how we do these calculations today.” It taught us how to use a calculator, not do math.
Is technology there to enhance learning or make it easier? Are students learning how to use technology to be creative, to innovate (which, with technology generally means being an engineer, programmer, developer, or entrepreneur), to think critically and not just interact with it, to problem solve, and make better decisions?? Those are the core tenets of the BYOD program but is it resulting in that?
If STEM scores are relatively flat, is it truly working?? Or, are we feeding parents a placebo while cutting budgets to the arts and educators themselves?
There was a study around 2011 that showed that reading scores among 8th graders improved when allocated laptops. At the same time, an equal number of tests showed that math scores fell among students using technology, as compared to those for whom scores had risen.
Technology there for the sake of being there, or worse, for the sake of appearances or to appease parents who demand technology in schools, is doing us a disservice! The cost to have and train educators in the use of technology is drawing funds from the arts and physical education. It’s pulling funding from teachers salaries!!! And that’s OKAY, IF, it’s resulting in better education.
The end of this very valuable article puts it more eloquently than obvious in this long post, I accomplished, “Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring—for better or worse—in classrooms, schools, and districts. Jim Collins (2001) arrived at a similar conclusion about technology in the business world. “Technology alone,” he observed in Good to Great, “never holds the key to success.” However, “when used right, technology is an essential driver in accelerating forward momentum.” When used poorly…
By the way, Lani’s daughter decided to ignore the advice a teacher that year and now finds herself an A student in AP English.
It’s good to call out teachers when they’re wrong. I can’t help but want to do it a little more when exploring the role of technology.