Dog Bites Man

Yesterday’s New York Times has a story questioning the effectiveness of widely deploying technology in the classroom.

Matt Richtel writes:

In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning…

The spending push comes as schools face tough financial choices. In Kyrene [Kyrene, Arizona the town featured in the story], for example, even as technology spending has grown, the rest of the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer periods of music, art and physical education.

In his lede, Richtel describes the typical day in class:

They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.  In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

There are moments, listening to my fellow ed school enrollees, when it seems their enthusiasm is reserved for anything but reading and writing. And technology is the flavor of the week. A student turns in a short paper full of spelling and grammar errors and gets a C. He puts the same text up in front of the class as a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by a couple of pieces of pirated clip art — I’ve seen this happen — and he’s a brilliant “visual learner.”

Last semester, seniors at the school where I was tutoring and observing were reading Shakespeare’s Richard III. The provided book had facing page “translations” of the Elizabethan English. When I asked, I discovered that not a single student — even the best students — was actually reading the play in the original.  All this talk about the so-called benefits of technology in the classroom is just another crutch, potentially as destructive as those facing-page translations. Here we are, faced with a rich, possibly difficult text, and rather than actually read, discuss and analyze together as a class — which has always presented a challenge to teachers in crowded classrooms. a problem only exacerbated when major budget dollars are expended on technology — let’s all get out our smartphones! Let’s spend some class time searching through our iTunes for a sad song! Let’s draw some comics! Let’s break up into small groups and search for pictures of the British Midlands! And when we’re all done, we can project your work on our cool, new Smartboard! Ridiculous.

Look. I have nothing against technology. Every student should have access to free or cheap broadband Internet, preferably at home as well as at a library. And I’m completely agnostic as to platform — hey that Smartphone’s great! I certainly believe classrooms benefit from having Internet access the same way they benefit from having dictionaries and other correct reference materials.

But count me in the camp that sees Smartphones and WiFi as the bane of a teacher’s existence. Ever try to get a student to stop texting? It’s like trying to get a treat back from your dog. Every student has a smartphone with them, even if they don’t have a pen. Getting them to look up from their screens is a Sisyphian task. Texting and Internet browsing, believe me, is no less distracting in the classroom than it is while driving — and injunctions against equally useless.

“In a nutshell,” personally, I do see this as almost a dog-bites-man style proposition. Students are having trouble reading and writing? Let’s give them the Internet and let them figure it out on their own! And keeping them in front of those screens, we can get rid of some more teachers! Does that make sense to you? Give me ten students, ten books, ten sheets of paper and ten pens, and by the end of the year I’ll put you and your $25,000 “smartboard” to shame.

Grading the Digital School

In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores

Published: September 3, 2011

2 responses to “Dog Bites Man

  1. When a student texts in class, take the phone and read the text aloud in class. It won’t happen after that.
    Translations of Shakespeare? That is shocking and wrong.
    Students can study Business, Physics, Biology, Technology, as well as Literature.
    I know you can study both Liberal Arts and Sciences. I’m really tired of people prattling on about Liberal Arts and pooh-pooh ing the hard sciences. Most MBA students have never taken Accounting or Economics until graduate school, yet have had 12 plus years of English and History.

  2. Good to hear from you.

    This is 11th grade. I think it’s a little early to specialize. And ironically, this is in a school where children are doing relatively well in math and science, and falling behind in writing and reading. From my own experience, the professional and managerial classes are becoming shockingly illiterate, to a deleterious degree. Which is not to say that doctors need to be thoroughly conversant in ancient history or rhetoric, but that the need to access the imagination and effectively communicate ideas cuts across disciplines, and is in decline.

    And I agree, a staged reading of a text string might just work.

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