Monday, July 14, 2014

Time for some 21st century honesty

I am mostly writing this just to have a record of where I stand on so-called 21st century skills. Now, I am not an ed tech or tech expert at all, and though it's a topic I try to read a lot about, I haven't written a lot about it.

For the most part, I don't really believe there is such a thing as "21st century skills." Nor do I believe there are really 20th century skills or 16th century skills or 1st century skills. I don't think how humans learn fundamentally changes; what changes are the tools we use. Searching for information is the same skill now that it was pre-internet; we just use different tools to find it.

What was said in this WaPo article about ed tech pretty much sums up my stance:
"There is hardly any research that will show clearly that any of these machines will improve academic achievement," said Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University. "But the value of novelty, that's highly prized in American society, period. And one way schools can say they are 'innovative' is to pick up the latest device."
After using an interactive whiteboard for a year, William Ferriter, a sixth-grade teacher in North Carolina, came to a similar conclusion, deciding the whiteboard was little more than "a badge saying 'We're a 21st-century school.' " He spent weeks trying to devise collaborative lessons that he knows engage students. The best one, he said, brought kids to the whiteboard, where they used their fingers to sort words describing metamorphic rocks, as a video played to the side. 
"It just allows you to create digitized versions of old lessons," he said. "My kids were bored with it after about three weeks."

Now to play devils advocate to myself: there are skills that that one might use more in one century than another and there are tools that might require a slightly different skill set. Take, for example, driving a motor vehicle. People didn't know how to drive motor vehicles before they existed. However, people did drive horses and chariots and carriages and bicycles and while there are some new skills to learn for driving a motor vehicle, there were skills that carried over from one mode of driving to another.

Ed tech historian and writer Audrey Watters, for example, further confirms my skepticism about the novelty (and efficacy) of ed tech solutions as ed reform solutions,
It’s become quite commonplace to hear our current education system decried for its being a “factory model.” New technologies, particularly technologies that offer “personalization,” are positioned as the future, the way to “modernize” schools by letting students move at their own pace through the curriculum. And yet these are precisely the arguments that technicians have been making for teaching machines for almost a century. “The Coming Industrial Revolution in Education” predicted Sidney Pressey in 1932.
So, when I read breathless articles like this which in short say, stick children living in poverty in front of computers with an internet connection and they'll teach themselves, I am skeptical. When people declare past systems and ways of learning obsolete, I am skeptical. Certainly, some tools, and some skills, are obsolete but have our brains really changed that much?

Also, while I am progressive/liberal in most ways, I think that many people termed "progressive educators" very much underestimate the role background and prior knowledge play in learning. When it comes to the internet-as-classroom meme, one actually needs to be able to tell good information from bad and good sources from bad. And that is highly dependent on background knowledge, which one sometimes has to um, gulp, memorize before one can apply the knowledge and unlock the creative process. Some things just need to be memorized.

Next, technology doesn't equal learning. Just because you put computers in front of students doesn't mean they'll learn anything. I say this as someone who is currently advocating for more technology in my children's schools. Students from our school division are going to college and are unfamiliar with the systems used there. Students in some vocational programs that involve computers are being taught on a theoretical basis because the computers and software available to learn on are obsolete. I get the need for adequately updated technology but I get it as those are tools students need to know how to use; I don't get it as the end-all-be-all of what they are going to learn.

Teacher and public education activist Sabrina Stevens reported back from SXSWedu in March 2013 and really hit the nail on the head when describing her apprehension in the face of the intersection of the the ed tech personalized learning "revolution," meaningful learning, and the premise of public education:
To me, that’s personalized learning—when a person sees and recognizes in another person (or in him- or herself) what’s needed to keep learning and growing. Personalized learning occurs when a teacher and a learner know and respect each other enough to interact in meaningful ways, and when a learner begins to know herself well enough to know the next step she should take to master a new skill, or the next step on her path to becoming who she wants to be. 
That’s why I couldn’t help feeling a bit disturbed at SXSWedu last week, hearing tech vendors and venture capitalists use the term “personalized learning” as though it was 1) new (what, exactly, do these people think has been going on in human brains for millennia??) and 2) a ground-breaking thing that could only be enabled through their proprietary technology.
Language-check: what many of these people are selling as “personalized” learning is actually digitized standardized learning. Creating tools and products that offer digital ways to deliver drill-and-kill instruction is not revolutionary. Attaching that to a large bank of flawed, standardized data merely automates and speeds the process of selecting those drill-and-kill activities and marketing more of them to teachers, students and parents. But making it easier to do more of a problematic thing does not make that thing less problematic.

What’s more, one of the few explicit justifications I heard for all of this, after questioning how, exactly, this was different than anything teachers and schools had done in the past (a past many educators are trying to run from, in favor of more participatory and empowering alternatives), was that it helped teachers manage growing class sizes, and helped everyone more easily manage the abundance of data we now have. In other words, the primary value of these tools is to help us adapt to teacher unemployment, student overcrowding, and student over-testing.
What’s more, we should avoid succumbing to the hype surrounding these products without fully considering the implications of investing our money into them—especially if that investment comes at the expense of investing in the people and professional development that true personalized learning requires. Tech is revolutionary (in a positive way) when it empowers us to do even better what we already do well. But if we’re using tech to compensate for fewer people, we’re not replacing anything—we’re losing something. 
True personalized learning comes from people knowing each other; man-made interventions can facilitate, but not fully replace, the cognitive or emotional value of meaningful in-person interaction.
Most recently, NYC teacher Jose Vilson attended the annual ISTE conference in Atlanta. Here he sums up a quintessential tension between teaching and ed tech:
It got me thinking, as I always do, whether educators have made any real progress when it comes to thinking about pedagogy in the 21st century. Is it really the tool that’s the driver or the teacher? If, for a second, districts think that a product ought to be the focus of the pedagogy, then we again concede that a teacher’s expertise is only second to the dazzle and pizzazz of an attractive thing when it comes to student learning. 
If, on the other hand, we put these tools in the hands of expert educators with supportive school systems, then that might make the shift more real. Any tool that we put in a classroom ought to center around actual student learning, and not the tool. I often find that many so-called 21st century schools spend far more time on training students and teachers on how to use the technology than trying to integrate the tool into a well-planned school system.
Indeed, ed tech for the sake of ed tech does not make for solid pedagogy.

So, if you find yourself going on about the centrality of 21st century skills, the pressing need for innovation, obsolete "factory model" schools, the wonder of digital personalization, etc., etc., just know that while I may agree with you on other topics, no offense but, I don't share your ed tech-induced exuberance. In fact, I may even be rolling my eyes at it.

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