The Power of Edtech: Idolatry and Pragmatism

The Power of Edtech: Idolatry and Pragmatism

(Note: if you have any trouble viewing this post due to its formatting, you can click here to go to the published Google Doc version)
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about technology and social media in education[1], prompted by my attendance at the recent #140edu conference, and conversations I’ve had with other edtech enthusiasts.

I am most decidedly an avid computer user (though I can’t claim geekdom); I am passionate about using open source-based operating systems and believe strongly in self-empowerment through tinkering and problem-solving using command line and code[2]. I am a firm believer in the emerging power of social media to break through traditional barriers between governing entities, businesses, and civil society. I’ve written about developing curriculum using open source methods and the potential it holds for disrupting monopolies by publishing companies, and I believe that technology furthermore holds great potential to break through the isolation of classrooms and connect students and teachers to a more open, self-empowered, and collaborative world.

That said, I also have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the wide-eyed championing of edtech as a panacea for public education and professional or personal development. Part of this is that I am just naturally cynical[3]. Another part is fueled by an instinctive caution towards fervour of any sort due to its unfortunate proximity to zealotry.

Here’s an outline of a few common threads that emerge from the missionary set of the edtech crowd that I’d like to lend a dour note to:
  1. School is boring to kids who are “digital natives”
  2. Learning is based on discovery and passion, not drill and kill
  3. Kids are unique individuals who should all have personalized learning paths
  4. Technology puts power into the hands of our students, teachers just need to get out of the way
These all sound great, don’t they? It’s like we’re on the cusp of a major breakthrough in transforming education by making lessons fun and interesting, personalizing content for every student based on their interests and needs, and letting the overburdened teacher sit back, finally, to coach and mentor individually rather than dictating and lecturing to a whole class.

Thing is, all of these points are essentially a regurgitation of unbridled constructivist theory. And while that’s not inherently a bad thing — I’m not completely opposed to constructivism and I’ll get deeper into that in a moment — I want to make it clear that the underlying approach here is nothing entirely new, disruptive, nor revolutionary; it also has little to do with what is truly disruptive in edtech itself. Which isn’t an argument specifically against any of the points. Let me get to that now.

First, however, let me quickly address a question you may have while reading this:

Why am I bothering to critique the missionary zeal of some edtech proponents, if I generally support the need for innovation and creativity in education, and believe strongly in the overall power of edtech?

I am writing this not only to get these thoughts off my chest, but furthermore because there’s a lot of snake oil salesmen out there right now with dollar signs in their eyes and hymns of the promised land in their mouths. We must be vigilant.

1) School is boring to kids who are “digital natives”

Let me ask what may seem like a senseless question: is it the central purpose of schooling, or of any form of education at all, to entertain? I certainly believe that learning should be fun, but it’s not always fun. Sometimes it can be downright dreary. Come to think of it, even the educational activities that we think of as fun and creative are often in reality full of drudge work and extensive, mundane practice on the long road to mastery. Like art. Or music. Or writing stories or poems. Ever written a poem?  It’s not what most would call fun. It entails going back over it again. Then back over it again. Again. And again, and again,  each time slicing, shaping, rethinking each and every syllable and sound of every word and its placement on the page. Ever read a book on something you were really passionate about learning, like the history of Quidditch, or organizational behavior? Books with lots of information and facts in them, unfortunately, can frequently be rather tedious. Gee. Just makes you want to pick up a remote or Wii controller, don’t it?

Which leads me directly to my next question: does having been raised using tablets, smartphones, and gaming systems that have been produced specifically for the purpose of the swiftest and most convenient consumption of content possible mean that our children are “experts” in technology use?
I believe the term “digital native” is misleading. It implies that having been bred and groomed as consumers of digital goods means that our children are technological experts, possessing some intrinsic wisdom, some capacity for leveraging technology that their outmoded neanderthal parents don’t. But knowing how to swipe a screen to download the latest app, or how to swing a controller so you can accrue points, or walking crookedly  down the sidewalk hunched over your smartphone tweeting out your gastrointestinal state to the world doesn’t mean you are technologically literate. What makes for technological literacy (in my humble opinion, of course) is the capacity for diagnosing and fixing technical issues with software and hardware, in addition to modifying and creating new digital environments, with a firm grounding in “machine” language. Some kids can do this. You know, the geeks. The ones that invest a lot of time in tinkering, learning command line and code. Kinda like how some kids can fix cars; the ones that invest a lot of time tinkering, taking engines apart, changing the oil.

But talking about kids tinkering with real things is taking me towards an argument FOR constructivism that I’m not ready to delve into just yet. We’ll come back to this idea later. For now, suffice it to say that kids — and adults — don’t necessarily know much about technology simply because they consume digital content.

I, for one,  don’t want our kids to be digital natives. I want them to be life-long learners capable of manipulating existing systems and creating new ones. In other words: hackers.

Let’s return to the original point I began with here: learning facts and gaining skills can sometimes be boring, even arduous. Without domain specific background knowledge (e.g. science and history), then kids are much more liable to turn into gullible, superstitious, ill-informed adults little able to participate meaningfully in a democracy[4]. Which is more or less the issue with our body politic at the moment, in my cynical opinion — we’ve got a nation full of debt-ridden, gullible, superstitious,  ill-informed adults, run by a coterie of sheltered, short-sighted, non-empathetic  adults operating on questionable assumptions and data. The fact that in 2012 those who govern us are still debating whether climate change is even a reality or not speaks directly to this point. If all of those adults were a bit more literate in a shared knowledge and understanding of history and science, we might have a better functioning nation.

Beyond acquiring domain specific facts and background knowledge, gaining fluency and mastery of any skill can sometimes be boring, too. And that leads us directly to the next point on the agenda.

2) Learning is based on discovery and passion, not drill and kill

Yes. . . but. In order to gain fluency, let alone mastery, practice is required. Stop calling it “drill and kill”and call it “practice and application[5]” instead, and it doesn’t sound so evil. Any musician worth their salt has spent countless hours practicing boring things like scales. You don’t gain automaticity in recall of your times tables through discovery and passion[6]. What makes the process of learning through practice different than drilling, according to Daniel T. Willingham, is that it is “executed for the purpose of improvement.”

Discovery and passion are fundamental and beautiful aspects of life and learning. It’s what drives us to put in countless hours of practice. It’s what drives researchers to spend years squinting at fruit flies mating or maimed rats eating. But discovery and passion don’t infuse every day, every minute unless the learner has the self-control, persistence, and wherewithal to see learning through. In the absence of these qualities and means, discovery and passion may simply mean chasing after fleeting pleasures.[7]

Look, I’m not trying to make an argument that learning should be boring. But I believe that real learning takes a lot of hard work, and that we need to be forthright about that.  Learning activities in school should certainly be engaging, but this engagement must be derived from the richness of the content itself, not from clever tricks with iPads and tapdancing by teachers. In my opinion, part of the reason[8] why education is such a failure for so many kids is not because teachers aren’t doing a nifty song and dance with fancy tools, but because teachers and schools are failing to provide content that is sequenced, structured, and steeped in a deeper understanding of the foundations of that specific academic domain. Which brings me to our next point.

3) Kids are unique individuals who should all have personalized learning paths

Well, sure. Every individual has a completely unique set of whorls chiseled into their fingertips. We are all amazingly singular variations on a common set of genes, living divergent experiences in widely variable sets of circumstances. But does this entail that each and every human being needs a specifically tailored suite of content from their public schools, delivered just so to meet their utterly  unique learning styles and abilities? Let’s exercise some caution.

I am a special education teacher, so I’m well aware that there are real differences in some children’s cognitive development that have real differences in outcomes. Developing personalized learning paths is critical to ensuring that students with learning disabilities are given an education that adapts and modifies the curriculum to enable them to access it alongside their peers to the fullest extent possible.

But I chafe against the idea that all kids require personalized learning paths in our public schools for a couple of reasons. First, our nation can barely even agree to common standards — forget about a nationally agreed upon curriculum that establishes a least a basic guide to just half of what a teacher is expected to cover. So how is one supposed to personalize something that hasn’t ever been formalized in the first place? Second, as a result of this soupy conundrum, the call to “personalized learning paths” ends up, in our edtech age, as a sales pitch for the latest software package from a for-profit vendor, who will then get to determine what that curriculum to be adapted shall be.

That said, I don’t want it to seem like I am against student-centered teaching or differentiation — I’m not. But I also think this notion of differences in learning can become so dramatically overplayed that it distracts from far more important concerns, such as developing or following the backbone of a solid curriculum in the first place. Which requires us adults to develop a backbone ourselves and provide some guidance and direction to children.

Which leads me to our final point.

4) Technology puts power into the hands of our students, teachers just need to get out of the way

I vibe with the liberating sentiment expressed here. I agree fully that we must shift from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction, and that students need access to tools that will empower them to collaborate beyond the classroom, and develop and create meaningful student products. But my caution here is that this process of empowerment still benefits from clear and explicit adult guidance, as content experts[9], in the domain specific knowledge that will enable students to commence a more independent exploration of a topic, as well provide the school environment and structures that will best support and empower them in their journey.

However, I will readily acknowledge that indeed, if we hand over tools to students with little guidance, they can and will do and learn amazing things. Watch this TED talk from Sugata Mitra on children in India teaching themselves and each other using a “hole in the wall” computer on the street, and you’ll see that this form of technological empowerment can be convincing.

Take this idea to its logical extension, and it indeed has the potential to be truly revolutionary. The concept of teachers as a guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage has been around for a while, but the levels of instantaneous connectivity we now possess finally offers the opportunity to realize that potential.

In his presentation at #140edu, Deven Black took this idea of self-discovery and self-teaching to its fullest logical extent, and advised students to drop out of school. Why do we keep these bumbling, oppressive, dinosaur adults around at all, anyway?

While I deeply appreciate the rebellious spirit underlying this idea, I think that there’s a serious problem with the suggestion that children can teach themselves, and it has little to do with academic content (some kids, after all, know much more than their would-be teachers[10]). I fully believe that students can teach themselves quite a bit once given some free reign. My concern has more to do with the broader idea of adults abstaining from providing the social, moral, and emotional guidance that children will need as they struggle through the stress and confusion of adolescence. By believing that children will teach themselves how to navigate the treacherous waters of the world excuses, in effect, adults from responsibility. And I think that our world is just a little too full of adults who have excused themselves from responsibility already. This applies to parents, this applies to educators and administrators, this applies to businesses, and this applies to those would govern. When we relinquish our roles as mentors and leaders, then we strand kids without the positive community of role models they desperately need.

In a school, therefore, I believe that it is the duty of the adults to provide that social, moral, and emotional guidance, in addition to academic content knowledge and expertise. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t empower students with technology and step out of the way. But we must be clear that as adults, we’ve first got to equip students with the academic knowledge they need, and provide the structures and environment that will enable them to explore and persist in their activities and learning.

OK, so what then? Would you have us return to to the Dark Ages of Catholic nuns rapping our children’s knuckles with rulers, desks in rows, and rote memorization of facts we can Google in milliseconds?

Well, actually, Catholic schools did a pretty darn good job of providing guidance (other than the rapping on the knuckles), and I’m OK with desks in rows[11] . . . But really what it comes down to is a few simple questions: what is the real purpose of school? Is it a place to find yourself? Or it it a place to discover common ground with others? Or is it both?

These are big questions, and I think I need to make something clear that I haven’t thus far in my critique: how we structure our schools must be dependent on the developmental needs of children. Many of the critiques I have been forwarding may not apply to high school, for example. In high school, I think kids are really ready to embark on their own individual pursuits based on passion and discovery — with the proper guidance and support from adults, of course. In high school, I don’t think curriculum should be as structured as I’ve been suggesting, and I think kids should be able to begin structuring their own learning paths by that point, if not earlier. But in elementary school, I believe that curriculum must be very structured in order to establish a strong academic and social foundation.

I want to close this overlong piece on edtech already, so to begin to wrap this thing up, let me outline what I feel are important things to consider in the realm of edtech:

  • The power of technology and social media lies not in the tools themselves

What is revolutionary about technology and social media is not how well-designed and amazingly small and speedy tools are, but the level of connectivity that is established between individuals. The power, in other words, is not that technology can supplant relationships or individual ability, but that it can enhance them. These tech tools are connecting us to one another in ways that we have never seen before. It’s empowering — but it’s also dangerous. Our children must understand that everything they do online leaves a footprint, and that the seeming anonymity and informality of communication can still wreak terrible effects on other people’s lives. They must also understand that if they are unable to intelligently navigate online spaces, they may well be at the mercy of political propaganda, unscrupulous profit interests, and individuals with ill intent.

Navigating this new world of hyperconnectivity, therefore, still requires the social, moral, and emotional guidance that communities and schools must be expected to provide. Schools, as I have pointed out before, are all about relationships. No matter how we leverage and scale edtech, this will continue to be true.

Thus, we must be careful to not worship edtech as a saviour — if we don’t first build the human capital and capacity within a school, edtech will do little to empower anyone.

  • The skills that children need to navigate this new world are still founded in literacy, science, history, and math

It bothers me a bit when people keep on about “21st century skills,” saying that we don’t know what jobs will look like in X many years[12]. I would argue that the gap that is occurring between what employers are looking for and the skills people on the market possess[13] has much less to do with their ability for creativity and innovation, and much more to do with the fact that many can’t write a basic paper, conduct basic research, or do any of the things that they would be able to do and understand if they had a strong foundation in literacy, science, history, and math.

As I discussed earlier, calling kids “digital natives” is a misnomer. Knowing how to swipe a screen doesn’t translate into knowing how to target a Google search to find relevant information. I took the Google power search class I just linked to, and I was struck by how the most fundamental skills of effective search are based on the nature of literacy and deeper content specific knowledge.

In Summation. Finally.

My overall point in this piece is that we must be cautious about letting what is truly revolutionary about edtech sweep us over into unbridled constructivism and the idealistic expectation that our human and social capital problems will be solved.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not wholly opposed to constructivism. The argument that I and my colleague Will Johnson have been making here on our blog Schools as Ecosystems — that schools should be viewed more holistically as complex adaptive systems — is fundamentally constructivist in its concern with the impact of learning environments and relationships on learning.

But I also believe, as I’ve argued here and elsewhere, that adults must commit to serve their natural roles as guides and leaders, and that we must approach this guidance systematically. So I am cautious about constructivism because in the jubilation and zeal for edtech, some folks are advising that adults should step aside and relinquish our leadership on content and structured learning. We should not step aside. Rather, we should step up and develop our professional  capacity for leveraging technology and social media positively and systematically.

At the #140edu conference, Principal Chris Lehmann made some great points about how the constructivist approach can be leveraged by edtech, and the one that most stuck with me was the call to let kids “build things that matter.” As I mentioned earlier, tinkering and exploring and messing around with things is how we gain expertise. This form of project-based learning, structured with the requisite domain specific background knowledge, in  a school that builds systems and structures with the proper tools to empower teachers and students to do this form of learning, I believe holds tremendous power for engaging learning that can be steeped in a foundation of content knowledge.

Another great point he made was that we must stop focusing so much on 21st century skills and focus instead on community. Unsurprisingly, this resonated strongly with me, given the skepticism I evidenced earlier about 21st century skills, but also because Will Johnson and I have been focusing heavily on the central concept of community in schools in our framework of Schools as Ecosystems. I believe that building stronger communities is central to the purpose of public education.

To close, I want to leave you with the idea that we can blend progressive and conservative ideals; constructivist and objectivist theories; visionary and pragmatic applications; and what is truly transformative in edtech, with what works in traditional schooling. It doesn’t have to be one ideal at the expense of another. We can blend these ideals together to form an evolutionary reality that works better for the ones who are our future.

Larry Cuban wrote a great series of posts recently about the power of teachers working with other teachers in a professional learning community. I’d like to close this piece with a quotation from one of those posts, in which he makes the point that there is no such thing as a “single one-best way of teaching,” but rather that effective teaching is the result of flexible yet disciplined structures of teams of teachers working together to problem solve based on the needs of their students:

When teachers work together to examine student work and analyze classroom lessons, they figure out collectively what works and doesn’t work and they build a culture of learning across grade levels in elementary schools and within departments in secondary schools. They build trusting relationships with peers  and learn from one another — a scarce resource because isolation is endemic across age-graded schools. The resulting pedagogical capital blends ambitious lessons and traditional ones of teacher- and student-centered practices, rather than a single one-best way of teaching. Such hybrids of teaching, working within adaptable structures of professional development and site-based learning communities, are tailored for complex, web-like systems like schools.”

[1] from here on out in this piece, “edtech” will serve as the all encompassing signifier for “technology and social media”
[2] though I don’t code myself–hence unable to label myself a true geek–I just ride on the coat-tails of those who do. I’m a “copy-n-paster,” not a “hacker”
[3] which made me quite the morose youngster, by the way. I’m trying to make up for it as an adult
[4] Though they will, of course, be consummate consumers
[5] I’m deliberately ignoring for the moment that practice and application can be done in innovative ways that are far more engaging and meaningful than worksheets and other rote forms of learning
[6] At least, I sure didn’t. I would certainly be interested in hearing otherwise
[7] Chasing after fleeting pleasures. . . that sure sounds like the defining pastime of a lot of Estadounidenses
[8] The other part is a failure to provide the social, moral, and emotional guidance and support kids need. More on this further down
[9] I say this knowing full well that some teachers are hardly experts, but that’s part of the REAL problem, don’t you think? We don’t value teachers enough in this country to ensure that they are picked competitively and trained extensively
[10] One student panelist and presenter at #140edu, Nikhil Goyal, memorably stated, “I learn more through Twitter than I do in class, and that’s a problem, I think.”
[11] This charade of pretending that teaching is progressive just because you force kids to sit in groups is preposterous. Some activities are best in groups, some are not. It also depends on the style of the teacher and the needs of the students
[12] Heck, with the way things are going, we don’t even know if there will BE any jobs
[13] I also think that we should be talking a lot more about getting students out of school and into workplace internships for hands-on experience and skills during high school

2 thoughts on “The Power of Edtech: Idolatry and Pragmatism

  1. I, too, went to the #140 conference, and thank you for your critical perspective on some of the presentations. I teach high school students, and would love to have students follow their interests more, if they didn't all have to pass the same Global History Regents Exam at the end. Also, my students can certainly find things online easily, but that doesn't mean they think much about what they find. But . . . that said, I have some new ideas percolating in my mind about tech and ed, and will see when/how I manage to, er, brew anything new in my classroom.


  2. Valeria, thanks for reading and commenting. I would love to hear what your ideas are on utilizing edtech in your classroom.

    I've only taught elementary and middle school, so I'm curious about the restrictiveness of the Regents exams. Does it confine student independent exploration due to the breadth of topics they need to know and thus limited time frame to explore them, or does it test higher level skills, like analyzing primary documents? Hopefully the shift to the Common Core will shift the regents to the latter, which would then potentially open it up for deeper exploration of a smaller range of topics.


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