Techno-Literacy, Digital Classrooms, Curiosity Killers, and More

This year’s NY Times Magazine Education Issue is out and it is devoted to a topic we’ve given a good deal of attention to here — technology in the classroom.  Below are a few of the highlights.  If you click through to read the whole articles you may be prompted to register with the Times’ website, but it is quick and free.

In “Achieving Techno-Literacy” by Kevin Kelly we get a brief glimpse at a family that decided to home school their child for one year before he entered high school.  Kelly notes that one of the surprises they encountered was “that the fancy technology supposedly crucial to an up-to-the-minute education was not a major factor in its success.”  There were technologies involved, of course, like a homemade bow to make fire and more recent varieties as well.  Yet, Kelly explains that,

… the computer was only one tool of many. Technology helped us learn, but it was not the medium of learning. It was summoned when needed. Technology is strange that way. Education, at least in the K-12 range, is more about child rearing than knowledge acquisition. And since child rearing is primarily about forming character, instilling values and cultivating habits, it may be the last area to bedirectly augmented by technology.

A lot of good sense is packed into that paragraph.  And a lot of good sense also informs the principles for technology literacy that Kelly sought to instill in his son.

• Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

• Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.

• Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.

• Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls. If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.

• The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.

• Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?

• Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?

• The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.

• Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

In his contribution Jaron Lanier, who is becoming something of a regular on this blog, asks “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?” The most significant observations in Lanier’s piece come in the last few paragraphs.  Forgive the rather large block quote, but it would be hard to abridge further.  The italics below are mine and they emphasize some key observations. [Make that bold type, since the whole block quote is in italics!]

The deeper concern, for me, is the philosophy conveyed by a technological design. Some of the top digital designs of the moment, both in school and in the rest of life, embed the underlying message that we understand the brain and its workings. That is false. We don’t know how information is represented in the brain. We don’t know how reason is accomplished by neurons. There are some vaguely cool ideas floating around, and we might know a lot more about these things any moment now, but at this moment, we don’t.

You could spend all day reading literature about educational technology without being reminded that this frontier of ignorance lies before us. We are tempted by the demons of commercial and professional ambition to pretend we know more than we do. This hypnotic idea of omniscience could kill the magic of teaching, because of the intimacy with which we let computers guide our brains.

At school, standardized testing rules. Outside school, something similar happens. Students spend a lot of time acting as trivialized relays in giant schemes designed for the purposes of advertising and other revenue-minded manipulations. They are prompted to create databases about themselves and then trust algorithms to assemble streams of songs and movies and stories for their consumption.

We see the embedded philosophy bloom when students assemble papers as mash-ups from online snippets instead of thinking and composing on a blank piece of screen. What is wrong with this is not that students are any lazier now or learning less. (It is probably even true, I admit reluctantly, that in the presence of the ambient Internet, maybe it is not so important anymore to hold an archive of certain kinds of academic trivia in your head.)

The problem is that students could come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure. Their job is then to copy and transfer data around, to be a source of statistics, whether to be processed by tests at school or by advertising schemes elsewhere.

What is really lost when this happens is the self-invention of a human brain. If students don’t learn to think, then no amount of access to information will do them any good.

There is much to think about in those paragraphs, even beyond the realm of education, that echoes the premise of Lanier’s recent book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.  Each of the emphasized lines could sustain a very long conversation.  There was one element of Lanier’s piece, however, that caused me to wonder if something was not missing.  According to Lanier,

To the degree that education is about the transfer of the known between generations, it can be digitized, analyzed, optimized and bottled or posted on Twitter. To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.

My question involves that first line about education as “the transfer of the known between generations.”  Only when what is known is understood as raw data can it really be consider fit for digitization and communication by computer.  There is a good deal that is passed on from one generation to another (at least ideally) that doesn’t amount to raw data.  What happens to wisdom, morality, embodied and un-articulated ways of being and doing in the world, modes of speech, rituals, judgment and more that counts as the kind of education-as-character-formation that Kelly cited in his piece?

Nonetheless, there is much to commend in Lanier’s piece, and he concludes by referring back to his father’s method of teaching math in the classroom, having students build a spaceship,

Roughly speaking, there are two ways to use computers in the classroom. You can have them measure and represent the students and the teachers, or you can have the class build a virtual spaceship. Right now the first way is ubiquitous, but the virtual spaceships are being built only by tenacious oddballs in unusual circumstances. More spaceships, please.

The Hornbook: Early classroom technology

Virginia Heffernan’s “Drill, Baby, Drill”, which revisits the benefits of drilling and rote memorization in the classroom, suggests that maybe Lanier won’t have to reluctantly admit “that in the presence of the ambient Internet, maybe it is not so important anymore to hold an archive of certain kinds of academic trivia in your head.”  According University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham,

“You can’t be proficient at some academic tasks without having certain knowledge be automatic — ‘automatic’ meaning that you don’t have to think about it, you just know what to do with it.” For knowledge that must be automatic, like multiplication tables, “you need something like drilling,” Willingham wrote.

And lastly, “Online Curiosity Killer” by Ben Greenman tells the story of one father’s decision to put off turning to Google for immediate answers to his son’s questions in order to cultivate the kind of frustration that will generate interest:

By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests.

There is much else on offer in the Times special issue including the cover piece on video games and learning, an interactive time-line on the history of technology in the classroom, and an interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Across the political and cultural spectrum, we recognize the significance of education.  Thinking carefully about the role of technology in education is unavoidable.  We’ve got a lot of thinking to do.


Related post:  “Questionable Classrooms”

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