Teachers, Resistance is Futile

Related to the last post, a friend passed along a link this afternoon to a story in the NY Times about a school district in North Carolina that is having notable success implementing technology in the classroom. Here’s a representative passage:

“Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: they correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can.

Many classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation. Rather than tell her 11th-grade English students the definition of transcendentalism one recent day, Katheryn Higgins had them crowd-source their own — quite Thoreauly, it turned out — using Google Docs. Back in September, Ms. Higgins had the more outgoing students make presentations on the Declaration of Independence, while shy ones discussed it in an online chat room, which she monitored.”

Yes, you read that correctly. He did write “quite Thoreauly.” As unfortunate as that line may be, it’s not the most disturbing:

“Many students adapted to the overhaul more easily than their teachers, some of whom resented having beloved tools — scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum — vanish. The layoffs in 2009 and 2010, of about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, helped weed out the most reluctant, Mr. Edwards said; others he was able to convince that the technology would actually allow for more personal and enjoyable interaction with students.”

Once more, the layoffs “helped weed out the most reluctant.”

I’m far from suggesting that there is never a time to let go of incompetent teachers, but it seems to me that this is a net that is just as likely to snare competent teachers as incompetent ones.

The message in this case seems clear: resistance is futile, I believe is the line. It rather reminds me of the motto of the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair which I stumbled upon recently — “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms”.

So it would seem, at least as this writer presents the case.

2 thoughts on “Teachers, Resistance is Futile

  1. Although it is necessary and good that you have, with this post, helped to expose the extent of the problem, this is such disheartening news! So many fronts to defend at once! So many gremlins to destroy! I am exhausted before I begin, and yes, a sense of futility is setting in. Beyond one swipe at the lack of practical experience, understanding or vision that allows one to equate teachers with any objections to a wholescale (and often thoughtless) technological overhaul of the education system, to weeds, I shall try to limit myself to a single concern.

    The thing I find most frightening in the above discussion is the endorsement of the “lecture to lattice” reorganization of the classroom in the description of the North Carolina school district experiencing “notable success” as a result of its embrace of technology. (The sceptic in me wants a good, hard look at the evidence for this “notable success.” Testimonials from those who have chosen not to be weeded won’t suffice. The uber-sceptic in me says “follow the money on this one” — but these are bones for another day.) The most distressing element of the picture painted is the erroneous assumption lying at its heart which would be sweetly ingenuous if it were not so dangerous: that the teacher “swooping in for consultation” is fully able to:

    1. assess the integrity of the information accessed by the students through technology (in terms of both its source, and its accuracy)

    2. understand it, and its relationship to the topic at hand, sufficiently to provide students any meaningful context or guidance in its interpretation.

    This is in no way meant to be a criticism of teachers — I am one myself. I imagine there may be, at best, a handful of intellectuals on the continent whose vast erudition would make the classroom scenario described above feasible. While many teachers do have advanced degrees, for the most part, a general BA or BSc. plus some teacher training will get you the job — and this is perfectly proper — I’m not arguing for advanced degree requirements or belittling teacher intelligence. However, I hope that no one would argue that a BSc. qualifies one to parse the infinite supply of scientific, quasi-scientific, and utterly non-scientific information available on any subject on the internet. We must remember,as well, (at least at the high school level, from whence I draw my experience) teachers are often expected to teach outside of their area of “expertise.” In the main, they are remarkably successful, considering the circumstances, at what they do, because their focus has been narrowed for them by curriculum requirements — really a list of level-appropriate concepts deemed to be essential subject knowledge by their society — their job is to understand the relationship between these concepts and to facilitate their students’ advance to the next level — a task on a human scale, and one they are equipped to do because their degree has demanded that they be at least reasonably successful mastering these concepts themselves. This narrowing may seem hierarchical, but in fact, it is vital — why?– because you can’t learn everything at once, much less teach everything at once — much less sift through and assign order to the infinite supply of contextless information available through technology. Anyone with any experience setting students free to research on the web will know that (unless you get there before them and lay out a highly structured pathway which starts to look very much like a textbook) the results are dismal (whether or not the students are aware of it), and often, the students frustrated and overwhelmed. All good teachers know this in their hearts.

    Why is this “lattice model” so dangerous? Because in the lattice set up — core knowledge is abandoned and replaced with this contextless sea of info bits — suddenly, anything might be true because there is far more “information” available than can possibly be assessed, And, if anything might be true, then nothing is necessarily true — or, more ominously, whatever you wish to be true is true — a condition which seems already to be affecting the technophiles!

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful and eloquent comment. I think this is exactly right at several levels. And I rather appreciated the tone of restrained indignation. There’s very little I could add. You’ve certainly augmented this post considerably. For the record, I think the “uber-sceptic” is on the right track.

      Cheers!

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