Sunday, October 9, 2011

Classroom technology - Is "Does it Work?" the right question?

Check out the very interesting article by Trip Gabriel and Matt Richtel in yesterday's New York Times, about the "report card" of technology in K12 education.

When evaluating technology, are people asking the right question, "Does it work?"

Would it be more useful to ask, "What is the proficiency objective?" before deciding how to assess any specific technology's effectiveness?

There seems to be wide agreement that student assessment should consist of more than a numerical score on a standardized test, and teacher assessment should consist of more than an aggregate of students' standardized test scores. So - can textbooks or technology be evaluated based on student test scores alone? Wouldn't it make sense to begin with what the teacher is trying to accomplish in the classroom, and find out how well the textbook and/or technology (or game, or gadget, or teaching tool) actually assists and promotes what the teacher's goals are for the lesson or the class period?

The New York Times article's 130 comments (as of this evening) range from thoughtful to vitriolic. It's a little disconcerting to see the comments that accuse school officials and curriculum publishers of somehow colluding to defraud or hoodwink the taxpaying public. We cannot remember a time when emotions ran this high about education standards, curriculum decisions, and school purchasing/finance strategies.

Our position has always been that technology cannot replace a good teacher, and that the best technology assists and supports the teacher to provide an engaging learning experience for every student. What could be controversial about that?

What do you think? Will we continue to see technology purchases portrayed with suspicion as somehow "replacing" the teacher? Is it fair to assess a technology investment based solely on aggregate standardized student test scores' improvements? Even if technology is not viewed as "replacing the teacher," how can educators avoid creating this impression, when teacher layoffs are taking place even while technology investments are increasing? Is your school facing this kind of situation?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Can you imagine a toddler forming their first words, taking their first steps, laughing with delight at the new experience, suddenly presented with a sixteen-chapter syllabus to "help" them master talking and walking within a prescribed number of classes? It may not be so for other subjects, but when we are teaching language, we are very close to the private worlds of our students. They are vulnerable, and unsure of themselves, especially if they are monolingual and this is their first attempt to think, speak, and understand a new language. The teacher can be the key to a lifetime of language learning or a lifetime of "that's too hard." It's an awesome responsibility.
Teachers can so easily fall into the mindset, "We must cover this material." There are so many pressures that create this kind of thinking. When the student sees that the teacher's main goal is to "cover the material" - sometimes with the added, "We're so far behind, we need to work hard to catch up," then the student automatically becomes defensive. How can the student protect herself or himself from this steamroller teacher who is going to "cover this material" no matter what obstacles may stand in the way? The lessons become rote drills, the test preparation becomes a cramming session. The joy of discovery, of sharing, of connection, is difficult to detect in such a classroom environment. Does this ever work? Do students ever learn the material so diligently "covered"? It must work, because if it did not, no one would even try it. This is also the explanation for spam emails, and for those telemarketing calls that interrupt your family supper with a solicitation for carpet cleaning or a discount at the local portrait photography studio. Of course the success percentage is low, and there is a trail of anger and annoyance left in the wake of such activities, but so what? It works. Or does it? Is there a "middle way"? We invite all teachers to share your thoughts on this topic.