Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Out with the old?


In this fascinating critique of the current US educational system, the one thing they leave out is the why. Why is the system failing? And what does failing even mean?

Technology is awesome! It can save our educational system by giving ownership of the learning to the students instead of to the teacher. Here is the quote that resonated with me: "What they also appreciated was that the teacher was no longer there to "punish them" or "grade them down".  Somehow the perspective of students changed, from being responsible for achieving good grades, to losing them at the hands of the evil teacher! I don't see how technology has fixed anything here. This was an attitude change facilitated by a new paradigm of guided learning. Something changed the attitude, but what was it?

What these different classroom approaches, via a cubicle structure life, is promote on the job training. Encouraging a work-a-holic mentality. "Last night I was so bored. It was a three-day weekend and I decided to jump on my computer and do some math." OK, that is a pretty typical response when you have ignited some passion for independent thought and motivation. I don't know what the unintended consequence of this is. What happens when they get in the working world where learning takes on different forms and subjects that are not right at their finger tips?

"The system is inflexible". I think most people agree with this. The problem though is multi-pronged. The system is inflexible because there is no room to adapt. More students are entering classrooms, increasing class sizes. You simply can't be flexible and reach every kid when you handicap teachers with increasing workloads. As these great folks have learned...small class sizes increases teacher contact and focuses on building better individual learning strategies. Wow. Miraculous insight there. So the brick and mortar does have some usefulness. But all you have done is helped teachers out with technology, letting teachers do what teachers do best: guided learning with fewer distractions when kids do homework and reading assignments!

I also like that there is no discussion about what teachers do best. Teachers construct lesson plans and do classroom management because of population requirements. I taught a class of 300 in college for many semesters. You have to be organized and rigid. There are topics to be covered, assignments that should demonstrate learning, and tests for evaluation. These are not trivial things. There needs to be assessment. Can you imagine doing this individually for students on different pathways (As were defined loosely in the article)? Even in this technology paradigm you are still requiring teachers to keep track of students all over the learning timeline spectrum!

What is disappointing is that assessment is lacking, identified solely as a challenge. I think we learned that already. But in any environment, you still need to establish that students at a school are making the grade ... learning what they should be learning and understanding that the process of learning, learning how to learn, is the end goal. What has been achieved here is exactly how I function as a scientist! Which is great model of self-sufficient learning. But you also led them to a point where metrics are just as hard to define because you have personalized the process literally to the individual. You almost have to use a resume to define their skill sets, strengths, weaknesses, and experience in order to rate them, grade them, or whatever you want to call it. An interesting academic problem to have.

Reading this over I still havent seen how technology facilitated anything more than being better than a textbook. The core issues surrounding student attitudes about learning haven't been identified in order to make the educational system (of order any population size) better. You simply made another box, identified a different perspective from which to evaluate what needs fixing. Of course what needs fixing is different than proposing solutions.

However, kudos to you fine people for branching out and being adaptive with exploring a human-technology merger to facilitate learning. I fear though that we just scaled down the problem and when it scales up, we will be left with the same issues when this generation of technology is outpaced by our students.