23 July 2007

Ending the "Reality Free Zone"


Alan November calls it the "Reality Free Zone" in the June 2007 Technology and Learning, and with just a month to go before school begins, you've got a fight on your hands.

American schools, even more than most of the world's, have locked themselves and their students in a prison of the past. They deny the needs of their students. They deny the tools of the society they exist in. And they deny the world their students exist in as well as the future world those students will graduate into.

"School" of course, is always a conservative institution. It is, first and foremost, a method of social reproduction. Politicians, administrators, university education faculties, and teachers themselves, all believe that they are in the business of teaching young people to be "just like themselves" - after all, they've succeeded, right?

That's a dangerous business in most times. History (if taught properly) teaches us that societies which stagnate, fall. It is incredibly dangerous right now, with global change spinning at a faster and faster rate, and all the populations of the world grasping for their piece of the future.

The world of yesterday relied on a certain set of what November calls information "containers." It used printed books and handwritten notebooks. It used index cards and card catalogues. It used radio and film and television. It used landline phones and magnetic tape. It even began using computer hard drives. Schools, of course, were not even happy with all of those, privileging print and handwritten notes above all others as "they" pretended that all knowledge within books was accurate and good, and all knowledge gained by other means was suspect. In schools, everything that came from outside the historical lines formed by the invention of the pen and Gutenberg's breakthrough in 1450 was deemed illegitimate. Students were no more allowed to audio record a lesson than they were permitted to count on their fingers.

Today the containers have changed. The dominant information holders in the world are the laptop or handheld computer, the mobile phone, the iPod (digital music or music/video player), and the text message by phone or computer. But schools, well, they haven't even grudgingly given in to the 1970s. And they continue to abuse children by separating them from reality and by preparing them for the best jobs of 1967.

What should your school do?
Welcome technology
Teach technology
Embrace technology

Welcome technology: Every technology banned - or not actively used - is a technology unlearned. It was important, in 1850, to teach handwriting - handwriting was the prime communication method, along with Morse Code. It was important to teach the typewriter in 1950, that was a principle business and academic communication tool. But there have always been other "containers" that schools avoided, which have produced massive cultural failures. In 1850 it was vital to teach students how to listen to political rumour and political argument, how to pick facts from fiction. But this was not taught. In 1960 it was vital to teach students how to view film and television, how to pull real information and determine veracity. But this was not taught. One could argue that the legendary response to Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds represents an absolute failure of American schooling, as was Fox Broadcasting's concerns in 2003 that viewer's of The Simpsons would mistake a fake cartoon news crawl for the real thing.

So bring 'em in... the iPods, the mobile phones, the laptop computers, the handheld computers. Bring 'em in, pass 'em out. Flood the classrooms with them. Right now the typical school classroom has less technology in it than almost any other public space. Less than any office. Less than the local Wal-Mart. Less than the neighborhood restaurant. Nothing will change unless that changes.

Teach technology: Teaching responsible use of information and communications technology is what will open the world for your students. I constantly hear teachers whine about the "way kids use these things" (the strange English of IM and Text, over-reliance on unchecked Wikipedia), but I barely see them teaching Google (half the US teachers I meet don't even know the use of quotation marks with search terms, how could they teach Google?). Guaranteed: your students will need to use internet search engines in their university, in their jobs, in their careers. Guaranteed: your students will communicate with their employers and co-workers via email, IM, and text message. Guaranteed: your students will need to learn from podcasts, blogs, and vlogs, as well as downloaded and "voiced texts" in higher education and in careers. Guaranteed: your students will need to use Google Maps, on-line translation software, on-line international conversion software, and will need to access news sources on-line simply in order to survive in the world. If your school is not actively teaching these technologies, it is really not educating at all.

Embrace technology: The hardest thing about education is this -politicians who were educated 40 or 50 years ago direct administrators who were educated 20 or 30 years ago. Those administrators direct teachers who were educated 10 or 15 years ago. And someone, out of this ancient training, we're supposed to produce students fully prepared for the future.

Students must be taught not just how to use, but how to learn technology. How to learn it on their own. How to share that knowledge with each other. And how to use that knowledge positively and constructively.

You won't teach that with filters. You won't teach that with locked down devices. You can only teach that by opening up the technology and by letting students learn by doing, by failing, and by screwing up, in an environment with less than drastic consequences for mistakes.

After all, as you face a room full of sixth graders, can you even imagine the technology that they will need when they enter college ? No you can't, but here are two more guarantees: They will need to know it. And history will judge you by how prepared those students are for that future world.

- Ira Socol

18 comments:

Mary Godwin said...

Yes, yes, yes! I can especially connect with the comment that there is typically less technology in the average classroom than there is in almost any other public forum. Throughout a recent year of teaching at a Midwest high school, even I was prohibited from a regular use of my iPod, whether for classroom instruction or not. Worse, the prohibition made too much sense to the students themselves who were willing to define school in patterns inherited from their parents, endure it, skate around it, and not be bothered. I did what I could to "bother" them, but more is needed. Thanks for the encouragement you continue to speak into the world. It helps to keep me going. -mg

Paul Hamilton said...

You've put it very well indeed,Ira! The reluctance to teach technology, to embrace it, and to use it effectively in education is doing a huge disservice to ALL students.

For those students without strong academic aptitude and skills, however, it is much worse than that. Technology that is readily available today offers countless ways to engage many of the learners that our school system has been failing so miserably. I believe that we now have ways of tuning in many of those students who have traditionally turned off and tuned out.--ph

narrator said...

Mary: Yes. Schools not only don't deal with reality, that actively fight to keep it out of the classroom. Amazing choices. And they wonder why...

Paul: Yes indeed. Most of this blog is about students who "do not traditionally succeed" - but in this post I hoped to point out that it robs every student of the education they deserve.

MelissaKate said...

I love that phrase 'social reproduction'.
I don't understand why it is soooo hard to get them to change tho? I remember getting the devil smacked out of my hand because I wanted to use a calculator in chemistry...NOT a slide rule. The teacher could not give me one good reason why not, except he said so and we 'needed' to do it 'this' way.
I also had a professor that refused to allow me to tape his lectures...he was afraid I would sell them. I told him I wouldn't get anything for it in the first place and the second, if everyone taped them, then everyone might "get" what he was talking about in the first place. Didn't happen.
Keep fighting for us Ira.
As for me, I am taking everything you showed me and giving a presentation tomorrow night to CHADD. Wish me luck!

Anonymous said...

I just wonder how anyone plans to pay for this? As fine and noble an idea as this is, it would require a complete overhaul of the education system, the development, installation, and maintenence of industry specific technology and applications. The technology in our offices is often outdated, and that's in a place where profit and competiveness encourages modernization and routine updates. How can our publicly (under)funded schools cope with this economic burden. No to mention the question of who will teach the teachers to apply these technological methods.

There is also already a long (and bad) history of schools buying into technology, only to not be able to afford to maintain/upgrade the technology in order to make it relevant. It's an enourmous financial burden to put out on a system that is already chronically underfunded.

Also, what is it's ultimate usefullness. in poverty areas (where these programs would be the most difficult to implement) there would be an argument for exposing the kids to technology they don't have access to, but for middle class and affluent kids, much of this would be redundant to things they casually learn in their day to day lives. How many "wired" kids don't already know how to google search, use html, and ipods.

Of course there are probably some ways to incorporate the technology at a smaller cost in affluent neighborhoods, by integrating the students own personal technology, but how about the kids who don't have the latest video ipod or iphone? Education requires some level of standardization and fair access to both the information and the tools used in the educational environment. So, unless you can make all this technology affordable now and in the long run, it sounds to me like a lot of 'feel good' talk without much practical perspective.

narrator said...

Anonymous is looking from a single perspective. And it is the one that locks US education into a cycle of continual failure (2/3 of students do terribly, always have done terribly).

Because: two responses:

A) No, you do not need uniformity in education. You need the opposite - diversity. Differing students need differing programs, curriculae, technologies.
B) Expensive? No, again, the opposite. The content delivery by mobile has been pioneered by the UK's Open University in sub-Saharan Africa simply because it is MUCH cheaper than computers or books. You use the technology people already have, and you need not buy it. (and, yes, a bluetooth text-message receiver can be had for about $50.00. All teachers could have one.)

The refusal of the US system to understand these dual facts - differing technologies for differing students, and leveraging ubiquitous technology - is what has left US students so far behind.

Anonymous said...

I further want to add that this focus on technology-laden methodology confuses the purpose of education. Undoubtedly "social reproduction" is a main goal of school. That can be valued positively or negatively depending on how repressive the methodology is and is not really relevant to the technology question.

Furthermore, the most important focus on education should not be the plastic "information containers"i.e. the books or laptops. Rather the focus should be on the living, breathing "information containers". Teaching kids how to receive and process information, how to think logically, problem-solve, and engage in abstract intellectual tasks should be the goal of school, and the information-delivery systems do not necessarily improve that.

Perhaps one might argue that the use of more fluid and interactive information sources would better prepare the student for a world where information is constantly being re-fined and updated and changed. That would be true- if the educator is teaching that approach to the receiving and processing of information. But they can teach that just as well with books and magazines and traditional educational materials as they can with computers.

Ultimately it's the approach to learning that is dangerously calcified, and this is the dangerously outdated aspect of American education. The technology is only a tool, and adjunct, a secondary function that will only reap results based on the users own higher abstract functioning. To take that focus away with the ill-fated promise that "if we teach them with computers, then they'll be ready for the real world" is dangerous and misguided.

Focus on their minds, not their tools.

narrator said...

Not to be offensive anonymous, but that's absurd. You must focus on both or the education is worthless. If you believed what you believe, there'd be no reason to teach reading. Reading just uses a "plastic container" - no, a "wooden container."

Not teaching technology is the same as not teaching reading. If you do not teach students how to get information, you cannot activate their minds.

Anonymous said...

Narrator- You attack the use of the term "uniformity" too broadly". My argument is not against a diversification of technology and methodology that expands the students horizons. Instead it's that within a single class, one should reasonably expect that their child will have access to the same educational opportunities. If one leverages ubiquitous technologies, as you suggest, not only will the gap between the quality of education between poor and rich widen significantly, but it will also create an in-class gap, that will lead to disruption and unequal participation amongst students that will be to the detriment of the entire educational experience.

Let's stay US specific for now, since the variety of economic and technological acquisition is much greater here than in sub-saharan africa. Here, even in one public school, kids will have vastly different technologies available to them for personal use. How can one teach, when one kid has a blue-tooth capable laptop and phone with wi-fi access and the next kid's got an ipod mini? The technological varience is not only old to new, good to bad, it is also varied in it's function and application. Without some kind of targeted technology developed for educational use, you're basically asking teachers to pick through each student's belongings and figure out what they can teach them with what is available. Such foraging techniques can hardly be considered and advancement in education.

I am curious to see what solutions you believe are readily available for such real-world, on the ground difficulties with your theoretical approach to 'modern learning'.

narrator said...

You need to start reading a few books Anonymous - I suggest Neil Postman from the 1960s and 1970s and Dabid Rose of CAST from today. The classroom, if properly taught, that you describe works perfectly, the same way the real world works this way. You get your information via laptop. I get mine via mobile. She gets hers via print book. He gets his via handheld.

Who cares? You pick the delivery system most appropriate to the student. I listen to Ulysses on my iPod, you read it, we discuss it via Google Doc, you from your laptop, me from my handheld, or via Wiki, you from your desktop, me from my mobile.

These are the same "real world" approaches that make multi-age classrooms superior to single-age, that makes Montessori students excel, that allow many students with disabilities to do better in the more open environment of universities than they can do in primary or secondary classrooms. And it is why a nation like Italy or Ireland can achieve such high levels of inclusion.

Read back. There are dozens of real-world, classroom-tested ideas. Ideas used all over the place, though rarely in the US.

narrator said...

oops, David Rose - of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, not "Dabid"

Anonymous said...

Narrator- I heartily disagree. Most practical application of technology still utilizes all the classical education "technology"- reading, writing, and 'rithmatic. Whether it's the keyboard of the iphone, the uploading of material to myspace, or reading and responding to your blog, the only qualitative difference is the reasoning capacity of the person on the other end.

Again, I repeat the argument that most of this technology is already in wide use with most young people in america. What are they lacking in their practical reperatoire that schools could/should add in terms of technology training? Especially if the technique would be to utilize ubiquitous technology? That seems to imply that the technology is already widely available and in use. Should teachers have brought the telephone into the class room, or the tele-type, the eight track, the ham radio? All were tried and used as novelties throught the history of public education, but none of these technologies proved to have a significantly positive cost-benefit analysis. In short, they didn't provide much new to children's learning.

Look, I'm not deending some ancient dinosaur of a teacher who wants kids to only do their research from the 1955 enyclopedia in the school library or turn in reports hand written only. Technology has a practical place in our lives, and I have seen few if any examples of a blatant defiance of it's practical use in education, systemically or individually. The real point is that short of having a "web surfing class" which would be, IMHO as useful as those classes I took on basic when I was in junior high, there isn't much to be had by filling up the day with learning boolean expressions in a history or literature class. Should the kids be encouraged to use the technology when they can as tools for research sure. But beyond that, I don't see where the monumental impact and change will come from. Just as with the Gutenburg press, the technology could only be used by those who were literate. It didn't invent literacy, just made it more advanatgeous for the common man to gain that skill. Hopefully the internet pushes the usefulness of skills like reasoning, research and the like for the everyday person. The job of the educator should be to help kids learn these skills- then the kids will take that forward to any technology they use in their lives.

Anonymous said...

And what advantage is gained if "Ulysses" is read online or in print? How does the technology improve the educational experience? (BTW- there are ample studies on the intake of information from different sources, screen or print, as well as the audible vs. the written word, but that's a lenghty debate for another time ;-))

these theoretical sources do of course interest me, and I agree that teaching methods can always stand to be improved, but I just don't see the panacea that incorporating this technology provides. The point is to read Ulysess and then be guided through the experience so that you gain an understanding of the intellectual approaches to the material, it's historical and social context and value, and how to carry that forward into your life both as information gained and intellectual argument.

A more open environement, such as Italy or Ireland (by your attestation) is I beleive promoted by an openness to mental ideas and approaches, which encourage kids to become active in their education by developing their own thoughts and interactions to the information. Classic US education teaches memorization and regurgitation. If technology would foce the US education to embrace a more inquisitive and challenging educational approach, then I would applaud it. Sadly, I think it would only be utilized in the same manner as other technologies. Read this, remember this, feed it back to me on your test. Make it seem like you care...

I wil say that I am not opposed to having kids listen to "Ulysses" on their ipods- if they'll actually listen to it and think about it for a minute. But I think that it's dangerous to think that without a profound shift in the philosophy of education in this country, no amount of technology will help.

narrator said...

Why is your technology (Gutenberg), which is limited in practicality to only "some" students (visually strong - non-dyslexic, for example) superior to contemporary technology?

Is reading print on paper really the only legitimate way to acquire knowledge? Why can you not listen to an audio book, or read on a handheld, or read via literacy technology such as WYNN or just Microsoft Reader? Why must you write or traditionally keyboard responses? Why can't you use a mobile keypad, or dictate via speech recognition?

Why is the technology of the 16th Century so much more "valid" than the technology of the 21st Century?

You make assumptions based in traditional prejudice. That is not just unfair to the majority of students, it is incredibly unwise.

narrator said...

No one will criticise US teacher education more than I will. It is terrible, and devoted solely to reproduction. But I do not think you can break that without technology.

I know, for example, that writing in Google Docs and using just the free "CLiCk, Speak" system will improve student writing, because the weak readers will hear their writing. I know that if you let students hear books first, they can absorb new vocabulary faster, and if they hear it via computer, with hyperlink support, that improves geometrically. I know that using Text-to-Speech offers more kids access to the curriculum in effective ways. I know that technology allows students to individualise both their curriculum and their strategies in ways otherwise impossible.

In other words, I do not imagine you can change the teaching without changing the technology. Even in 1969, Postman knew that.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, Narrator. I am not exhibiting a bias towards ancient technology. I'm stressing the importance of developing individual intellectual capabilities in the student.

I want to stress that I do not oppose modernizing technology in the classroom.

but I do fear that your argument about learning disorders is a little off point, as the question of using technology to deal with learning disorders is a different one.

Again, I resist the desire to talk about the difference in how the brain intakes information from various sources. There is a fair bit of evidence that "stable visual platforms such as the printed page are more conducive to the apprehension and transmission of extended intellectual argument. Audible can often have a much lower memory retention (when not used in repetition, such as verse and music) and the computer screen has it's pros and cons. That said, if a dyslexic student can be helped to excel by using audible text, then great.

But none of this has to do with whether or not modern technology will help students achieve better reasoning and abstract intellectual capabilities than with traditional tools. Perhaps it is a point on which we will not be able to disagree.

Anonymous said...

All those technologies sound great and- applied in a targeted manner, could definitely improve the educational landscape. But will these things come just by letting the students have ipods and cell phones in class? Again, I point to my worry about the costly revamping of the infrastructure and development of new educational technology and applications for use in the educational sphere. Believe me, I wish that money would be spent, and I'd vote for it in heart beat.

But this is, I maintain, a few steps removed from just letting ubiquitous technology in. What you intimate is a wide-spread structural and philosophical sea change which will only come with money and political will. Perhaps here is where you start.

narrator said...

I come from a SEN viewpoint, so to me, it is not off point. In study after study, from 1867 on, 2/3 of US students fail to be proficient in reading, a steady result of using "single techniques." Learning difficulties - differences - are created, in part, by the refusal to use different techniques.

Yes, "print" offers different positives, but so can technologies - studies show the benefits of, for example, using flatter computer voices which force self-determination v actor-read audio text which comes "pre-translated. - or demonstrate the positives for those with attentional issues of utilizing the dual-sensory capabilities of text-to-speech software.

The key thing is, universal design is the only way to really allow "different" students to excel in the classroom. Asking adolescents to be "different" - obviously - in the classroom is simply cruel.

But mostly, keeping the ubiquitous devices out is simply a war schools should not be wasting their time on. There's so much to do, far better, in my view, to leverage what the world uses rather than to fight it.