Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions

Originally published at on 2009-07-14 08:04:00 UTC

"A black board, in every school house, is as indispensably necessary as a stove or fireplace; and in large schools several of them might be useful."
"Slates are as necessary as black boards, and even more so. But they are liable to be broken, it will be said, as to render it expensive to parents to keep their children supplied with them."
"But are not books necessary at all, when the pupils are furnished with slates? I may be asked. Not for a large proportion of the children who attend our summer schools, nor for some of them who attend in the winter. To such I believe books are not only useless, but on the whole, worse than useless. As they advance in years, however, they may be indulged with a book, now and then, as a favor. Such favor will not be esteemed a light thing; and will come in time, to be sought more frequently, and with more and more earnestness."
"At first, it will be well for the small portion of each day in which very young pupils are allowed to have slates, to let them use them much in the way they please. Some will make one thing, some another. What they make is of comparatively little consequence, provided they attend, each to his own business, and do not interfere with that of others."
In 1842 William A. Alcott, a now forgotten member of that legendary American family of letters, wrote a series of articles for the Connecticut Common School Journal, asking teachers across America to make use of the newest educational technology - the black board and the student slate. Well, it wasn't really new. West Point had been using these for instruction since at least 1820, but then, as now, schools were slow to adopt new ideas.

But in the 1840s everything in communication was changing. Wood pulp based paper and the rotary printing press had created the penny newspaper, an entirely new way of spreading news - and often gossip. The telegraph had arrived creating the revolutionary concept of instantaneous communication across great distances. And the world itself was shrinking as steamboats and railroads rushed humans from place to place at unheard of speeds.
Len Ebert, illustrator The Old Schoolhouse
These new technologies spawned new forms of writing. Authors such as Charles Dickens began serializing fiction for the masses - one no longer needed to buy expensive books and sit in that big leather chair. Writers even created the first blogs - think of American Notes. Others, people like Horace Greeley, were redefining journalism.

The world was changing, and certain people, led by Alcott, were desperately trying to drag the schoolhouse into the present.

The Question

Then, as now, there was furious opposition. Alcott admitted that he was seen as being "against books." He was perceived as disruptive. He was already forcing schools to buy costly new furnishings (individual student desks and chairs, to replace tables and benches), and now he was advocating a radical change in how teaching took place.

Then, as now, the wrong question was being asked. In 1842 the doubters wondered what these new technologies could do for schools as they existed. Today, educators and policy makers constantly wonder what computers, mobile phones, and social networking will do for a curriculum largely unchanged since 1910.

That was the wrong question then, and it is the wrong question now. The right question is, what can schools, what can education, contribute to these new technologies?

Just as in 1842, just as in Socrates' time when literacy appeared, the technologies of information and communication have changed radically this decade - the ways in which humans learn about their world have changed radically, and schools will either help their students learn to navigate that new world, or they will become completely irrelevant.

How you learned doesn't matter at all

If you are a teacher, a parent, an administrator, or the President of the United States, I do not care how or what you learned in school. Or, let me put it this way, your experience in school, or in sitting with your mom studying books in the wee hours of the morning, is completely irrelevant to any discussion of the education of today's students.

Maybe worse than irrelevant. Maybe dangerous. The belief that "your" experience is relevant leads to a nightmare loop. Students who behave, and learn, most like their teachers do the best in classrooms. Teachers see this reflection as proof of their own competence - "The best students are just like me." And thus all who are "different" in any way - race, class, ability, temperament, preferences - are left out of the success story.

The majority of our students do "poorly" in school, do not achieve their potential in school, do not enjoy education. Doing it "the old way," utilizing the old tools, ensures that they never will.
Mobile phones, computers everywhere, hypertext, social networking, collaborative cognition (from Wikipedia on up), Google, text-messaging, Twitter, audiobooks, digital texts, text-to-speech, speech recognition, flexible formatting - these are not "add ons" to the world of education, they are the world of education. This is how humans in this century talk, read, communicate, learn. And learning to use these technologies effectively, efficiently, and intelligently must be at the heart of our educational strategies. These technologies do something else - by creating a flexibility and set of choices unprecedented in human communication - they "enable" a vast part of the population which earlier media forms disabled.

Back in Socrates' time it was all about the information you could remember. With this system very, very few could become "educated." In the ‘Gutenberg era' it was all about how many books you could read and how fast you could decode alphabetical text; this let a few more reach that ‘educated' status - about 35% if you trust all those standardized tests to measure "proficiency."

But now it is all about how you learn to find information, how you build your professional and personal networks, how you learn, how to learn - because learning must be continuous. None of this eliminates the need for a base of knowledge - the ability to search, to ask questions, requires a knowledge base, but it dramatically alters both how that knowledge base is developed, and what you need to do with it. This paradigm opens up the ranks of the "educated" in ways inconceivable previously.

Technology is NOT something invented after you were born

Technology is everything humans have created. Books are technology - a rather complex and expensive one actually, for holding and transmitting human knowledge. The schoolroom is technology - the desks, chairs, blackboards, schedule, calendar, paper, pens, and pencils. These are not "good" or "bad," but at this point, they are simply outdated.

Yes, we still have stone carvers. Yes, we still have calligraphers. But we no longer teach students to chase the duck, pluck the feather, and cut the quill. We no longer teach Morse Code. We no longer teach the creation of illuminated manuscripts.

Now we must give up teaching that ink-on-paper is the primary information source. It is not. We must give up insisting that students learn "cursive" writing. Instead, they must learn to text on a Blackberry and dictate intelligibly to their computer. We must toss out our "keyboarding" classes and encourage students to discover their own best ways to input data. We must abandon much of Socrates' memorization and switch to engagement with where data is stored. We must abandon the one-way classroom communication system, be it the lecture or use of the "clicker," and teach with conversation and through modeling learning itself. We must lose the idea that "attention" means students staring at a teacher, or that "attendance" means being in the room, and understand all the differing ways humans learn best. We must stop separating subjects rigidly and adopt the contemporary notion of following knowledge where it leads us.

And we need to start by understanding that we are preparing students for the world that is their future, not the world that is our past.

- Ira Socol

essential related reading from Dr. Jonathan Becker of Virginia Commonwealth University on technology and leadership in education
. You can find my books on

No comments: