16 February 2009

Teachers Against the Future, and their Students

Three comments from teachers on a New York Times article on mobile phones in the classroom.

"Not my classroom, not ever. My kids are on their own in class, not propped up by gadgets. And don't tell me they're a tech-literate generation: they're quite helpless, even at age 20 unable to change a single-spaced document to a double-spaced one, and unwilling to pursue any question or issue beyond the first screen of its Wikipedia entry."

— Real Teacher, Bloomington, IN

"Seriously? Are you kidding me? As a teacher I am engaged in a perpetual battle against this technology as students use it in an increasing variety of non-productive ways. From kids who are simply not paying attention, or who are engaged in personal, (but very public), phone calls in the halls, to kids who text each other or check the web to cheat, this technology only encourages the 'what is the answer' mentality and discourages any real learning."

— Augusta Johnson, Andover, MA

"How about using a brain for a change, instead of cell phone?"

— Taras, Hancock, NY

OK, one by one.

Is this "Real Bad Teacher" in Bloomington, Indiana? His or her students are incapable of research because they have mobile phones or because he/she has not taught them how to do research? His or her students can not change document formatting because of phones or because technology education in his or her school is so poor? And, oh my, "My kids are on their own in class, not propped up by gadgets." How positively Socratic. Get those books out of the room - memory only. Get rid of that chalkboard - that technological devil of the 1840s. Pens? Pencils? Paper? Just ridiculous gadgets which make communication easier. Maybe we should get rid of the alphabet as well. Just one more silly invention to simplify and improve human communication and data handling. "Technology is everything invented after I was born"? This teacher truly believes that. I'm glad these students are being firmly prepared for the world of 1970.

Ms. Johnson in Andover: You are in a "perpetual battle" against this technology and your own students. How's that working out? When I present I often hold up the back of my right hand, where the "lead" of a pencil still resides from a stabbing with a pencil by a friend at age nine. It is funny, the teacher's response that day was not to remove all pencils from the room. I also watched many students pass notes in class and doodle, but I've never seen a teacher respond by removing paper from the room. When I was thirteen a classmate threw books at me. The teacher let books remain in the room. I've even seen students cheat with pens, with paper, with notes written on their clothing - yet all those technologies probably remain even in your classroom. See, Ms. Johnson, you either teach and demonstrate the best uses of the technology of your time or you find another job.

And Taras, we are humans, we are tool users. It is tool use, and the progression of tool capability, which has allowed human progress. I can imagine "Taras" sitting around at the birth of the stone age, "How about using your hands for a change, instead of that stone hammer."

I am so tired of teachers who refuse to look at the world around them, who refuse to adapt to a changing society, who refuse to respond to their students' needs and their students' interests...

Ah well, The Times won't post my comment - I'm never sure why they choose to restrict debate, but they do - so I'm posting it here...

Ira Socol, Michigan State University: Of course these devices, the most powerful information and communication tools on the planet, belong in classrooms. Some of us have been arguing this for a long time, based on the dramatic successes we've seen in other nations (where "smarter" phones have long been the norm).

Don't Hang Up on Your Students' Futures
Liz Kolb's Cellphones in Learning
Handheld Learning

Imagine - every student holds, in the palm of his or her hand, the world's greatest library, and the ability to ask any question, and to collaborate globally. Plus, an efficient text-entry system, a reading platform, a calculator, and even strong supports re: "Learning Disabilities." Oh, sorry, we've banned these devices from our buildings...

- Ira Socol


spedteacher said...

As a teacher trapped in an early 20th century classroom, I wish there were more devices in my room. I wish I had enough technology around to teach how to use it well, to open my students and myself to new tools for teaching and learning.

Why is it that frequently those who have it don't know how to use technology and those who have the desire to use it can't get it? Oh yes, its that inequity thing again, isn't it. Darn.

Carl Anderson said...

I wonder how teachers in 1970 would respond if asked, "I have a device that is cheap enough all of your students could have one of their own that allows free access to the wealth of all human knowledge, places more information in their pocket than exists in the entire school library, the ability to communicate with almost anyone, and the ability to get answers from experts in all areas of study. Do you want your students to have these devices in your classroom?"

Michelle said...

FABULOUS post! I concur wholeheartedly. Perhaps if we a) taught the children how to use the tools responsibly, and b) devised measurements that would actually allow a student to demonstrate his/her body of knowledge (rather than answer A,B,C,or D)- we wouldn't have to worry about cheating. Good assessments are not "cheat-able."

I still see some teachers like those you quoted. Unfortunately, I also see teachers who WANT to use these tools, but are blocked from doing so by their school districts and antiquated policies. In the meantime, our kids suffer most.

Thanks again for posting!

Kate Klingensmith said...

I'm in complete agreement with your opinion on this. Today, students need to know how to navigate the overwhelming amount of information available to them. They need teachers to help guide them through this exploration and evaluation, not try to keep it away from them.

But, as a former teacher, I can see problems with allowing mobile devices in the classroom. Where I taught, probably 50% of my students had cell phones, and only a couple of those were web-enabled, anyway. We had a limited number of laptops available, if any at all. So, the problem almost becomes a social one.

My underprivileged students enjoyed coming to school because that was the only place with a somewhat more level playing field - due to uniforms and the banning of electronic devices. School was a place where they could shine, regardless of their family situations. Sure, some of their classmates wore expensive shoes and had nice jewelry, but they did not need any more reminders that their families couldn't afford what other families could, not to mention that it would be completely unfair to have this put them at a disadvantage in the classroom. If I was still teaching, I wouldn't allow personal mobile devices in my class but I would teach students how to harness the power of technology in other ways, like assigning web-based projects and signing up for the computer lab. I know that this is not ideal and doesn't allow for much progress, but different schools have different priorities. Without the level playing field and the students' feeling of security and pride, we might not have 50% of our students show up at all.

If anyone sees an obvious or creative solution to this problem, please post it here. I feel like this is probably an issue for many teachers who agree with you.

narrator said...

SpedTeacher - the inherent inequity. Rich kids get these devices from their families and learn the Blackberry and iPhone literally at their parents' knees. Poor kids - as with everything else - get nothing.

Carl - A brilliant question. That frames it in precisely the right way.

Michelle - School districts across America deprive students and teachers of essential technologies, and work extra-hard to deprive 'disabled' students of their civil rights by blocking assistive technologies. (Send a few school tech folks and school board members to jail for civil rights violations and we might see progress.) The solution? Go public, cause trouble. Silence feeds the inequity.

Kate - In the UK schools often purchase handhelds rather than laptops, or mini-laptops which effectively cross-function. This not only saves money, it solves the inequity issues you describe while offering the training and access students need. Consider, for the price of a typical school computer lab (computers, networking, desks, wiring, software licenses, kickbacks to the school board) it is likely that every student in the school could have a smart phone.

- Ira Socol

Trixie said...


Although I agree with the use of cellphones in the classroom for learning in my own classroom, I really think you need to walk a mile in the shoes of the teachers you are condemning before you pass judgement. When was the last time you taught in a middle school or high school?

Many teachers don't have the support of their admin the way I do or the 18 years of experience to support them. For others, it could be one more management nightmare.

As a mentor of young teachers, I know that cellphones in their classrooms would be a disaster until more support is given to them.

Just my 2 cents...

narrator said...


At the risk of creating a firestorm, I think that most of the middle school and high school classrooms I see are educational disasters. Interaction is limited to a small group of students. Disinterest (or sleep) reigns. Curriculum is eith unchallenging or not presented at a workable level. And compliance is much more important than knowledge gain or skill gain.

There are dramatic exceptions to this - which is what tells me that it need not be this way.

That said, none of this is the exclusive fault of teachers. The system needs a vast overhaul. It is bad by design, an industrial process which dehumanizes and destroys. The bulk of the fault is from the top.

Yet, just as bad police forces are only reformed with a push from the good cops inside (think Frank Serpico), we need teachers - those who see the damage daily - to speak up and fight back. We need them (not the untenured new ones, but the mentors) to stand up the way many in my blogroll do. As long as teachers express the attitudes above, administrators, politicians, even teacher educators have every excuse to do nothing different.

No, I don't teach in a middle school. But I absorb a tremendous amount of "heat" for the views I advocate in the educational community. It often seems like nothing but one continuous fight. Yet I believe it is an essential fight.

All I can do is keep trying to provide the support you speak of.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

Hi Ira,

I would absolutely agree that technology belongs in the classroom. I understand the frustrations associated with providing students with these modern tools –school policy, faculty/administrator buy-in, and even budget. I also understand the fear that technology can be a distraction for students. However, I believe we should keep our focus on harnessing these tools for constructive learning. Clearly information technology in the classroom brings with it a robust form of creative collaboration and communication. It literally puts information and knowledge at a student’s finger tips. What type of classroom technology do you feel is essential? Are we hurting our students by not providing it?

Greg, ISU Grad Student

mary said...

i'm hopeful because what's out there is so cool that a lot of kids are going to learn it from online video tutorials and from each other, regardless of what happens in school. after we got a MAC and a nice new video camera, i read all the directions and taught my 13 year old the basics. she learned how to video edit, post to youtube, use all sorts of free online editing stuff, create a myspace account with restricted access ...by herself. my important role is a socratic one. talking with her about the information she absorbs (including from friends and the old TV) and asking her to question her assumptions or put herself in another person's shoes/take someone else's viewpoint. or i may point out that we can form an opinion, but we really often don't have enough information to have a high degree of confidence in it - so we have to remain fluid/flexible in our thinking (especially when it comes to the evening news and all the crime suspects who are treated as if they are already guilty even though the announcer throws in the token 'allegedly' every now and then). So, learning the skills of how to access and create with technology is to me not the important thing because really most young people can teach each other and themselves without the schools. It's the Socratic part that is most important. Just the plain old blabbbbbbiiiiiinnng to sharpen a young person's thinking skills that is the most important.