15 December 2010

A week without technology?

Just about every "education reporter" in the United States - from small market local media to The Today Show - has written this story at least once by now. Students are asked to spend a few days or a week without "technology" so they can - well, get smarter? be less distracted? become better at human interaction? become better humans?

OK. Yes, by "technology" these people mean, "tools their teacher is uncomfortable with." By becoming "better" at something, these people mean, "becoming more like the teacher." Though those tidbits are never reported.

So students are asked to turn off computers and mobile phones, but not clocks or pens. They are asked to not use email and SMS, but school busses seem fine. They are asked not to use digital signals, but paper is actually recommended.

We need to understand this a whole lot better. Technology is the tools with which we manipulate the world, or even the art of manipulating the world, and it is time to stop pretending that it is "anything invented after [I] was born.

A small paper making machine. This is NOT technology.
The book, and the paper it is printed on, even the ink used to form those letters, are gigantic technologies. Expensive, polluting, highly-evolved technologies typically controlled by a few major capitalists - from Bertelsmann to Barnes+Noble to Amazon. Pens and pencils are also invented technologies. Sort of complicated and dangerous too. Kids cheat with them. Bully with them. And there's still a chunk of graphite in my hand from when I was nine and got stabbed for - I'm sure - "no reason at all."

But there are technologies I'd like schools to go without, for a week - or much longer... Technology "abandonments" that would truly demonstrate important things to kids...

Let's try a week without clocks and bells. Few technologies interrupt the learning process more, and limit learning to "the shallows" more, than the school timetable. And few things belittle students more - or expose our hypocrisies more - than bells. They are not just Pavlovian, they are unfairly so. Kids are "late" when the bell rings, but teachers often insist that they get dismissal power, meaning bells are only significant when they can punish students.

So take a week. Cancel the start time and the finish time. Abandon the class schedule. Let students pick which of their classrooms they want to be in - and when. Let kids spend a day working on one thing, or five minutes, whichever they need and want. Let them eat when they want, use the toilet when they want, debate Shakespeare when they want. See what happens.

Our school schedule was invented by Henry Barnard to train kids for industrial shift work. Is that what are schools are still designed to do?

Let's try a week without desks and chairs. Pile them all up in the corner and ignore them. Let kids bring what they need to make themselves comfortable. As I asked one school district: "Do any of you have furniture like this at home?"

The chair and desk, that contribution of William Alcott in the 1830s, might have made sense them. But we have central heating now, and carpets are available everywhere. And pillows are cheap at Ikea - so are lapdesks. And kids would rather be comfortable.

And... teachers might find themselves worrying a whole lot less about controlling how kids sit in their chairs.

Let's try a week without books and paper. We know how many of our kids struggle with reading and writing - the physical acts. The word decoding, the holding of the pen, the traditional keyboarding - these things are our primary creators of disability.

So let's get "Socratic" for a week. Lets get fully digital (adaptable text, speech recognition) or simply verbal/audio. Let's talk and listen. Let's think out loud and work on auditory memory.

We might see a whole new set of student skills rise to the top with those "Gutenberg technologies" stripped from our kids' lives. We might see a whole new kind of learning.

- Ira Socol


Miss Shuganah said...

Word verifications are a problem for me, speaking of disability. Sometimes takes me up to four times to get a word right. For some reason I seem to have difficulty reading script.

Until I met my MIT educated husband, the only technology I had was an AM/FM clock radio, and an electric typewriter. After December '92, that all changed. TV. Stereo. CD player. Most importantly... a computer.

When I compose a blog post, I do not open up a shell window or some composer. I write a draft in my email. At least I do not use a legal pad. I went eight years without a computer. I could do so again.

Now I realize that you are arguing against such things as pen and paper, but I am ill at ease with a computer and technology, even after all these years. Insisting that i (putting myself in this proposed scenario) abandon paper would be a hardship for me, even though my handwriting is so atrocious that I had to develop a fancy form of printing. I do not write legibly, even on lined paper.

I have struggled with what would actually work for me. During the summer between 6th and 7th grade, my mother gave me a choice of sewing or typing. I chose typing. I felt at home with a manual typewriter.

Typewriters are gone. Computers perplex me. I love the feel of paper, but no one can read my writing. I feel as if I am a technological bat --- neither bird nor beast.

What gave me pause was this:

Let's talk and listen. Let's think out loud and work on auditory memory.

That is something I can relate to. And if you could give me a portable way to have speech recognition, that may be the way I would more comfortably segue to technology. I am a poet, although an infrequent one. The poems I have written have been pretty decent, and I think I would have written more over the years except that I have never had any technology that would let me talk. Many phrases have been lost throughout my lifetime never to be retrieved. And attempts at reconstruction have only led to frustration.

I sometimes wonder if poetry itself isn't born out of a kind of language disability. A phrase comes to me or from me with twisted syntax and, aha, a poem is born. Or could be born if only I had a way of collecting my thoughts as I drive my car or walk along. But auditory comes naturally to me. I remember conversations or key phrases. How people sound even if I cannot imitate the sounds.

Yesterday I muttered Kapoosta goluva to myself after an encounter with a rude person behind a counter. That means "cabbage head." I still recall the gesture that went with it when I first learned it.

I realize this is more or less the opposite of what you are trying to get across, but I'd like to see a technology free week. No computers. No pen No paper. Just talking and listening and relying on auditory memory and attention to language. The richness of inflection stays with me, especially when I recall my grandmother's Yiddishe accent. I think we should focus on storytelling and listening with heart as well as with brain and ears. What if we focused on the sensory for a week to evoke memory, too? Exercises in sight, taste, touch, smell, sound. No technology to enhance it. Just senses and a mind to interpret. Now that might be an interesting experience. Life before computers Life before Gutenberg. None of it. For a week. Just oral tradition.

Morris Rosenthal said...

Technology is useful as long as one has a sense of humor about it. I developed a comprehensive plan (flowchart) for education reform based on this approach:


BTW, I'm not a regular reader of the blog, I found this post because you have a link to my annual sales analysis of the bookstore chains.


Tracie Schroeder said...

Oh my gosh. This is what I want my classroom to be. No, wait. This is what I want my SCHOOL to be.