Saturday, September 17, 2011

Classrooms of the Future: Do They Have a Future?

We recently discussed an article by Virginia Heffernan in which she proclaimed that today’s classroom needs a make-over.
"A classroom suited to today’s students should deemphasize solitary piecework. It should facilitate the kind of collaboration that helps individuals compensate for their blindnesses, instead of cultivating them....The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects."

Soon after encountering Heffernan’s article, another appeared in The New York Times, by Matt Richtel, that offered a preliminary report card for those "new" classrooms. It was pointedly titled: In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores.

Richtel builds his story around the experience of the Kyrene School District which serves K-8 students from the area including Mesa, Phoenix, and Chandler Arizona. Kyrene has bought into the notion that new technology can be used to provide a better education. He presents this picture of a classroom in action.

"Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s "As You Like It" — but not in any traditional way."

"In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius."
"The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices."

This is clearly not your typical classroom. These sorts of activities would appear to require significant skill in navigating and functioning in the current digital world. That should be a good thing. The school district has invested $33 million in advanced technologies since 2005, so that better be a good thing.

The world still demands that students perform well in tests of math and reading skills. One can argue about whether such tests are indicative, but one cannot escape the fact that without good reading comprehension skills a student is going to be limited in what he/she can accomplish throughout their lives. Based on standard metrics, how do the Kyrene students compare?

"Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen."

Richtel points out that there is no compelling evidence—pro or con—that sheds light on the efficacy of this approach. As with standard approaches to teaching, some obtain better results, some worse. Those who have chosen this path seem to have made a decision based on faith—if it ought to be good, then it must be good. There are also those who are unconcerned about stagnant scores.

"Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the United States Department of Education, said standardized test scores were an inadequate measure of the value of technology in schools. Ms. Cator, a former executive at Apple Computer, said that better measurement tools were needed but, in the meantime, schools knew what students needed."

"’In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great,’ she said. ‘Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others’."

Proponents speak enthusiastically of student "engagement," as if it were in itself a component of achievement.

"....engagement is a ‘fluffy term’ that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained."

Whether or not these methods work better than traditional approaches is becoming as much an economic question as an academic one. Technology costs money and that money has to come from somewhere. At Kyrene, teachers’ salaries are stagnating as well as students’ scores. The only things that seem to be rising are the class sizes.

Proponents seem to believe that the technology investments will be proved cost effective and the tight education budgets will actually work in their favor. It is not clear how that happens unless one reduces the number of teachers—not a likely, or particularly wise path to follow.

One should not read too much in the Kyrene experience, but one should probably not expect tremendous gains to be made from the approach followed there either. The high-tech path is just another version of reform in which the assumption is made that our students would perform better if only they had better teachers. While better teachers would always be welcome, it is foolish to lay all the blame on that much maligned profession.

We recently discussed the paper that compared each state’s students’ scores against those of other countries. Our states spanned the performance spectrum. We had states that performed as well as the best countries, and we had states that compared with the poorest performing countries. We use essentially the same teaching methods, and train teachers in essentially the same way all over the country. It seems incredible that this vast disparity would be due to teachers and teaching methods.

People tend to forget that it is the students who must perform. Something is responsible, but it is likely a complex combination of a number of factors, including school systems, parents, culture, and economics. Getting consistently good performance across the nation may require eliminating poverty, discrimination, unemployment, and excessive income inequality—and that might just be the beginning.

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