The other night I had dinner with a couple I’ve known for a long time. Let’s just say that one of these people is not named “Derrick,” but that’s the name I will use. It will be easy to understand why as I tell this story. The facts are correct, but I will not identify him nor identify the school so that I don’t put Derrick in a bad spot.
Derrick is a retired high school teacher who was recently hired as a substitute in an upper-middle class suburban high school whose population is 80 percent white with less than ten percent of students considered to be economically disadvantaged. Approximately 70 percent of students take AP courses. Almost all meet ELA and math proficiency standards.
It is a town similar to several NYC suburban towns. The estimated median household income was about $90,000, which is $30,000 higher than the New York state median. More than half of the town’s population has at least a bachelor’s degree, while more than a quarter has a graduate or professional degree.
In short, this is not your average high school in your average suburban town.
Derrick started by saying he has been learning a great deal of new technology while on this job. Great, I thought, but then he went on.
His story soon morphed into a version of “The Walking Dead” or a parallel of the story of Clarisse McClellan, an unorthodox teacher, in the film and stage version of “Fahrenheit 451” — fired for not believing in Ray Bradbury’s fictional, high tech, book-burning, future society she lives in.
Derrick began to describe how he had to learn the Smart Board, specific tablet apps, Infinite Campus, and Pearson-created, computer-directed curricula for his courses. He was forced to implement a rigid, computer-directed classroom where all students worked in groups, listened to a Kahn Academy-like lecture, followed computer-programmed procedures outlined on the Smart Board, and did assignments on their tablets. Lesson plans were only to be followed, not created, and rigidly broke the period down into timed sections.
Derrick was told not to use the Socratic Method or any kind of class participation where he did anything more than monitor student progress on their work. He became a glorified babysitter. A cog in a machine. An automaton.
A technician, rather than a teacher.
Coincidentally, the next morning I read a New York Times piece related to this issue. Entitled, Lecture Me. Really., it told the tale of a college American history prof who inspected her new classroom and was pleased to see all the new technology there, but was surprised that there was no lectern for her to place her notes. She managed to get one after weeks of telephoning and emailing.
Although she defended lecturing in her piece, of which I am not a fan, the tale is still important to this discussion.
The point is that even if this room was used for a student-centered Socratic classroom, the emphasis was solely on the non-human technology. We need to combine active learning (which can easily be done via low or high tech tools) and the kinds of teaching tools that allow students to “keep students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action and… a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.
To quote the author, Molly Worthen, “Technology can be a saboteur. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.”
Derrick’s story, on its own, is scary indeed, but we also know that this is happening all across the country where school districts, even relatively wealthy ones such as his, are buying into the high tech trend regardless of what it does to the quality of teaching and learning.
All districts want to upgrade their technology, so when giants like Pearson, Apple, or Microsoft tell them they will install everything and provide all students with tablets, many jump at the chance to sell their souls to “the devil.” The “devil” corporations or foundations give districts the hardware and software, but they are locked in to using their curricula and lesson plans.
The result? Instead of technology creating great teaching tools for teachers, teachers become the tools of technology!