OPINION: You Can Lead a Class to Technology But Only Pedagogy Makes Kids Think
How the debates over technology in the classroom miss the point
In this prickly NYT op-ed, Pamela Paul bemoans the rise of game-based learning, pointing the finger directly at education technologists who "believe computer games (the classroom euphemism for video games) should be part of classroom lessons at increasingly early ages."
"There’s an underlying fear that if we don’t add interactive elements to lower school curriculums, children won’t be able to handle fractions or develop scientific hypotheses — concepts children learned quite well in school before television."
There certainly is not enough data to support the notion that interactive learning through technology will lead to higher student engagement and learning than the "plain old boring work sheets and exams" that comprise the status quo. But Paul falls a bit short in her reasoning against such technologies, pulling evidence from indirectly related Common Sense Media surveys in the face of valid and rigorous research from the likes of James Gee and Seymour Papert.
Of course there is plenty of concern around introducing technology to youngsters, chief among them the debilitating loss in social skills as pointed out in this study from Stanford's Cliff Nass and Roy Pea. But instead Paul seems genuinely disturbed (and presumably a large contingent of educators along with her) by the private technology sector's inroads into education. Nevermind that the very things being replaced by technology--textbooks, worksheets, exams, etc.-- are already controlled by a handful of large, for-profit companies.
She closes with a call for "[d]eliberate practice of less-than-exhilarating rote work...to derive from it meaningful reward." If such rewards come in the form of high scores on standardized tests, then perhaps Paul has inadvertently endorsed the 20th century version game-based learning.
Within the hallowed walls of effective teaching, the reality remains that any tool--whether it be worksheets or educational apps--can claim no more praise (or blame) for student learning beyond its intended scope. In this Avenue4Learning blog post, primary school teacher Michelle Baldwin gets to the guts of the issue:
"You can find pros and cons for everything under the sun, but I think we need to stop promoting or discounting tools and focus more on changing pedagogy."
The 1:1 iPad classroom teacher doesn't recommend blind technology adoption, noting that her success is the result of strong leadership and planning, regular teacher reflection, and an inquiry-based learning model. But the results are impressive. Even if self-directed documentarians and 'slow-mo' camera-wielding problem solvers in Baldwin's classroom don't make the list of 'obvious' uses that Paul sees for technology, they're certainly valuable skills in an evolving knowledge economy.
Science Leadership Academy educator, Joshua Block, is a bit more measured in this response to Paul's op-ed. But even with a healthy dose of pens and composition books in his 1:1 laptop class, Block recognizes that effective pedagogy demands technology when possible:
"...when I successfully integrate technology into my teaching practice my students are able to research, collaborate, and create in exceptional ways."
The keyword here is "exceptional." Technology alone is exactly as Paul describes it: a distracting collection of beeps, bells, and blinks. But when paired with effective pedagogy, technology not only adds new dimensions to flat, static curriculum artifacts but expands the bounds of "exceptional" work to whatever a student might imagine, well beyond research papers, prepared speeches, and (awesome) dioramas.