opinion

Technology Won’t Save Our Schools

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Education technology has seen over $3 billion of venture capital investment in the last two years. A corresponding rise in education outcomes, however, has been much more elusive. Why?

If the prevailing myths of Silicon Valley — which shape the motivations and rhetoric of the edtech industry— are to be believed, then technology should be a boon for reinventing student learning. But education is complicated. The social, economic, and political factors that contribute to educational outcomes are complex and technology plays only one part of a very complicated equation.

So far, edtech has only contributed small improvements rather than the large, scalable and systemic disruption to which it might aspire. In fact, large-scale attempts to implement technology at scale through 1-to-1 tablet initiatives in major school districts have proven more frustrating than fruitful.

With a few exceptions, school across the country operate largely the same way. They rarely provide the cultural and organizational structures that make it possible to substantially change the learning process. Teaching is cleanly organized by subject, student behavior and movement is tightly controlled, and the learning process unfolds along familiar pedagogical lines — all of which is intended to ensure that students leave school knowing what’s required to be “productive citizens.” Against this backdrop, even the most ambitious technologies fail to transform the student experience.

In a recent survey, 96% of teachers reported that technology “plays a significant role in the classroom.” Yet only 33% reported “that technology lets students learn content in a different way.” It seems the best most tools can do is to provide improvements to teaching and administrative functions, streamlining workflows in hopes of creating space for more interesting educational activities.

If technology isn’t helping students learn differently, how can we call its role significant? And how, then, can we refocus our attempts at innovation in a way that leads to a transformation of the learning process?

A New Focus for Innovation

There are a number of interesting frameworks for thinking about different types of innovation.

  • Product vs. process
  • Non-technological vs. technological
  • Revolutionary vs. evolutionary
  • Radical vs. incremental
  • Disruptive vs. sustaining

To date, the education sector has seen an over-focus on process and technological change that has led to evolutionary incremental, and sustaining improvements to teaching and learning. It seems we don’t exactly know what to do with all these new tools. In a 2008 op-ed, Clay Christensen and Michael Horn wrote:

“…That schools have gotten so little back from their investment [in technology] comes as no surprise. Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing an innovation. An organization’s natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is perfectly predictable, perfectly logical — and perfectly wrong.”

Education leaders have since worked hard to avoid this pitfall. In the seven years since the op-ed was written, a key focus for educators has been on personalizing learning  technology to teach students in ways that are tailored to their unique intelligences, learning styles, and aptitudes.

While a focus on personalizing learning has certainly been a welcome change from the one-size-fits all model of education, it has not been — and won’t be — enough. This innovation in the content delivery process still operates within a school system that, among other things:

  • Assumes the primary goal of an education is the acquisition of knowledge
  • Arranges learning into rigid subject areas
  • Groups students primarily by age
  • Assesses knowledge through standardized testing
  • Lays out the learning space in neatly organized classrooms and learning areas.

If the goal is to see dramatic change in our approach to schooling, we need to stop thinking about technology first, and instead focus on non-technical and product innovations. (By product, I mean what the process of education is actually delivering to students—as opposed to the process for delivering it).

Our technology-enamored society has led to an over-focus on creating new technologies for schools and insufficient attention being paid developing wholly new models of schooling. To add to the complexity, our current education system is incredibly path dependent. The leaders pushing education forward are themselves products of the very system they are trying to evolve, making it difficult for them to see other paths forward. The same is true from an education policy perspective.

In order for breakthrough change to be realized, the focus in education must be on changing the aim of schooling along with its operations, human capital structures, internal systems and physical environments. By creating room for schools to approach innovation in non-technical ways, we can create new opportunities for as-yet-unseen technologies to expand the scale and impact of teaching and learning. Our students will be better off for it.

Questions to Unlock New Thinking

To support the conversation about what the school of the future might look like, we need new questions to reframe our thinking. Here are a few:

The Purpose of Education

  • In a world where knowledge is easily acquired via the Internet, how do we shift the focus from subject-based teaching to an education aimed at building the capacity to express knowledge in creative ways?
  • What if in addition to IQ we gave equal attention to EQ (emotional intelligence) and CQ (creative intelligence)?
  • How can we break down barriers between intellectual competencies and manual competencies (craftsmanship, hands-on skills) to create a more integrated, holistic education experience?

School Operations

  • Why do we need the current scheduling structure? Is it to corral bored kids? If so, could providing a more engaging learning experience obfuscate the need for such rigid school days?
  • What if school days looked more like the days in your life beyond schooling — balancing head-down work, time for personal development, learning and collaboration, and opportunities for creative expression?
  • How can we facilitate creative chaos by breaking out of neatly organized learning categories and allowing students to set their own academic agendas?

Learning Environment

  • What does it look like to combine labs, breakout rooms, lecture halls, studio spaces, and outdoor venues to create ever-changing backdrops for learning?
  • How can we make learning spaces more comfortable and beautiful as a way of encouraging individual autonomy as opposed to limiting it?
  • How can we pause to have fun — and how does physical space enable more spontaneity?
  • Can we reframe the concept of student success as we change our approach to teaching and learning?

Human Capital

  • How might we flatten leadership structures in schools so that every adult is both a teacher/guide and administrative decision maker? How would this improve school leadership and create more hands-on instructors?
  • What would it look like to form deep partnerships with local leaders and businesses so that local schools are a part of their value chain, not their corporate social responsibility work?
  • How can we blur the lines between teacher education and in-school teacher training, tapping into networks of emerging educators sooner to create better student-teacher ratios?
  • What role can students play in managing and evolving the school environment?

What’s Next

For our schools to evolve in much-needed ways, we need to give just as much attention to our approach to schooling as the tools that enable change. At present, we’re focusing too much on the technological side of the equation. Instead, we need to create room for schools to experiment and discover new ways of teaching and learning. I suspect, like many leaders in the education sector, that this shift in focus will lead to innovations that will better prepare students for the uncertainties that lie ahead — and create a better ecosystem for new technologies to make a more profound impact.

Austin Dannhaus is Director of New Ventures at Free Range Studios. This post originally ran on Medium and has been edited.

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