Technology: Old Saviour, New Saviour?

Plus ca change, plus ce meme chose.  When I was a boy, teaching went on in classrooms much like it had for over 100 years, and, besides the look of the environs, much like it had from the time of Socrates.  A teacher, more learned than we, was the centre of our attention, and we sat, either metaphorically or literally, at her feet.  She often began, as Socrates did, with questions, and would have us examine and sometimes overturn our existing ideas.  (She had us do work, and this might have been a departure with Socrates, though I imagine even Greek students in Classical Athens practiced reading, writing, and geometry, and besides – such useful but boring tasks wouldn’t have found a place in Plato’s recordings.) Teaching, was a human art, practiced by humans, of finding common ground, of imparting, of making our minds like each other’s; the most technology we experienced was only tangentially – the mimeograph machine would produce exotic-smelling copies for us to hold.But times change: for me, it was somewhere in the third grade when we got our first taste of computers.  We trundled to the library (now, in an increasingly post-book world we call it a ‘resource room,’ implying all resources deserve equality) to sit at large machines.  I recall typing in the username and password, and playing typing games.

That was 1987.  How far we have come.  A Google search of the phrase “technology in the classroom” leads to nearly 35,000,000 responses.  Students routinely spend more time on computers or game systems than they do reading.  And why not?  In Ontario, the self-styled education premier Dalton McGuinty has even suggested that even cellphones, once the bane of the teacher, can be used in class to great educational effect.  “Telephones and BlackBerrys and the like are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want to do is to be well-informed,” he said to CBC news. “And it’s something that we should be looking at in our schools.”

The New York Times Magazine recently showcased a piece called “Games Theory: Keeping Children Plugged In at School.”

The basic idea is that educators can exploit “The intrinsic qualities of games as learning spaces…. learning is structured in a game-like way.”

First, the obvious celebration of students eager to learn.  And they are – look no further than the boy featured at minute 2:50: “I’m learning a lot of stuff, but only in a funner way.”

(At minute 2:54, we meet the parents.  Lovely, obviously rich, sophisticated, worldly, and able to provide nearly anything to their son.  You could substitute ‘video game school’ for ‘music school’ and get nearly the same response, I imagine, from a similar, stylish, rich set of parents of an equally eager son.)

But critiques of upwardly-mobile-middle-class parenting aside, the underlying philosophical message of the project should give us pause.  The notion reported on, the success of a video game approach to learning, relies on several premises:
1) For learning to be engaging, it must be fun
2) By ‘fun,’ we mean something in a student’s pre-existing set of enjoyments
3) We should shoehorn larger curriculum goals into those things students define as fun.

If we insist on these premises, and many of us do when we pursue novelty over classical approaches, we shrink run the risk of shrinking a student’s set of opportunities.  Children don’t leave the womb with an intrinsic appreciation of some of life’s most important, and beautiful, things.  By focusing on their existing interests, don’t we impoverish them? And is it really true that for things to be meaningful to students, they must be fun?  And how do we define that – is all fun digital?

And then there are the pedagogical concerns about teaching curriculum disembodied from its usual place and embodied in a video game.  Does it really make sense to understand say, math, through an integrated project like this?  How about literature?  Maybe art, if we only focus on digital art, but how about art history?  Will students have any context, will they participate in the traditions of our culture, of our intellectual past?

And of course, most will not protest these projects for two reasons, one known the other subconscious.  The known reasons for calm is that young people engaged in learning stir the heart.  The second, the subconscious, reason for calm is that so much of this is exactly like other school work: students work in groups to achieve a bigger, or more authentic piece of work involving complex and critical processes, and in doing so, achieve what the teacher featured describes (about the game project) as “The definition of higher-order thinking.”

We live in an age of computers, of course we will use them in a classroom.  But it is useful to note that the processes of learning probably haven’t changed any more than our brains have changed.

The really useful parts of what is going on here are already common in our schools (the challenge is that they don’t always work, and that goes for nearly any engagement strategy, given the variability of human interests and disposition – teaching is, as Jacques Barzun so wisely pints out, not a problem to be solved, once and for all, but a difficulty to be met, each and every day).  If you want to see continuity with your own school experience, look no further than minute 1:50, where the teacher lists elements of the project and the students, sitting at his feet, repeat as a class.

Plus ca change…

Against School?

While we expect that students will rail against the injustice of being forced inside schools for the better part of their childhoods, it might come as a surprise to hear that many adults, too, would prefer children mature outside the walls of an institution.

The Globe and Mail, as newspapers are wont to do around the Labour Day weekend, published a spate of education articles, including one that resurrected the idea of ‘unschooling’ – the modern variation of the old progressivist turn towards homeschooling. “The idea puts a lot of faith in children, their innate interest in learning and in their intelligence. It also restores faith in parents, returning some control over their children’s growth that they handed to educators and politicians more than a century ago.”

The underlying notion is simple, and beguiling: students fail to learn because of school, not in spite of it. And according to the Globe, the movement is growing. The unschooled home isn’t a classroom, it is altogether less structured: “Unschoolers maintain that a child’s learning should be curiosity-driven rather than dictated by teachers and textbooks, and that forcing kids to adhere to curricula quashes their natural inclination to explore and ask questions.” And according to one proponent, “An unschooling family mostly just looks like a family living life … hanging out on the weekend.”

It was when I was in teachers’ college that I first came across a thoughtful piece in Harper’s by John Taylor Gatto. It is eloquent, and quite powerful in its own way. He begins, as so many do, with his experience:

“I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.”

Having established his credibility and appealed to some nice populist themes, he moves onto his main thesis:

“Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good, multivolume history of the world with her husband, Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated…. We don’t need Karl Marx’s conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform.” (Reading Plato’s Crito, one is struck by just how Socrates, perhaps the model anti-establishment teacher, argues for a high degree of social conformity – submitting to execution rather than defy laws he knows to be unjust.)

So, modern schooling is a kind of Great Confinement, advanced by the ruling classes to at once allow their offspring to flourish while oppressing those of the working classes into a life of drudgery. His conclusion? “The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.” Well said.

Except that he has the naïve notion that all youngsters would be acclaimed geniuses, were it not for formal schooling. What other mechanism exists for improving the lives of those without means than a functional public school system?

I would argue the opposite: that the working class most benefits from formal schooling. The child raised by a single-mother has more to gain from the Confinement than the middle- and upper-class students. Through public education, poorer children are exposed to a world that would otherwise not be possible. (Not to mention literacy – not all children are like Lincoln, able to discover reading with little more than a Bible.) If anything, I maintain that public schooling, if it does suppress genius at least does so by redirecting the effort towards a broader range of students.

But his first point stands: school can be boring. Surely, though, public education is not by necessity stultifying. Even in large high schools teachers persist against the old difficulty of inspiring students and imbuing within them a set of skills, dispositions and talents – included among them, as anyone who has stepped into a classroom in the past generation, a whole host of post-modern skepticisms. As any given teacher will tell you after a long week, “I wish it were as easy to break their spirits!”

Could it be that formal schooling isn’t the problem – that, perhaps, we just need to teach with a firmer dedication to the task? And could we add to the list of remarkable minds Einstein, Hawking, and perhaps even Gatto himself – minds who did emerge from a formal system of schooling, and who were no worse for wear. I suspect that Gatto himself would agree with this, if it weren’t for the banality of it; after all, as Gatto himself likes to point out, he was New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1991.