At the recent Consortium for School Networking conference educational computing pioneer Seymour Papert was asked to explain why there has been so little transformation. Papert told the crowd that their practice of verbal inflation was the major obstacle to educational innovation in the digital age. He meant the breathless rhetoric about the magical ways technology is used in classrooms, when most of those tales could not pass the "So what?" test. Conventional notions of curriculum, assessment and practice are seldom questioned, he said, and yet we have the temerity to declare, "Transformation!"
Computer-generated mind maps are presented to the community as justification for the technology investment while they represent little more than high-tech napkin scribbles or a book report outline. Wiring is mistakenly confused with innovation while we hold on with all our might to the ridiculous mythology of drill-and-practice. The only transformation in the software industry is the ever-changing collection of ways it disguises that you'll be gonged if you get a long division problem incorrect. Integrated learning systems, classroom performance systems and adaptive instruction are clever euphemisms for turning classrooms into high-stakes game shows. This is just 1980s Math Blaster without that pesky patina of fun.
computers aren't digital
Conference programs are filled with presentations on how to use computers to reinforce a trivial aspect of the traditional curriculum without ever calling into question that content. Our attention should be paid to how the computer might allow children to not only learn what the textbooks prescribe in a deeper, more efficient fashion, but to develop what Papert called, "modern knowledge."
All sorts of excuses are made for why the most powerful intellectual instrument ever invented, the computer, has had so little impact on schooling. We blame a shortage of professional development, funding or quality software. Publishers, politicians and principals are also accused of impeding educational progress with their hierarchical mandates. Yet, the simple fact remains that a quarter century after microcomputers entered your schools a minority of teachers use them and an even smaller percentage do so in a way that increases opportunities for all learners.
Lurking in the teacher's room
Fifteen years ago I had the good fortune to lead professional development at the first two schools where every child had a laptop. Wondrous student work emerged and a good number of educators even "transformed" their teaching practice. Yet, it seemed impossible to reach the "tipping point" when the vast majority of teachers used computers in constructive ways. It turns out there was a staff member, ironically an IT teacher, who would take colleagues aside and tell them not to worry about the laptops or the silly talk of innovation. "This too shall pass," he suggested. This one teacher caused inestimable damage before moving to several other schools and repeating the pattern.
Many schools harbor such low-tech insurgents and pay too little attention to their potential for destruction.
Dear Mr. & Ms. Crabtree:
You are not noble defenders of childhood innocence or pedagogical excellence. You have managed to block student access to critical learning opportunities and intellectual tools for more than 25 years. There is no acceptable excuse for cheating a generation of children.
We love cute little cliches referring to children as digital natives and adults are mere digital immigrants. Not only is this simplistic aphorism insulting to the millions of grown-ups capable of using a computer, but it also provides cover for the teachers who have refused to enter the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, they're special.
Why not call such teachers digital ninnies? How about non-learners? Students should not be entrusted to adults so oppositionally defiant as learners. An IEP would be created for a child who displayed such an unwillingness to grow.
School leaders need to expand their vision, raise expectations and use precise language they are indeed going to transform education for the next generation of learners. Let's cut the baloney, increase access and share compelling models of what children can learn and do with computers.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.