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Letting learning technology flourish in schools

Schools—and teaching—must change to compete in a knowledge economy
Scott McLeod is the author of the popular “Dangerously Irrelevant” blog.
Scott McLeod is the author of the popular “Dangerously Irrelevant” blog.

A photo on Scott McLeod’s popular “Dangerously Irrelevant” blog carries the caption, “We’re so busy doing 20th century teaching, we don’t have time to initiate 21st century learning.”

That, in a nutshell, is McLeod’s driving concern about K12 education. A country that doesn’t embrace technology and innovation in its education system cannot hope to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

“Job growth in America, in terms of numbers, is around non-routine cognitive work—the stuff that requires sophisticated mental thinking, creative work, problem-solving, collaboration—and we aren’t doing a good job preparing students for that,” he says.

McLeod is the founding director of the University Council for Education Administration’s Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), “the nation’s only academic center dedicated to the technology needs of school administrators.”

You’ve written that administrative restraints have rendered much of school technology useless.

Yes, that’s based on something writer Tim Cushing said. Everyone is trying to get more technology into their schools for kids to use, but then we add so many restrictions, barriers, blocks and filters. It’s like we’re trying hard to get the tech in there but also trying as hard as we can to keep kids from using it. It’s great that we have these devices, but we’ve got to embed them within environments of empowerment, not restriction.

Keith Krueger from CoSN noted that the problem is leading with technology rather than pedagogy. Would you agree?

Yes, absolutely. Most of the time the focus is on getting the tools and the infrastructure and not on what kind of learning experiences we are trying to enable. So we see a lot of replicative technology use where we are doing the same things we did before.

Still lots of note-taking. Still lots of low-level PowerPoint presentations. They look up stuff on the web. And that’s pretty much all they’ve got in a lot of these districts. They are proud because they are 1-to-1, but they are not really using it to best effect.

Is it that teachers are unfamiliar with the technology?

The problem lies in the predominant views around learning and teaching that are still recall and regurgitation. Until we’re ready to rethink learning and teaching, how we use these devices isn’t going to change.

If you are vetted in a regurgitative model of schooling, then this idea of student empowerment, and project-based learning, and inquiry, doesn’t fit into that model very well. So you are going to use devices in low-level ways because that’s what your model of teaching and learning looks like.

Schools are primarily about repetitive, low-level routine cognitive work. That’s exactly the wrong emphasis in our society today, from an economic standpoint.

The factory model of schooling isn’t compatible with a knowledge economy?

Right. The factory model prepares compliant workers to do repetitive, routine work. We have a convergence of globalization fostered by rapid growth and technology in the internet, and this has moved all that work elsewhere.

Our schools haven’t yet adapted to the new economic realities of a technology-suffused knowledge economy.

You speak to educators all the time. They must see the problem too, right?

A lot of it has to do with time. It’s not that these awesome teachers are unwilling. It’s that they recognize that they don’t have the skills or knowledge and they don’t have the time or the leadership supports or system supports to make it happen. They often feel like they are left adrift on their own to figure it out. That can be very overwhelming.

And that can lead to stifling the tools that should be helping students learn?

Right. That’s more of a leadership thing. How do we think about devices? Do we think about them as essential to the core learning process or do we think of them as just nice to have? Do we think of them as behavioral control devices?

We would never say to a kid, “You’ve acted up in class. We’re going to take away your textbook.” But for some reason we have no problem saying, “We’re going to take away your laptop,” even though the laptop is a much more powerful learning mechanism for the students.

I think this just has to do with fear and a lack of knowledge and perhaps some odd administrative thinking about these tools. They are not seen as essential yet.

We used to hear about the so-called “Nintendo generation,” raised on technology. They would grow up to become tech-savvy teachers. It’s pretty clear that hasn’t happened. Why?

What we’re often seeing with our younger teachers is that they may be very fluent with, say, social technology—Facebook, texting, Twitter, and so on. But they may not be fluent at using technology for academic or job-productive work because they’ve never been given the experiences to actually do that. They may not be the digital natives that we think.

The other challenge with our younger folks is that even if they are comfortable with technology or might be willing to give it a go, they are embedded within systems that aren’t supportive. The work of W. Edwards Deming has told us for decades that if you take a good person and you embed them within a bad system, the bad system will win every time.

So the real key is getting the leadership support and community support.

Exactly. If we want systemic change to happen as opposed to pockets of isolated excellence, then we have to hit the people who are in charge of the systems.

That’s principals and superintendents. That’s school boards. That’s state and federal policy makers—the people who actually have control over things like time and money and resource allocation, professional learning, vision setting, and all those things.

You can be a wonderful classroom teacher. You can maybe even make an impact at the classroom level, but you are not going to impact the entire system. The people who are in charge of the system have to get on board, too.

You are a critic of standardized testing, noting a lack of evidence to support using student test scores to rank teachers. Why do we still do it?

The challenge with standardized testing to me is that those assessments are primarily focused on the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s that easy, factual recall and procedural regurgitation stuff—the kind of thing you can look up on Google in a few seconds.

We have lots of evidence that around 80 to 85 percent of kids’ day-to-day work is that kind of learning. Our standardized testing scheme at the state and federal levels is really pushing even harder on those kinds of assessments. But they are at great odds with the needs of our economy right now—which is that we need graduates who can live up at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy, not the lower end.

If we really want critical thinkers and problem-solvers, people who can collaborate and create value in the world, you don’t capture any of that with a heavy emphasis on low-level bubble tests. Yet that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

What could drive that to change?

I think we’re already seeing pushback, particularly as high-achieving, affluent suburban communities are hearing that their schools are labeled as failing. They look around and say, “Well that doesn’t make any sense.” So we’re starting to see some pushback at that level.

But it is going to be hard, because the kind of tests that we have now are absolutely the cheap ones. They are relatively easy to administer. They are relatively inexpensive. But a true performance assessment, judged by rubric or a panel of experts, is quite costly in terms of personnel and time.

There’s a quote at the top of your Twitter page—“If the leaders don’t get it, it’s not going to happen.”

That goes back to my emphasis on the leadership and systems change—that we’ve got to have the leaders onboard. When I originally started saying that, I was focused mostly on principals and superintendents. I would now broaden that to include board members and policymakers.

It’s worth noting that a lot of educators are trying really hard to move in these directions. But they encounter significant obstacles—from policy and legislation to the mindset of their communities.

What mindset is that?

The biggest barrier to making the shifts we need to make in schools is our mindset of what schools should look like. Everyone went to school. We each have our mental model of what school is and how it operates, based on experience.

But we’re talking about a really different approach here. It makes many people uncomfortable or fearful. That’s why it has been so difficult to get all this going.

Tim Goral is senior editor.