From the Department of “No Shit:” technology and computers are not silver bullets for education

File this New York Times article under “no shit:”

But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

There is no silver bullet and no New Jesus for education. There never will be, but the search goes on, because it’s easier to search for the magic methodology that will solve seemingly intractable problems than it is to admit the thing Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have realized about software engineers: talent, motivation, and tenacity vary greatly among individuals and that you can’t merely take someone who lacks all three, put them through some kind of system or give them some kind of tool, and expect everyone to be equally good on the other side. That kind of thing works passable well if you’re building widgets on an assembly line, but it works terribly for any kind of creative or intellectual work.

Nonetheless, it’s much easier to search for that magic methodology to improve very old skills that are surprisingly resistant to methodology: reading, writing, and math. None of those fundamental skills has changed much in the last century. Yet we keep searching for that formula that doesn’t exist, because teaching and learning are inherently hard, like software engineering, math, writing, and any number of other complex but vital skills. Technologies—now we have special blackboards! They blink! They light up! They’re new!—might mask the essential difficulty of task, but they can’t remove it, much as some programming IDEs try to hide some of the essential difficulty of coding. But fields that are essential difficult can’t be mastered by sleight-of-hand or new whizzy gadgets.

They can only be mastered by people who are dedicated to the craft and to continuous self-improvement. The people who, because they believe they can, can. The ones whose tenacity is boundless and who aren’t willing to blame external circumstances.

You need a weird set of skills to teach effectively: you need to empathize with your students—to be able to see from their point of view—without becoming mired in their point of view. You need to master your field, but not in such a way that you lose the beginner’s mindset required to master the field in the first place. You need the stoic’s attitude of realizing you can’t control everything while still having the achiever’s mindset that you must strive to do the best you can, no matter what. You need to be willing to try new things and ideas while not leaving behind the old ones that work. You need to remember not everyone is interested in the things you’re interested in, and you need to do whatever it takes to make subjects more interesting than they would be otherwise. You need to find that profitable zone of challenge for most students—something hard enough to make them struggle but not so hard that it’s impossible to accomplish—it’s reasonable to expect college freshmen to be able to read a story or article on their own, but it’s not reasonable to expect them to pick up and digest every nuance on their own. Some will. Most won’t. You need to be enthusiastic, because enthusiasm is as contagious as boredom, but your job isn’t to be a cheerleader and enthusiasm can’t substitute for knowledge. You need, in other words, a bunch of paradoxical traits that balance each other.

You also need to realize that students need things broken down in steps, and need to learn by example and through discussion. Last week I taught Neal Stephenson’s 2005 New York Times opinion piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.” Whenever I do, I let the class talk for a while at the beginning; when discussion dies, I ask students to do a simple activity: write the essay’s main point in a sentence or two. Then I come around and look at the sentences.

It should be simple, right? Read the piece, find the main point. But it’s not simple. It’s actually quite hard, and most people are bad readers (myself included). When I go around and look at sentences, lots of students get caught up on the distinction between geeking and vegging out. Others think the piece is primarily about Star Wars. Only a few—usually around five of fifty—get the essential elements of the main point.

Stephenson basically says, twice, that he’s using Star Wars as a metaphor: once in the third paragraph: “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” and once more in the last paragraph: “If the “Star Wars” movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs” (emphasis added). But most students haven’t learned how to think metaphorically, as writers do. Metaphor is one of those essential ways of thinking that people need to be effective writers. In On Writing Stephen King says:

The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction—reading it and writing it, as well. When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood says:

“Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imaginative process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo’s back, or – as I did earlier – the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter’s blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do – see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the lager fiction of the novel or story.

Again: that’s hard. And technology isn’t going to make it any easier to start thinking about metaphors, which is probably a precursor to writing in a way that uses metaphor deftly. Before you can do that, you’re probably going to need to recognize when other writers are doing it, and yet, while Stephenson says that he is twice, most students don’t pick up on it. This isn’t to blame them, by the way—a lot of my graduate seminars are still about what the writer actually says. Some of you are probably getting caught up on this discussion of metaphor and think that I’m really writing about how it’s important for students to learn, when this is only a subsidiary point supporting my main point about the place of technology in classrooms. Here’s Wood again on the subject of learning to read:

You only have to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticiers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins.

If he wasn’t a good noticer at 20, what hope is there for the rest of us? And how is having a laptop going to help someone become a better noticer? Consider too one other thing to notice: in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” Stephenson isn’t using any complex or convoluted vocabulary. His sentence structure isn’t very complex; there aren’t lots of nasty nested clauses you have to mentally sort out to figure out what’s being talked about, as there are often are in abstruse literary theory and philosophy. His piece isn’t hard to read. But it’s still evidently hard for many freshmen to understand. So I spend a lot of time working towards understanding, towards reading for detail, towards asking, “Where do you see that?” Technology isn’t going to help that process very much. It may even hurt it by offering a proliferating number of distractions: if you interrupt your reading of “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” four times for text messages and once for an e-mail, are you going to remember how Stephenson said “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” by the end?

I’m teaching honors students, which is easier than teaching standard classes, which is in turn easier than teaching in tough inner-city schools. So I don’t face the same challenges as some of the teachers mentioned in the NYT article. But sometimes I think about Daniel Singal’s Atlantic article, “The Other Crisis in American Education: A college professor looks at the forgotten victims of our mediocre educational system–the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” As the subtitle implies, he argues that the best students aren’t as challenged as they once were. I can’t tell if he’s right or if he’s hearkening back to a mythical golden age, but I do think about his work sometimes when I see what’s going on around me: other grad students and professors want to watch movies in class, or they aren’t even focused on imparting and enhancing basic reading and writing skills—the same ones pretty much everyone needs. Are the strongest students really getting something out of their classes? Is the technology really helping? If not, could it be part of what’s actually causing “our mediocre educational system?” I’m not saying it does, but I am saying it’s worth pondering.

Still, I think the strongest thinkers and learners—the ones who are now running Google and Facebook, the ones who are now partners in law firms and building their own businesses—are doing fine. Better than ever, maybe. Generation X was supposed to be the slacker generation, but its members built large blocks of the Internet—the same set of technologies you’re almost certainly using to read this. But I wonder if there’s not a growing bifurcation between the people who are doing really well and the ones who aren’t. In income terms, that’s certainly true, but I wonder if it’s happening in intellectual terms too. Stephenson thinks so: “Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.” But the people who spend all that time vegging out aren’t going to create whatever the next iPod and Facebook will be. And they won’t reap those rewards, either. They’re the ones who might be “learning less,” as Singal has it. The people who make the next iPod and Facebook will be the one who are focused on “geeking out” regarding important topics. The ones who will, I hope, have teachers—whether in honors or not—who are focused on the essential questions that imparting knowledge involves.

By the way, I’m not trying to beat up college freshmen—if I were, I wouldn’t have the empathy necessary to be good. A lot of college seniors are little better than my freshmen, which I found out by working for Steven Klein at the Steven Klein LSAT Company. The LSAT is mostly a test of reading. If you can read effectively, you’ll do pretty well. But a lot of 22 – 24-year-old college graduates had a lot of trouble on reading comprehension because they couldn’t or hadn’t been trained to look at every word, evaluate it in relation to other words and in relation to the context of the passage, and understand what it means. I think back to those experiences when I read books like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses or articles like the one about cool whizzy tech stuff in classrooms. The whizzy tech stuff isn’t going to help readers when they’re facing the LSAT.

A second “by the way” is in order: I’m neither trying to denigrate technology nor be a luddite—I say so as the guy typing on a fancy keyboard, ergonomic chair, and 27″ iMac, with a bunch of Textmate windows open. Computers make the mechanical process of writing easier, so that the hard stuff—the stuff that goes on in the mind—can dominate. Technology is great—in its place. The University of Arizona has computers and projectors and other neat stuff in many classrooms, and if that neat stuff is available, I use it.

But technology complements other skills; it doesn’t substitute for them. You can only use computers effectively to the extent you can read, write, and do simple math effectively—try programming without algebra. Or try to extract information from man pages without strong reading comprehension skills; hell, I like to imagine myself as being at least moderately literate, and I find some of them tough. So this is not one of those tedious essays in which Old Man Withers shakes his cane and complains about the kids with those damn beeping gizmos and sending those darned pictures of each others’ privates around and get off my damn lawn. Plus, I’m too young to shake my cane; I ran a modest but real number of miles yesterday. Even when I do have a cane someday, I hope that it 1) has a hidden sword, because that kind of thing is cool and 2) that I haven’t ossified to the point where I’m not willing to learn new things.

But this is an essay that points out how basic skills and the means of imparting those basic skills haven’t changed so much, as Amanda Ripley’s Atlantic article, “What Makes a Great Teacher?” makes clear in its discussion of what great teachers do:

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. [. . .] Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Notice the thing absent from this list: use computers, iPads, and so forth. Sure, those great teachers could use technology, but they don’t need to. And the technology is not going to automatically make an indifferent teacher set big goals or recruit families or maintain focus or plan. Used poorly, it’s just going to provide some flash and pizazz and some distractions. Check out this Marginal Revolution discussion of a study looking at how introducing computers in poor households actually decreased student grades because students spent more time playing games on them than doing homework:

Not surprisingly, with all that game playing going on, the authors find that the voucher program actually resulted in a decline in grades although there was also some evidence for an increase in computer proficiency and perhaps some improvement in a cognitive test.

See also “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality:” “Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.” These reports should give technology cheerleaders pause: you aren’t going to get better results simply by lashing a computer on a teacher’s back and telling him to use it.*

To be a good teacher, you still need that weird skill- and mindset mentioned above. If you don’t have it or aren’t willing to develop it, I doubt anything else imposed on an individual teacher from the outside, like mandates to use technology, are going to do much for that teacher or for his or her students. If you want to really improve teaching, you’ll need to take an approach similar to the one Facebook and Google take to hiring hackers, which means a relentless focus not on degrees that offer dubious value in predicting achievement but on finding the best people and making sure they stay. Finding the best teachers is different from finding programmers—you probably can’t tell who’s going to be a good teacher before they hit the classroom—but you can at least acknowledge that you’re not going to get people who are good merely by saying, “use iPads in the classroom.” Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t have iPads in their classrooms growing up, and maybe that’s part of what made Jobs able to have the vision necessary to Turn On, Geek Out, and make the iPad.


* I had a computer in middle and early high school that I used to master Starcraft and various other computer games, until I somehow realized I was wasting my life and smashed my Starcraft disks in the driveway. I sometimes use this analogy when I explain the situation to friends: some people can handle snorting the occasional line of coke without getting addicted; it’s just a fun way of spending a Saturday night. Some people can handle computer games in the same way. I discovered, at the time, that I’m not one of them, and, worse, I’ll never get those three or so wasted years back. Now I tend to find video games boring on average and can’t play for longer than half an hour to an hour at a stretch, while I’ve trained myself up to being able to write effectively for three to six hours at a time. The first draft of this essay, for example, took me about two hours.

3 responses

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