Education, technology and Obama’s imagination. . .

So in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably start by saying that I’m a bit of a left-leaner when it comes to politics.

Working in classrooms for over a decade gives you a real sense for the disparity between the haves and have-nots in our country—and you tend to want to find ways to stick up for the little guy. In that sense, I’ve been Obama-fied over the last year.

His recent comments on technology in education—spotlighted in this eSchool News article—have left me nothing short of gobsmacked, though!  Here’s the entire quote:

“Imagine a future where our children are more motivated because they aren’t just learning on blackboards, but on new whiteboards with digital touch screens; where every student in a classroom has a laptop at [his or her] desk; where [students] don’t just do book reports but design PowerPoint presentations; where they don’t just write papers, but they build web sites; where research isn’t done just by taking a book out of the library, but by eMailing experts in the field; and where teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how best to use it and obtain knowledge. By fostering innovation, we can help make sure every school in America is a school of the future.

“And that’s what we’re going to do when I’m president. We will help schools integrate technology into their curriculum, so we can make sure public school students are fluent in the digital language of the 21st-century economy. We’ll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that’s how we’ll make sure they’re prepared for today’s workplace.”

Let’s tackle a few bits of Obama’s imagination one at a time:

“Imagine a future where our children are more motivated because they aren’t just learning on blackboards, but on new whiteboards with digital touch screens; where every student in a classroom has a laptop at [his or her] desk;

This one almost cost Obama my vote in and of itself!  You see, he’s making the same mistake that nearly every decision-maker in the past ten years has made when talking about educational technology:  He’s believing that nifty tools are needed to increase student motivation.

I used to be a nifty-tools guy, too.  Ask my friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.  I’d drive her crazy with my commitment to gadgets.

Then I started paying pretty careful attention to the kinds of work being done in the loaded classroom (think cheese fries), and what I found was shocking:  Rooms kitted out with thousands and thousands of dollars of technology are often no different than the nun-and-ruler-driven classrooms of old.  Dropping technology into a classroom rarely changes instruction in meaningful ways.

Whiteboards are easily the best example because those digital touch screens that Obama is dreaming of are rarely even touched by students in most loaded classrooms!  Instead, they become a new-and-improved way for teachers to do what they’ve always done:  Drone from the board in a one-way broadcast model of classroom instruction.

Are we really reforming education by introducing teachers to electronic chalk?

The Senator drove the knife even deeper with this one:

where [students] don’t just do book reports but design PowerPoint presentations; where they don’t just write papers, but they build web sites; where research isn’t done just by taking a book out of the library, but by eMailing experts in the field;

Tell me that we aren’t really going to argue that PowerPoint and email are innovations?

That’s got to be a joke, right?

Ask any kid today what they think of PowerPoint and they’ll tell you they’re completely fed up with it.  Again, does it really change instruction—or is it just another fancy tool for teachers to deliver notes to kids?  Maybe it’s a nice replacement for color Vis a Vis overhead projector pens, but it ain’t much beyond that!

And Barack—-you’ve got kids, right?

Do they email anyone?

Chances are they don’t!

Today’s generation instant messages and texts.  They Skype and video-chat.  Synchronous communication defines the work that they do with peers away from school.  Why should we believe they’re actually going to sit and wait for days for a reply from an expert when they’re used to getting answers NOW?  Email might feel good to most of us—at least everyone outside of Senator McCain—but it’s nearly pointless to our students.

Now, Obama gets a bit closer to the kinds of conversations we should be having when he wrote:

and where teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how best to use it and obtain knowledge. By fostering innovation, we can help make sure every school in America is a school of the future…

We’ll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that’s how we’ll make sure they’re prepared for today’s workplace.”

We really do need to foster innovation in our classrooms and to redefine teachers as knowledge coaches.  After all, the majority of today’s students have figured out that school actually hinders their ability to learn.  With a couple of mouse clicks, they can stumble upon information for any topic that they’re interested in mastering—and chances are, that content will be far more varied and aligned with different learning styles than what they get in most classrooms.

Showing students how to access and manage this information is nothing short of an essential first step towards developing the oft-cliched “life-long learners” that we profess constant commitment to.

Teamwork, critical thinking and communication are EXACTLY the kinds of skills that we need to emphasize in order to prepare children for the workplaces of tomorrow.  Read Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind someday.  He makes a pretty good case for the fact that we live in a world where design and innovation are becoming the “new normal.”

The functionality epitomized by the right-brained generation of the ’70s and ’80s is a basic expectation today…businesses need creativity to excel, and the most successful workers in this new economy will be those who can cross boundaries between topics—-making connections and innovations that join seemingly diverse fields.

But my question, Senator Obama, is simple:  How can you honestly expect this kind of creative thinking to define classrooms when the sole indicators of success are multiple choice tests in reading and mathematics?

I’ve written pretty extensively about what standardized tests have done to my classroom.  Every year, team work, critical thinking and communication are pushed out of my lessons—replaced by multiple choice quizzes and questions that are designed to prepare my kids for the end of grade exams.

If you’re serious about making the kinds of skills that you describe as essential for preparing kids for tomorrow’s workplace an important part of today’s classrooms, you’d better start talking about ditching accountability systems that place no emphasis on anything other than Scantron bubble sheets when measuring “results,” because instruction will never change until you do.

As unfortunate as it may seem, what’s tested is definitely what’s taught.

Now, maybe I’m being a bit unfair here—after all, I’m drawing conclusions about Senator Obama’s entire educational platform from a two-paragraph quote in an article I stumbled across in my feed reader the other day.  I’m also smart enough to recognize that the president, Congress and the Department of Education have far less control over school decisions than policy makers at the state level.

I just cringe every time I see someone as influential as a presidential candidate “imagining a future” where email, PowerPoints and whiteboards are the keys to redefining education.

Redefining education begins by asking ourselves a simple question that my buddy Adam Garry asks his clients all the time:  What do we want to see students doing in our classrooms?  Are creation, communication and collaboration the keys to tomorrow’s kingdom?  What sorts of instructional practices support the development and mastery of these skills and behaviors?

Are today’s schools effective at developing new learners?  Why?

Once we have the answers to these kinds of questions, we can begin to choose digital tools responsibly—rather than throwing any more money on misdirected tools like whiteboards and student responders!