Prensky’s Solutions for Public Schools Are Woefully Simplistic

John SenerBy John Sener

[Note: This article was first posted as a comment (9.7.10) on Marc Prensky‘s “Simple Changes in Current Practices May Save Our Schools” (7.12.10). It also refers to Steve Eskow‘s comment (9.6.10) on the article. -js]

Sorry, but I do not share others’ enthusiasm for Prensky’s approach. The idea to distribute 55 million tarballs is extremely expensive and highly impractical as Steve Eskow’s post illustrates. In fact, such an effort would be seen as a “Trojan horse” attempt to impose federal control over education, and face broad resistance as a result.

His other specific ideas are nice but hardly original — in fact, no doubt they are being done by hundreds, in some cases thousands, of teachers and thousands, perhaps millions, of students.

The real issue for me is: why do 55 million schoolchildren have to be involved in this? Yes, the BP spill affects everyone; so do thousands of other issues. Wouldn’t sending out 55 million tarballs deprive teachers of the opportunity to experiment and innovate, which Prensky purports to advocate? Please note carefully: Prensky did NOT say, “develop a program to send out tarballs to every teacher who requests one.” No, instead he proposed a blanket “solution” for everybody. The distinction is crucial, and not merely rhetorical, as it reflects an ultimately authoritarian approach to moving forward.

Underlying Prensky’s blanket solution is the notion that the education system is “broken” and needs “fixing.” The more I study this issue, the more annoying this misguided meme has become. Please enlighten us: when was the educational system ever working just fine, and when did it break? The current issues we face are not the product of a “broken” system, but of one which is not designed to achieve its current intended purpose: education for all. This aspiration is relatively recent in our history; we have not figured out how to do it yet, which is not surprising because it is a hugely ambitious undertaking, in fact, unprecedented in human history. But calling the system “broken” is like calling an Apple IIe computer “broken” because it doesn’t support video. The computer works just fine; the problem is that a more powerful one is needed.

In Prensky’s view, all the “real learning” takes place in the “best programs” such charter schools and programs with identifiable labels such as KIPP, Harlem Zone, Teach for America. But they reach “less than 2 million, i.e., only 4% of what is needed.” The implication?  Multiply these programs twenty-five-fold, and education is “fixed.” Wrong — these programs do not work for all their participants; what they trumpet as success is marginal improvement at best. (Show me one which has 100% success and I’ll take a closer look at it.) Prensky’s assertions are also deeply insulting to the multitude of teachers who do their best, and often succeed, within a flawed system.

Of course, if an entire system is broken, then one feels comfortable proposing a ‘one size fits all’ solution such as 55 million tarballs or the Five Simple Changes which will Save Our Schools. Do what Prensky says, problem fixed, schools saved; move on to next problem. Prensky’s views have always struck me as ultimately motivated by a deep resentment for education and schooling as having wronged him in some way. But education is not made real by fixes; it is an ongoing enterprise driven by relationships.

Perhaps if Prensky showed a little more appreciation for nuance and complexity instead of his ‘black-and-white’ approach (“Schools, bad; my ideas for real learning, good”), it’d be possible for me to take his ideas more seriously…

One Response

  1. I did not take Marc Prensky’s tar ball proposal literally. Steve points out the logistical fallacy. I grew up with tar balls on my beach every day. Every house had a can of turpentine and a rag by the back door so that you could remove the tar from your feet before going indoors. They’ve since eliminated the source of tar (washing out oil tankers near shore).

    I’ve already commented on his dismissive approach to technology, an incorrect evaluation because there must be some technologies somewhere that are doing good and costing less.

    Our K-12 education system has had many problems over the years and has sometimes worked better, sometimes worse. We’re in a worse phase now. My major problem with what he says is figuring out how to implement it, assuming it really works, across thousands of districts and millions of children. He recommends doing six things.

    1. Make education real.
    2. Teach to student passions.
    3. Less telling and more asking.
    4. Use relaxation at the beginning of each class period.
    5. Connect to peers around the world.
    6. Use cell phones in classrooms as learning tools.

    I feel that Mr. Prensky should not be so glib about his list. He says, “…provide them with easily doable directions that they can all start using…” Won’t happen. Nice to talk about, but exactly who has the motivation and resources to distribute this list to some couple of million teachers?

    But, let’s take him at his word and ignore the distribution problems. Each of these things has some value. Are the benefits commensurate with the costs.

    Take #4. Does it make sense to force students to do relaxation exercises for 10-20% of their class period? I don’t know for sure, but it sounds like a problem. Will you get 10-20% learning gains? If you could do it in 2 minutes, then great.

    Number 1 suggests that we make education more real. How? It’s not so hard in first grade, but may be quite a challenge in 12th. Who’s going to work out these real curricula? Who will keep them updated and still have the required curriculum topics covered? Mr. Prensky says that these changes are “best, fastest, least expensive, and most easily executable.” I can’t agree in this case.

    Number 2 has teachers taking class inventories of passions at the beginning of the school year. This could be a great ice breaker for a new class. However, he also has teachers designing separate curricula around the various passions found. Not so easy to implement. For me, were I teaching 9th grade, this idea would not pass the best… test.

    Number 3 is simply the Socratic method and has been reapplied to education over and over again. It really works. So, why is it not more widely used? After all, everyone knows about it. There must be something about this approach that fails the “easily executable” test. It’s an excellent way to conduct classes for those who can manage it.

    The fifth item above will encourage more student participation, especially from those who aren’t very forward in class. Not every teacher appears to buy into this idea. The ones who do seem to get some mileage from it. It takes more time and engages the students more. Teachers have to monitor this trade off and make sure that they’re getting results commensurate with effort.

    Finally, we get to number 6. Because Mr. Prensky did not specify the exact ways in which these ubiquitous tools of technology will be used, I cannot comment specifically. Using technology appears to conflict with his earlier statement: “…creating technology that teaches, and teaches well, except for the most highly self-motivated students, is extremely difficult and has yet to be done broadly.” Maybe not. It’s hard to tell from what’s written.

    There you have it. Some reasonably good ideas if we could get them to happen in the real world. Some will work better than others to improve instruction. Some are more difficult to implement and maintain. It doesn’t seem that any are “best, fastest, least expensive and most easily executable” all at the same time. To give Mr. Prensky his due, what is?

    The future of technology in learning, so quickly dismissed by Mr. Prensky, might be. Someday, it will be.

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