By Jim Shimabukuro
Test results for reading and math from the Kyrene School District in Arizona seem to prove that pouring millions of dollars of technology into traditional classrooms may be a waste of money. According to Matt Richtel,* in the last six years the district, “which serves 18,000 kindergarten to eighth-grade students, mostly from the cities of Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler,” has invested $33 million in “technology-centric” classrooms. In a few months, the district will be asking voters to approve “$46.3 million more in taxes over seven years” to continue this program.
If people are surprised, they shouldn’t be. In the photo that accompanies Richtel’s article, we see students in a traditional classroom, lined up in rows and sitting before notebook computers. A large screen at the front of the room projects a page that is apparently on the teacher’s notebook. All appear to be on the same page. This was held up “as a model of [successful innovation] by the National School Boards Association, which in 2008 organized a visit by 100 educators from 17 states.”
However, “as statewide scores have risen,” says Richtel, “the scores in Kyrene have “stagnated.” He concludes, and I have to agree, “The push for technology is to the benefit of one group: technology companies.”
As we view the photo, we have to ask ourselves, What’s wrong with this picture?
The crux of the problem is we forget that a classroom is a form of technology, too. Thus, we have a case in which a newer technology (computers with internet access) is embedded in an older technology (classroom). This inlay is incompatible and cripples the impact of the new technology. It’s like placing a 21st century sedan on a 19th century road and wondering why a horse-drawn carriage fares better.
For the 19th century classroom, perhaps the best technology is the 19th century lecture and hardcopy textbook. The point is that the latest technology, confined to a classroom, is like a Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan jet engine in a 1965 Volkswagen beetle chassis. If the beetle doesn’t fly, no one’s surprised.
What is the lesson for the Kyrene School District? It’s actually quite simple. As form should follow function, pedagogy should match environment. Thus, don’t spend millions on technology that simply replicates traditional approaches in the F2F classroom. Teachers lecturing with interactive whiteboards and students reading via iPads, by themselves, won’t produce better test scores.
The new technology invites innovative pedagogy. However, limiting the field for that innovation to the classroom is counterintuitive. The question is, How do we get teachers and students to think outside the classroom box in their use of technology?
In the 21st century, we really need to begin to think of the classroom as but one of many available learning and teaching technologies. Since students and teacher are together, in the same place at the same time, they should probably focus on activities that are dependent on in-person interactions. Other activities such as reading, writing, computing, researching, listening to lectures, and doing exercises could then be done independently outside of class with online technology at a time and place determined by each student or small groups of students. Discussions, for the most part, can be managed online in asynchronous forums; however, those that rely heavily on F2F (face-to-face) interaction could be relegated to the classroom.
Teachers can be creative, but they need encouragement and support for sustainable innovations. Not necessarily in the form of better pay, but (1) more freedom to determine how and when to use some of the latest online technology that they’re independently exploring, discovering, and using, (2) more resources to implement those technologies in their own online learning and teaching environments, and (3) more non-instructional time to develop, prepare, and manage these new environments.
When we consider that the power of the new technology is in anywhere-anytime learning, we have to question the millions we spend on the time- and place-bound environment of the classroom. When the world can be — and is — our learning environment, why remain within the confines of an outdated environment?
* “Classroom Is Futuristic; Test Scores Are Stagnant,” Bendbulletin, 5 Sep. 2011.
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