Blame the Screens, Not Us

In his regular weekly column for the Washington Post1, Jay Mathews wants us to know about two local teachers who have written a book containing “discoveries that threaten the foundations of the high-tech classroom”.

Wow! But a statement like that is what you might expect from something with the title “Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber.”

I haven’t read more than the excerpts provided by Mathews and the Amazon sampler for the book, but I have a few observations anyway.

Let’s start with the authors’ “three core principles for good teaching”:

(1) deliver instruction in the simplest possible manner; (2) focus instruction on what students are able to do; and (3) foster face-to-face human interaction and opportunities for community building.

That opening phrase “deliver instruction” is certainly at the core of the common view of classroom pedagogy. Someone designated as “teacher” delivers a package of carefully curated information to a group known as “students”. Unstated but assumed, of course, is that students will display the amount of information they have retained at some point.

In the third principle, the idea of “community building” is wonderful. That should be one of the primary goals of classrooms and schools. However, real communities are built by the members, not framed by someone else. Leaders come from within the community, not assigned to that role.

Then there are the opening lines to the first chapter of the book itself.

Something is not right with today’s kids. You know it, and I know it.

That is followed with the far too common indictment of “screen time” and the “misuse” of social media and technology in general, complete with the fictitious example of “typical” teenager Brett as he gets up and goes to school. Just that part of the book includes an incredible number of cliches disparaging both students and their teachers. I’m completely torn as to whether I want to read more.

However, in the course of the article, the authors’ and Mathews do land on a few truths.

They are certainly correct that “these tools in and of themselves do not make for better teaching”. And I do agree with this observation:

Students need no help from schools developing their tablet, smartphone, or Twitter skills. They are doing this on their own.

But not the conclusion that follows.

What they need help with is critical thinking, problem solving, and community building.

Most kids do very well with developing those skills. Just not for the material you are trying to get them to understand.

So, did you consider that maybe the problem isn’t with your students and their use of technology but instead with this structure we’ve designed for them call “school”?

Is it possible the curriculum we expect them to learn is a major part of the problem? Large parts of that material is irrelevant and does little to foster those problem solving and community building skills mentioned several times. Not to mention they way it is “delivered”.

Plus the kids are very well aware of why the teachers want them to absorb the information in the first place: it’s on the SOLs (Virginia’s standards of learning), it will probably show up on a test sometime in the future, and they must pass the test to “succeed” (and keep the schools/district numbers high).

In the end, I do not disagree with these teacher that there is something wrong with how we use technology in school.

The problem, however, is that, for the most part, we are trying to replicate the standard school experience through screens. We want to maintain the same curriculum, pedagogy, and academic framework with some computing devices slapped on the side.

Instead of taking full advantage of the available power from devices and networks to reimagine the entire learning experience.

By the way, Mathews closes the column with this:

Next week, I will get into what they say can be done to turn back the acidic distractions of the tech revolution in our schools, and save just the stuff that works.

You have been warned.


1. The title in the paper, “Teachers demonstrate the power of fewer screens and more human interaction” is completely wrong; the online title “Hitting the return key on education” makes no sense.

A Resolution For The New School Year

It’s a new school year so why not adopt a good resolution to get it started?

My nomination would be for everyone drop the antiquated digital native myth.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen the phrase used in several different back to school edtech articles as a lazy shorthand to excuse their lack of understanding about how kids relate to technology. Too many educators and parents also seem to have accepted the idea as scientific fact. 

It’s just plain false.

A paper recently published in a European teacher preparation journal is just the latest research to make the case that growing up with PCs, texting, and PlayStations does not endow kids with “native” technology skills.

In particular this and earlier studies knock down the concept of “multitasking”, that these “digital natives” are able to accomplish two or more tasks at the same time. Plenty of research shows the human brain just doesn’t work that way.

For years I tried to get the educators I worked with to understand that students have two big advantages over adults when it comes to using new devices and software: they have more time to spend on them than you do, and they are highly motivated to learn.

Teachers can’t do anything about the time issue. It’s just the nature of being a grownup with grownup responsibilities. They can do something about the motivation part.

However, teachers also need to realize that their students are not highly proficient in all aspects of using technology.

They are wizzes with social interaction apps. They know all the popular Instagram filters and the best emojis to express their feelings. They are quick to find the YouTube channels from which they can learn new skills, and maybe even make some videos of their own.

Kids are lacking when it comes to using their devices and the web for learning more broadly about the world they will enter as adults. They have difficulty filtering through the internet stream to find valid information. They need help understanding how to best present themselves online.

Which is where you come in.

You don’t need to match the abilities of your students when it comes to social media and the rest. You do need to understand how students can apply the technology available (including their personal devices) to collaborate and communicate online.

Just stop calling them “digital natives”. And don’t call yourself a “digital immigrant” either.

Your New Curriculum?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most take the format of an intelligent conversation between two or more people, or someone telling a good story.

icon for tell me something i don't know podcast

Then there’s the program called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which the producers (who also do the more conventional but also excellent Freakonomics) describe as journalism wrapped in a game show package.

On most segments, they have a panel of three very smart people and a general theme. Audience members (often experts in a specific field of study) are then invited on stage to tell the panel about something they may not know related to the theme. The panel gets to ask any questions they might have and, after all the stories have been told, they decide who did the best job.

It’s all simple, very nerdish fun.

However, as I was listening to a recent episode, it struck me that this is very much what school should be.

Stay with me.

Currently, in most classrooms, a teacher stands in front of a group of students dispensing information. Or at least they direct the distribution of that knowledge in some way.

So, what happens if the teacher walks into the classroom and instead challenges the kids to tell me something I don’t know?

There would have to be some structure, of course. I’m pretty sure teenagers could reel off a whole lot of trivia they consider interesting that would baffle most adults. But the show itself provides some of that organization.

The rules of the game are that the IDK (short for the “I don’t know”) presented must be something we truly don’t know, something that is actually worth knowing (which may eliminate everything on the E! channel), and something that is demonstrably true.

Ok, there are probably more than a few details that need to be worked out before anyone puts this idea into practice.

But what better way to get students to look at learning in a different way than to ask them to choose a topic they find interesting, immerse themselves in the details, and then put the material they find into a compelling form for a live audience?

Teaching by Algorithm

A BBC video starts by asking “Could computer algorithms upgrade education?”. It just gets worse from there.

It’s a profile of the Alt Schools, a small chain of private schools based in San Francisco, funded by tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg. They also ask if this is the school of the future… and I certainly hope not.

I love the part where the CEO is giving the camera a tour of the company offices and notes that “almost everyone down there on the floor is a programmer”, and then, over there in the back, you have the educators. Plus the marketing and design people.

It’s pretty clear from that tour and this whole profile that the philosophy behind Alt School is very much driven by coding and data. They are using all this data (collected from largely rich, white kids based on the school in the video) to train their algorithms, with the goal to automate the teaching process. Something that makes the video’s note about the diminishing influence of teachers leading to a decline in good people entering the profession even more likely.

Or am I being paranoid?

Certainly teaching in a school where everything is recorded and deposited into a computer is pretty creepy. But is “hyper-personalized” instruction, driven by massive amounts of data and delivered by screen, really the future of learning? Or is it just the future for kids whose districts have the money to buy into this kind of marketing?

Watch the video. The New Yorker and Wired Magazine offer more details in their stories about this concept.

More or Less Accurate

Did you know that 65% of the jobs that will be available to our elementary students when they graduate have not even been invented yet?

cartoon of school as an assembly lineOr maybe you’ve heard the statement that 60% of children currently in kindergarten will be employed in jobs that don’t exist today?

Or possibly you know for sure that some similar large percentage of jobs our students will be doing at some vague date in the future (2035 seems to be very popular) are yet to be created?

More or Less, a wonderful podcast from the BBC World Service, is all about investigating statistical claims like this, and in a recent segment, they tried to track down the source of this particular number. They weren’t very successful.

So, will our children leave school into a world in which 65% of the jobs are brand new inventions? I doubt it. Nobody can prove this claim for sure, and we’ve not found any explanation of where the number came from or what the logic was behind it. Sources lead from the UK out to America and Australia and then hit dead ends.

One of the primary reasons that pundits and politicians toss around statistical myths like this is to reinforce their particular efforts to reform the education system. Scaring people with visions of millions of unemployable students might just work, right?

However, this discussion about future jobs dictating what students learn in their K12 years is totally wrong.

Certainly the world is changing in very unpredictable ways. And our education system, which in many ways is stuck in the 1950’s, needs to be restructured to reflect that unpredictability.

But school should be about much more than job training. The emphasis should be on kids gaining some basic life skills, and spending most of their valuable time exploring a variety of interests and ideas. If they discover a career in the process, terrific. But making that the primary goal of school is a crappy idea.

So, what does all that look like? Good question, and one that we should be discussing, without all the bogus statistics. And the More or Less people have a great suggestion for something to include.

As for what it tells us about what children should be taught, that’s far from obvious too. But here’s a suggestion. What about trying to teach some basic statistical common sense? It’s a useful skill, and our children can’t possibly be worse at it than than the grownups.

Excellent!