The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Education as reflection of society

One of the major purposes of public education is to prepare students for the real world: in other words, to give them the skills and knowledge they'll need to be productive, well-adjusted, and potentially happy workers and neighbors after they graduate from school. I believe that one prerequisite to that process is that schools must reflect society, in the sense that students are able to work on real-world content using real-world tools, communicating inside the school walls as they do outside.

A friend directed me a few weeks ago to a three-part article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that's been nagging at me. (See the first of three articles here). Titled "Is technology in schools the future or just a fad? - It's still unclear if computers upgrade academics," the article talks about how our investment in technology has not produced the learning gains expected. An excerpt:

...the predominant uses of computers remain word processing, heavily
filtered Internet searches and the occasional PowerPoint presentation. In
addition, with pressure rising to improve test scores, more schools have
embraced skill-drilling software that contributes little to long-term student
learning, observers say.

Even supporters are disappointed in what has - and has not happened -
in American classrooms.

"There have always been and will always be pockets of interesting
activity and innovation going on around the country, but in most schools, kids
maybe search the Web, they make PowerPoint presentations," said Margaret Honey,
director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York. "Those are all
good things. But we could easily build on those activities and make them much
more rigorous and applicable to the 21st century if we wanted to. . . . For the
most part, I think we're not."

I could write about this all day long, drawing comparison after comparison to how technology is used in schools versus how it's been shown to be effective in the professional world. (For one thing, you don't see many offices where four workers share a computer.) I'll also forego quotes from Marshall McLuhan about the disconnect between society and schools regarding the use of communications media (although I guarantee that'll come up later). Instead, I'll just share a quote from Rod Paige of all people. In his forward to the Visions 2020 report (downloadable here), he writes:

Everywhere one looks, the Internet and information technology are
transforming every aspect of life in the United States. We are living, shopping,
working, governing, and communicating in new ways that are enabled by
technology. Organizations are learning how technologies streamline processes,
enable real-time information transactions, expand markets beyond geographic
areas, and customize service offerings to the needs of customers. These new
capabilities have done more than simply make organizations more efficient - they
have forced leaders to rethink markets and reengineer business structures and
processes that lead to dramatic improvement in quality.

But to a large extent, schools have been an exception to this
information revolution. Indeed, education is the only business still debating
the usefulness of technology. Schools remain unchanged for the most part despite
numerous reforms and increased investments in computers and networks. The way we
organize schools and provide instruction is essentially the same as it was when
our Founding Fathers went to school. Put another way, we still educate our
students based on an agricultural timetable, in an industrial setting, yet tell
students they live in a digital age.

The problem is not that we have expected too much from technology in
education - it is that we have settled for too little. Many schools have simply
applied technology on top of traditional teaching practices rather than
reinventing themselves around the possibilities technology allows. The result is
marginal - if any - improvement.

I believe that the business world, along with other stakeholders in public education, need to take the lead in driving this change, and that this can be done through the intelligent and conditional application of resources (grants, volunteers, etc.) - and then a sharing of best practices and results so that others can learn from successes earned in other places.


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