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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

We Don't Need Educational Bells and Whistles

Among the many reasons education reform is stalled, one of the most prominent must be the appeal of adding bells and whistles to a broken-down car. A case in point is adding social media to schools. Social media plays into the myth that we can improve education by merely incorporating technology. People (somewhere, sometime) have received excellent educations for millenia even without any of what we recognize today as technology.

I once taught math to a group of multi-generational Vietnamese refugees. The experience changed my entire outlook on the subject of school finances. We sat under the trees. Everybody had a lapboard, pencils and paper I provided. I had the only textbook, a small chalkboard, chalk and eraser, all of which I also provided, and any “manipulatives” I chose to bring. Even on such a shoestring, I guarantee I delivered a high-quality education experience to all. No “technology,” not even a calculator. Amazing, huh.

Would it have been nice to have an overhead projector, or a smart board? Sure, but not necessary. How about a mimeograph machine, a xerox machine, computer printouts? Also lovely, but the students were perfectly capable of copying the problems from my little blackboard. Filmstrips, videos, DVDs? Again, nice, but not essential.

If our education system is like a car whose engine does not run, adding technology is like hoping that plugging in a GPS will somehow cause the engine to turn over. Incorporating bells and whistles like Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Second Life, whatever, will not help. The car is still going nowhere.

Analogies always break down somewhere. Our education system is not really like a single car. It is more like a bunch of scooters, some of which run nicely and some do not run at all. The kids on the scooters that run may be doing fine, but if America is to compete, all the scooters need to run nicely. Once all the scooters are running well, we can add a roof to the scooters and enhance the experience for all. Again, adding a roof to a non-running scooter will not make it run.

Before we begin spending tons of money on enhancements like technology, we need to use whatever resources we have to ensure every child is receiving a high quality education. Funny thing, money is no object, nor is it an obstacle. It is a matter of where we, as a society, place our priorities. As Suze Orman's signature line puts it, people first, then things.

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