Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

14 June 2017

Tech and School Problems

Clark @ 8:05 am

After yesterday’s rant about problems in local schools, I was presented with a recent New York Times article. In it, they talked about how the tech industry was getting involved in schools. And while the initiatives seem largely well-intentioned, they’re off target.   There’s a lack of awareness of what meaningful learning is, and what meaningful outcomes could and should be.  And so it’s time to shed a little clarity.

Tech in schools is nothing new, from the early days of Apple and Microsoft vying to provide school computers and getting a leg up on learners’ future tech choices.  Now, however, the big providers have even more relative leverage. School funds continue to be cut, and the size of the tech companies has grown relative to society. So there’s a lot of potential leverage.

One of the claims in the article is that the tech companies are able to do what they want, and this is a concern. They can dangle dollars and technology as bait and get approval to do some interesting and challenging things.

However, some of the approaches have issues beyond the political:

One approach is to teach computer science to every student.  The question is: is this worth it?  Understanding what computers do well (and easily), and perhaps more importantly what they don’t, is necessary, no argument. The argument for computer programming is that it teaches you to break down problems and design solutions. But is computer science necessary?  Could it be done with, say, design thinking?  Again, all for helping learners acquire good problem-solving skills.  But I’m not convinced that this is necessarily a good idea (as beneficial as it is to the tech industry ;).

Another initiative is using algorithms, rules like the ones that Facebook uses to choose what ads to show you, to sequence math.  A program, ALEKS, already did this, but this one mixes in gamification. And I think it’s patching a bad solution. For one, it appears to be using the existing curriculum, which is broken (too much rote abilities, too little transferable skills).  And gamification?  Can’t we, please, try to make math intrinsically interesting by making it useful?  Abstract problems don’t help. Drilling key skills is good, but there are nuances in the details.

A second approach has students choosing the problems they work on, and teachers being facilitators.  Of course, I’m a fan of this; I’ve advocated for gradually handing off control of learning to learners, to facilitate their development of self-learning. And in a recently-misrepresented announcement, Finland is moving to topics with interleaved skills rapped around them (e.g. not one curricula, but you might intersect math and chemistry in studying ecosystems. However, this takes teachers with skills across both domains, and the ability to facilitate discussion around projects.  That’s a big ask, and has been a barrier to many worthwhile initiatives.   Compounding this is that the end of a unit is assessed by a 10-point multiple choice question.  I worry about the design of those assessments.

I’m all for school reform. As Mark Warschauer put it, the only things wrong with American education is the curriculum, the pedagogy, and the way we use technology.  I think the pedagogy being funded in the latter description is a good approach, but there are details that need to be worked out to make it a scalable success.  And while problem-solving is a good curricular goal, we need to be thoughtful about how we build it in. Further, motivation is an important component about learning, but intrinsic or extrinsic?

We really could stand to have a deeper debate about learning and how technology can facilitate it. The question is: how do we make that happen?

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