Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Technology Does Not Equal Education

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times:

Technology is not an end unto itself. It's only a tool.

Click here to read about High Tech High and marvel at the (lack of) education the students receive.


mazenko said...

This is a fundamental point made in the book Boys Adrift, the latest from Dr. Leonard Sax, who wrote Why Gender Matters. Both books are excellent resources for teachers and parents. In Boys Adrift, Sax discusses concerns about the way technology inhabits real world understandings, and he cites evidence from medical schools about students have trouble understanding the idea that a heart is a "pump" because they have little experience with the real world - seems like a rather surprising example, yet no so shocking when I realize people bowl, play tennis or baseball, and exercise with a Wii instead of actual performing the task.

Ellen K said...

This trend scares me because it mirrors what my district intends to do. Right now, in order to get a high review on my pedagogy in class on observation, I am required to implement numerous technological gadgets. While technology can certainly aid students in learning, it will not replace actual teaching. And down the line I think that many administrators see the role of teacher as more of a facilitator's position. Technology doesn't equal knowledge. I have kids who know how to find Wikipedia and copy and paste it and present that as "learning". They can't spell, they can't write sentence, much less a paragraph and yet we are supposed to think that simply using a computer and accessing a website equates to a higher order of thinking. Gadgets are what they are. You can flood the worst schools in the nation with technology and there's no guarantee that it will have any effect. But state boards like the addition of technology because it gives a shiny new appearance to the same old failures. When I was working as a technology assistant in a school, my job was to upgrade the computer labs. We had spine labs that centered around clusters of classes. We were constantly updating the math department and they were never satisfied with the programs. The dept. head even told me that she would prefer to get rid of the lab if they would hire more teachers and bring down her student/teacher ratio. And that's the problem. If you tie up taxes in buying technology, the number of kids per class is going to rise. And as with the Wii, simulating an activity in no way prepares you for the actual implementation of the activity. That's why pilots don't just have ground school and it's why our students should be relegated to computer labs for their entire school careers.

allen (in Michigan) said...

With all due respect to Ken, I'm tired of squashing the ants. I'd like to find the nest and deal with *it*.

Yeah, OK, High Tech High is a huge waste of money that won't generate the educational outcomes that are gilded inversely to the clarity of their prediction. So why was it built?

I reject the explanation of stupidity on the part of proponents since High Tech High is far from the only example of this sort of educational boondoggle. Quite simply the supply of stupid, as ample as it may seem, isn't sufficiently ample to explain the historical depth and national breadth of this sort of predictably worthless project.

Take your average edu-crat - and no, I'm not doing some Henny Youngman shtick - and give her a hammer, a nail and orders to drive the nail into the wall. After the first three or four times hitting her thumb with the hammer she'll probably figure out that it's the nail that ought to be hit with the hammer not her thumb. A bit of discovery learning and she'll drive nails like a champ.

But drag a another, dreary and predictably ineffectual edu-fad under the same edu-crat's nose and she'll react as if it's as fresh and new as a spring day and as exciting as new love.

What are the factors that cause a, more or less, normal individual to react normally to one situation and react like a blithering idiot to a situation which ought, on its face, to be no different? Until there's an answer to that question, or until the factors that make High Tech High and it's like inevitable spontaneously dissipate, we'll be continue to get just this sort of pre-ordained failure.

mazenko said...


Once again, whereas Ken, Darren, Ellen, and I make specific credible criticisms of certain actions within the world of public education, your ideological generalizations centered around statements such as "the average edu-crat" diminish the discussion without offering any real insight or solution. As I noted in a previous post about your criticisms, public education in America is not only a reality that is not going to go away, it is, historically, an overwhelmingly success story. If you can offer insight into how the "edu-crat" mentality has created an education "crisis" at Bellevue High School, Stanton College Prep, New Trier High School, Stevenson High School, Scarsdale High School, Cherry Creek High School, or the thousands of others educating millions of students to unprecedented levels of excellence, I would love to hear about it.

Ellen K said...

The reason educrats like technology is that they can see computers and read what they cost on a spreadsheet. That's all that matters, the bottom line. The assumption, largely fueled by the likes of H. Ross Perot-Father of High Stakes Testing, is that children are empty vessels ready to be filled with knowledge. The learning process is much more complex and not every child responds in the same way to indoctrination as learning. It's just the restatement of the Victoria concept of tabula rasa in which children were viewed as blank slates upon which parents and educators did magic to produce the perfect child.

allen (in Michigan) said...

"unprecedented levels of excellence"? Hyperbole much?

Just how are these "levels of excellence" determined? There some scheme that measures and compares various schools that I'm unaware of? Some means of measurement that'll tell us with an acceptable degree of accuracy which school's dead last and which school produces levels of excellence without precedent?

If you prefer to believe that public education is an overwhelming success story then knock yourself out. I see it as a modest failure that's turned into a colossal, society-endangering failure and while it is most assuredly a reality it's in the process of going away and, in the tradition of all monopolies, the reasons and the means for doing away with public education are being provided by public education.

With regard to this particular debacle, High Tech High, your criticism, such as it is, ignores the historical context which is understandable. Having announced your allegiance to the idea of public education it would be counterproductive to delve too deeply into the record of public education in the area of the use of technology.

As you undoubtedly know, it sucks. In fact, I challenge you to come up with a single example of the successful use of high technology in public education. By "success" I mean the sort of success implied, and somewhat vaguely referenced, by the promises made for High Tech High.

Maybe you'll rise to the challenge but inasmuch as I can't think of a single example of the successful use of technology in public education I'll go out on a stout limb and predict that, a year or five from now, we'll read a story in from a local media outlet that details how most of the high-tech stuff is broken, what isn't isn't being utilized and that graduation rates and grades are roughly at district levels.

If we read the opposite it'll be inescapably attributable to a tough-minded, no-nonsense principal who makes it his/her personal, minute-by-minute job to keep every teacher and every student focused on education. The expensive technology, if it's mentioned at all, will be mentioned in passing and as an impediment rather then an advantage.

mazenko said...


I'm not sure what your experience with public education is, other than maybe benefitting from it, but knowing history as I do, and considering the level of education for Americans per capita compared to all other countries at any time in history, and relating that to the unrivaled high standard of living, powerful economic force, productive labor force, history of innovation, and history as the longest running and most efficient republic, I would say that "unprecedented levels of excellence" is not an exaggeration. The top thirty percent of America's population is more educated, productive, innovative, and informed than any other segment of people in the world by nearly every standard of measurement.

My criticism is not directed toward the issue of technology - as I've noted that I agree with Darren's post - but with your general assessment of public education. I simply can't understand how you envision the system as a failure, nor can I imagine calling for an end to the system. What exactly would you envision in a country without public education? A cousin in the US foreign service with experience in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America can give me countless examples of the need for a public system. It's a standard of first world civilization, and "a free and public education" was considered by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as an imperative for the survival of the republic. Thankfully, Americans have long agreed, including the move in the early twentieth century to move against child labor and extend mandatory public education through high school. Note, one of my concessions has to do with the extent of the schooling, and I am a fan of reform in terms of how much schooling should be funded.

In terms of technology, I would assert that public education usage and investment in technology has made tremendous strides in advancing the skills of the learning disabled, allowing them to assimilate as productive members of society. I have had far too many students over the years who have learned to read and write and thus advance beyond simple manual labor as a result of technology. Without public funding, far more people would be relegated to lower levels of education which is not a positive for any economy. You might considering researching the advancements for technology in terms of such disabilities. I doubt you'd change your mind, but at least you'd have the whole story.

Having traveled and worked abroad, I see the benefits of public education everywhere. One of the best examples is Dr. David Ho, the creator the AIDS cocktail. Growing up in Taiwan, he moved to the US for high school and college. His has noted that he believes he never would have discovered this formula had he not benefited from both schools systems (both public). Early education in Taiwan gave him the discipline, while the academic freedom of America gave him the opportunity and encouragement to achieve.

There is too much success from public education not to believe that progress would be greatly lessened in a world without it. I respect much criticism of public education, and I contribute much myself. However, I fear a world that ever becomes devoid of public education, and I am thankful that your point of view has always been and hopefully will always be a fringe element.

Not that I don't enjoy the debate, and I know there is always a need for critics.



allen (in Michigan) said...

> "a free and public education" was considered by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as an imperative for the survival of the republic.

Har! It would have to be necessary to the survival of the republic because it sure wasn't necessary to it's creation; the public education system didn't really get rolling until the 1830s and didn't become the default for most of the population until the 1890s.

I'd be interested in knowing the source of the statements you attribute to Jefferson and Franklin as well.

It seems a bit counter-intuitive to believe that the long-term survival of a democratic state rests on an essentially authoritarian political institution. I can understand parents compelling their children to go to school but compelling parents to do what history has shown repeatedly they'll go to great expense and risk to do where it's prohibited, educate their children, suggests a rather different motive then education or the longevity of the republic for the creation of the public education system.

In fact, a student of history would know that the needs of the republic for an educated citizenry didn't play all that big a role in the establishment of public education.

The technology to which I'm referring is the technology that started this thread. The disorganized and ineffectual farrago of communication, computation and display technology that represents a significant part of the cost of High Tech High and is emblematic of the sort of ineptitude common to the use of technology in public education. Feel free to offer up examples of the successful use of technology in education, I'll be happy hear of them.

By the way, I'm not a critic of public education, I'm an observer.

I stopped being a critic when I ran out of people to blame for the shortcomings of public education. I went through the teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards looking for the culprit and none of them would do. That's when I started looking at the system, the structure of public education and, ironically enough, I learned that once you stop looking for someone to blame you stop being a critic.

Fact is, being a critic is both tiring and unrewarding. Since all you're offering is your opinion you're only differentiated from every other critic by the cleverness of your rhetoric. What you have in common with every other critic is that like the proverbial chain of all the world's economists, you never reach a conclusion.

What's the point? I may be a member of a stiff-necked and argumentative tribe but when all is said and done I'd like to have a defensible rationale for the reason so much money can be spent and so many people can work so hard for so long and end up with so little to be proud of.

mazenko said...


I'm aware of the founding of the republic and the establishment of public education, and I also acknowledge the correlation between the strengthening of the nation and the expansion of public education. As government-sponsored education has grown, the nation has improved economically, politically, and sociologically.

My criticism of your position rests on your naive belief that absent government sponsorship, education will simply happen. It is the degrees that are important, and history has shown your theory to work at a subsistence level of education - not the type on which great civilizations are built and maintained. Your statement that: "compelling parents to do what history has shown repeatedly they'll go to great expense and risk to do where it's prohibited, educate their children" reveals a seeming lack of experience and understanding of societies around the world and throughout history.

I know little of your background, but I would suggest that if you spent a little time in India, Southeast Asia, Africa, or Çentral America, you might re-think your firm conviction that parents worldwide are deeply committed to the education of their children. There are many people studying the issue of child-trafficking, or simple neglect, who would disprove your theory. Heck, even spend a little time in Appalachia or the south side of Chicago. There is little evidence that on a wide scale those populations would be able to effectively seek out and guarantee on their own the levels of education that are necessary for first world civilization. Only in places where governments have established and maintained systems, has civilization grown to the levels of comfort under which we live.

As far as Jefferson is concerned, here are a few:

A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1818. FE 10:102

"It is highly interesting to our country, and it is the duty of its functionaries, to provide that every citizen in it should receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1814. ME 19:213

"I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:393

On A Bill for Educating the Masses:
"The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1817. ME 15:156

"The general objects [of a bill to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people] are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:204

"A bill for the more general diffusion of learning... proposed to divide every county into wards of five or six miles square;... to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools, who might receive at the public expense a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects, to be completed at an University where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:399

"This [bill] on education would [raise] the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety and to orderly government, and would [complete] the great object of qualifying them to secure the veritable aristoi for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the pseudalists... I have great hope that some patriotic spirit will... call it up and make it the keystone of the arch of our government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:400

"My partiality for that division [of every county into wards] is not founded in views of education solely, but infinitely more as the means of a better administration of our government, and the eternal preservation of its republican principles. The example of this most admirable of all human contrivances in government, is to be seen in our Eastern States; and its powerful effect in the order and economy of their internal affairs, and the momentum it gives them as a nation, is the single circumstance which distinguishes them so remarkably from every other national association." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson C. Nicholas, 1816. ME 14:454

"The less wealthy people,... by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:73

I... [proposed] three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life and such as should be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally and in their highest degree... The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:70

"The public education... we divide into three grades: 1. Primary schools, in which are taught reading, writing, and common arithmetic, to every infant of the State, male and female. 2. Intermediate schools, in which an education is given proper for artificers and the middle vocations of life; in grammar, for example, general history, logarithms, arithmetic, plane trigonometry, mensuration, the use of the globes, navigation, the mechanical principles, the elements of natural philosophy, and, as a preparation for the University, the Greek and Latin languages. 3. An University, in which these and all other useful sciences shall be taught in their highest degree; the expenses of these institutions are defrayed partly by the public, and partly by the individuals profiting of them." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:487

"My bill proposes, 1. Elementary schools in every county, which shall place every householder within three miles of a school. 2. District colleges, which shall place every father within a day's ride of a college where he may dispose of his son. 3. An university in a healthy and central situation... To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1817. ME 15:155

Additionally, we are all critics, in that we "criticize" the situation, most of the time with the purpose of improving. Otherwise, we're just complaining.

allen (in Michigan) said...

You "acknowledge the correlation between the strengthening of the nation and the expansion of public education"? I'm sorry, but I must've missed where the correlation was proven. And let's not stray too far from the interesting conundrum that public education is necessary to the maintenance of the republic but not necessary to its founding.

Common sense would suggest that the construction of the union is a more difficult proposition then keeping the trim painted and the roof from leaking which casts some doubt on the assumption of a correlation between the "strengthening of the nation and the expansion of public education". If, as your beliefs suggest, the nation was sunken in widespread ignorance and illiteracy, then birthing the new republic must've been a relatively easy chore although that possibility's not born out by the dearth of subsequent, or previous, democratic republics. If it's easy enough for pig-ignorant farmers - and they'd have to be ignorant absent a public education system, right? - to establish one democratic republic then why weren't there bags of them around? Certainly the supply of the illiterate and the ignorant was more plentiful in the past.

> I know little of your background, but I would suggest that if you spent a little time in India, Southeast Asia, Africa, or Central America, you might re-think your firm conviction that parents worldwide are deeply committed to the education of their children.

You know, I've run into this sort of arrogant and self-serving notion since I've been interested in the idea and practice of public education and it still grates. You're obviously sufficiently deeply immersed in the conceits of the public education system to feel comfortable blandly dismissing the universality of parental concern for their children and its depth.

I invite you to test your beliefs by presenting a credible threat to the welfare of any given child within view of the child's parents. I'll hold your coat.

Oh, and since I don't have time to go visit India, Southeast Asia, Africa, or Çentral America, I'll defer to someone who has been there and has discovered that poor parents, ill-served or un-served, by their respective public education systems, seek out private schools that are within their brutally humble means. Here you go:

When you figure out what percentage of their microscopic income goes to pay for the education of their children it's arguable that parental concern is inversly proportional to parental income.

By the way, what's the source of the Jefferson quotes? I'm familiar enough with the likes of Michael Bellesiles, author of "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture" to vet claims to determine accurate representation of data.

> Additionally, we are all critics, in that we "criticize" the situation, most of the time with the purpose of improving. Otherwise, we're just complaining.

Sorry, criticism's for matters of opinion. Fords are better then Chevies. Chinese is better then Italian. The education of the public's too important a matter to be left up to that sort of trivial decision-making process but one of the purposes of politics is to determine which course to take when it all comes down to a matter of taste. I think there's got to be a better way to approach the question of the value of public education but that "better way" isn't going to be found by starting out with unsupported assumptions one of the first being the importance of public education to a democracy.

mazenko said...


I would in no way infer from my statements that the nation was sunk in "widespread ignorance" before the establishment of public education. However, as government sponsored education has grown, the nation has as well. This is true in nearly every first-world nation I can fathom. Nor am I implying widespread threats to children.

I'm simply arguing that the degree of education and welfare that you expect naturally happens does not create nations and civilizations developed to the degree that the US is. My experience teaching in Southeast Asia as well as the United States in various socioeconomic areas is that a considerable number of parents do not, on their own, commit to the levels of education for their children which are necessary to create the kind of nation in which we so comfortably live.

The Jefferson quotes, by the way, come from the archives of the University of Virginia. And, again, I agree with you in many ways about the extent of education that should be required, or at least offered publicly, by the government. I just believe that to eliminate such a system would be a disaster for the country, as no country of the US's caliber has ever thrived with no public education.

The Jefferson quote are from the University of Virginia archives.

tallanfl said...

As a HS math teacher I see both the benefits of technology and the great dangers. Benefits to the teacher using technology to enhance their presentations.

If the technology helps the student learn concepts and shorten calculation times after they understand the method, Fine, but as a substitute for learning or thinking, bad.

Sadly, too many sharp students never develop a feel for numbers or learn to estimate answers and so never know that they made one wrong keystroke that yielded a silly answer.

I am just now learning how to use graphing calculators as good learning tools, I think?