Saturday, August 08, 2009

Book Review: Liberating Learning

Back in June I was contacted by a publicist, who found me via my blog, and offered a copy of the new book Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education. Just days before it had received a write-up at the Wall Street Journal Online. If you want a dispassionate review rather than my commentary, I'd suggest reading that viewpoint. I told that publicist that I'm not an unbiased person where this subject is concerned; I point to this post in particular. She still opted to send me the book, asking me to write a review--so here goes.

The authors spend the first couple of chapters telling us what we already know--that American students don't do as well as their international peers, and that teachers unions are the primary hurdle to remedying that situation. To counter the claim that at least America's top students are doing fine, they cherry pick the sad fact that on the 2006 PISA science test, the top American students ranked 13th out of 30 OECD countries. Much ink is spent on international comparisons of test scores, of bachelor's degree attainment, in the earning of technical degrees, etc.

Chapter 3 sees the guns turned on the teachers unions in what the authors call "the politics of blocking"--because the NEA is such a powerful lobby, they can block or water down any education reforms that might damage their standing. "The preeminent power of the teachers unions is a simple fact, and anyone who ignores it or pretends otherwise will misunderstand the politics of education." It's a long video, but in his farewell address, NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin states that the NEA gets things done because it is powerful; take if from the horse's mouth. Three interesting correlations demonstrated are between union membership and "technology grades" as determined by Education Week, between union membership and the number of states with "virtual schools" (what might be called distance learning), and between union membership and tracking student test results by teacher. In all three cases, the states with the highest levels of union membership get the lowest marks; since the authors assert that more technology and teacher accountability is good in education, and since union membership correlates negatively with these three measurements of technology usage in education, the point is made.

After setting the stage, the authors start making their case about the role of technology in education. Here, though, they start slipping, because they come across more as zealots than thoughtful proponents; in fact, after describing new technology schools the authors state, "These schools can then be staffed with believers...", hardly a "white paper" statement. And then, after laying out their grand vision of what education can, should, and would be if only technology were used to its greatest limit, we're told the disappointing news:

But how long will this take? Our answer is, we don't know, but it will surely take a long time. A reasonable guess is that it will take twenty years or more.
That's their biggest flaw. They envision a utopia, then "guess" it will take over 20 years to complete. They have a grand vision of what they'd like, but in reality they don't really know how to get from here to there, and think somehow that technology is going to make it happen. This reminds me of the South Park episode about the Underpants Gnomes:

The Underpants Gnomes are businessmen of sorts, and they know a lot about corporations, and explain them to the boys in their underground lair. Their business plan is as follows:

Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

It's also like a geometry proof where Step 1 is given, Step 2 is "magic", and Step 3 is QED.

So now that we know we're reading a book about dogma as opposed to a "how-to" book about improving schools, what outcomes do the authors see regarding the impact of technology--keeping in mind, of course, that we can only fantasize about what technology will be like in 20 years?
  • Most schools will be hybrids of the traditional and the high-tech.
  • Schools will be more customized to students.
  • Schools will provide more effective instruction.
  • Schools will be more beneficial to teachers.
  • Schools will be less costly.
  • Schools will be more autonomous.
  • Schools will be more competitive and offer more choice.
  • Schools will be more accountable.
  • Schools will do a better job of serving needy constituencies.
  • Schools will do a better job of promoting social equity.
  • Schools will continue to socialize students.
  • Schools will be better at doing what works.
How are all these going to come to pass? Regarding improvements to education, computers will free teachers for more one-on-one time with students (I CAN Learn tried that and failed, miserably), can and will provide the best instruction and curriculum available, and will allow students to work at their own pace instead of being in classes with people faster or slower than themselves. Regarding the schools themselves, they are not bound by the limitations of their own physically-present teachers in the courses they can provide, will cost less because computers cost less than teachers, and will provide greater opportunities for students who are currently home-schooled or who are in failing (often urban) schools.

One concern I've always had about distance learning, and which the authors addressed well, is that most students couldn't sit at home and take classes and learn anything. The authors envision a "hybrid" school, where students would come to take classes over the internet. Students could take classes more suited to their interests--languages beyond French and Spanish, for example--and this would keep them more interested in school. I'm skeptical about the last part for many students, but I'm willing to give it a try--I'm a big fan of the distance learning concept. I've seen too many kids, though, who show no interest in learning at all, and I see this type of program as being more harmful than good for them.

I take particular exception with two of the points the authors make. The first, and most important, is that technology itself can revolutionize education. Edison thought that the movie would do that, as every student could then have access to the best teachers on the planet via film; that hasn't come to pass. As I wrote in one of the linked posts above:

There will always be new technology; will it always be necessary to incorporate it into education? Did film strips, movies, and later, VCRs, revolutionize education? Of course not. And it was foolish to expect that they would.

The second major point is that technology will provide information that cannot be ignored; transparency will be required by the public, and decisions will be made based on this more readily available data. That may be true in the future, but I've seen no evidence of it yet here in California in the present day. Our schools publish "school report cards" and the state publishes test performance scores for each school--I haven't seen a mad rush of people using this information to "improve" schools. Perhaps, in discrete places and in particular communities, this information is used as the authors suggest it might be, but my perception is that the information is there and no one--parents, schools, politicians--knows what to do with it.

Amidst the zeal for technology the authors do have some flashes of reality and common sense, and I would be remiss in not pointing them out. Recognition of these points makes the authors much more credible.

On performance pay for teachers: "Care would have to be taken, of course, to make sure that the measures (test scores) are appropriate and fair. On that, everyone can agree. But well-formulated measures would inevitably show that some teachers are much better than others, and some are very bad."

On the roles of teachers in this brave new technological world: "Some may work with students in computer labs, handling much larger classes than today's teachers do (because the computers are taking over much of the actual teaching). Some may work with students online, but still do it in real time. Some may engage in distance learning but do it asynchronously (that is, not in real time). Some may work mainly with parents, monitoring student progress and assuring proper student oversight. Some may oversee or serve as mentors to the front-line teachers themselves."

On what schools would look like: "Most schools, however, will be hybrids: bringing students together (at least for part of the day) for face-to-face interactions with one another and their teachers, yet also very much organized around computers, software-driven course work, Internet-based research, and distance learning for many courses.... The typical American child will not be attending school by sitting at home on a computer. He or she will be going to school, just as now...."

On improving schooling for underserved students: "Cyberschools provide a vehicle for incorporating the nation's million-plus homeschoolers into the education system, providing them with high-quality curricula and an organized schooling experience... Poor and minority children are the neediest of constituencies... The key is that they will have far greater choice--and they will not be trapped... [S]chools serving poor and minority children have the most to gain."

On the lack of utopia, and the new issues that will arrive with the extensive integration of technology the authors foresee: "The great promise of technology for American education, however, is not that it makes the schools perfect or trouble free. Its great promise is that it stands to make them significantly better over time by transforming the underlying fundamentals of the system... [There will be an] emphasis on improvement, as opposed to perfection... Better is not ideal, and still leaves something to be desired... In politics, then, as in education, there is no nirvana to look forward to... Nothing is perfect. New vested interests will surely try to block change. And bad ideas will sometimes be adopted. But what counts is progress. Reformers have been butting their heads against a wall of political power for the last twenty-five years (since A Nation At Risk--Darren) without much to show for it. Thanks to technology, that wall is coming down...."

As I have stated before, I'm very much a realist when it comes to education--if something promotes student learning, I support it, and if it doesn't, I don't. Much like air power advocates throughout the 20th century, technophiles have promised too much and delivered too little on their views of what can and should be. The authors of Liberating Learning present a grand picture of education, one worthy of celebration--should it come to pass. Their lack of a roadmap to get us there, though, is the fatal flaw of the book.


silvermine said...

Distance learning is usually done very badly. It's quite often even less useful at tracking the child's actual ability than a live teacher is. It's generic, and well, it's easier to goof off.

I think the future is not technology. Technology can't fix a broken system. I think freedom and choice will fix it. Vouchers, more private schools, and homeschooling and other ways to get the power back to individuals, who will hold the schools accountable.

But then, I think people are different and need different things. One size fits all usually doesn't work for anyone. Why not have lots of different kinds of schools?

Of course, I am a homeschooler. :D

allen (in Michigan) said...

I think I teed off on Moe and Chubb over at Jay Green's blog.

Your South Park reference nails it. These guys are the latest in a long line of folks who are absolutely convinced that shaking some more of the expensive pixie dust of computers on public education will cause it to fly.

They have no more of a clue as to what's wrong that computers are supposed to fix then any of their predecessors so there's the inevitable hand-waving when the exact means by which computers are going to effect this edu-miracle ought to be described.

Oh well, they'll sell a few copies but with nothing new to say and no new way to say it they'll disappear down the memory-hole quickly.

Mrs. C said...

Children have been distance learning in the bush for decades:

So this idea of distance learning for children is hardly new. :]

Anonymous said...

For an allegory on the evolution of education, check out "The Saber Toothed Curriculum" by J. Abner Peddiwell, a classic from 1936

Evan Brammer | Losing the World said...

1. Schools will be hybrids of the traditional and the high-tech.

Schools are hybrids of the traditional and high tech. The traditional: memorization. The high tech: the pencil.

2. Schools will be more customized to students.

Schools are customized. I don't rubber stamp comments on my student's assignments.

3. Schools will provide more effective instruction.

Shouldn't this be the goal of everyone, everywhere, everyday? If we're not trying to be more effective - then what are we doing? Collecting a paycheck, I'm sure.

4. Schools will be more beneficial to teachers.

The school is my workplace. If by beneficial they mean putting more money in my bank account, sure. That's more beneficial. Though I'm not sure how that will gel with #5.

5. Schools will be less costly.

School's should cost just as much as it takes to educate the students. No more, no less. The problem is: what does it take?

6. Schools will be more autonomous.

If that means that schools are going to become more like those automated menus that you have to spend ten minutes talking to before being hung up before having your issue dealt with, then no thank you.

7. Schools will be more competitive and offer more choice.

This may be a personal beef, but who are we competing with and why should we be competing at all? I go back to the need to educate the students. All day long we push and push students to take more and more math and science (no offense) so that we can "compete" with others (Asia mostly). Well, the dishonest bankers probably took their fair share of math before becoming bankers. Perhaps they should have audited on or two more (well-taught) ethic/history class so that they can learn that giving loans to people that cannot pay back loans is... well, stupid.

8. Schools will be more accountable.

I agree. But who is keeping the accountants accountable?

9. Schools will do a better job of serving needy constituencies.

The only "need" the "constituencies" have is to get a well-rounded education. The school should not be a miniaturized version of the Nanny State.

10. Schools will do a better job of promoting social equity.

Education, not equalization. Man's way of "promoting social equity" is to tear others down, not bring anybody up.

11. Schools will continue to socialize students.

My 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th, & 12th graders don't seem to have any trouble socializing.

12. Schools will be better at doing what works.

Again, if a school sees something that works and doesn't keep doing that thing... well, that's stupid.