Can computers free teachers to teach more creatively?
Thursday, November 1, 2007
At a party of a friend recently I got into a discussion with someone about education and the use of computer technology. The person I was conversing with suggested that educational software could and should be developed to relieve teachers of the technical aspects of teaching. Why should each teacher have to figure out how to teach reading or arithmetic when the best minds could solve that problem and create a computer program to teach the children these basic skills? Having software relieve teachers of this technical aspect of teaching, he argued, would free teachers to do the work that needed human interaction teaching critical and creative thinking. This suggestion makes me uncomfortable.
We agree that helping students to learn to use their minds well, in critical and creative ways, is given far too little attention in the large majority of classrooms. This is especially true in classrooms serving low-income and minority students. Because these students generally do less well on standardized tests, the schools that serve them are pressured to focus on raising those test scores.
His solution of using computerized instruction of basic skills to free the teacher is based on a couple of assumptions. One is that if this software actually did efficiently teach these skills, teachers would engage in the critical and creative teaching we both believe is necessary. Is that what would happen? There is certainly no guarantee that teachers would be allowed, much less encouraged, to use their time that way. What could happen instead is that teachers, as professionals, would be seen as superfluous since the computers are doing the “real” teaching.
I contend that the real need is to advocate for creative and critical thinking and the development of democratic citizens as the purpose of public schooling. According to the corporate think tanks and the federal government, the purpose of schools seems to be increasing test scores to create a competitive workforce for the global economy. In reality, the current global economy only requires a small elite of highly trained individuals, with the majority willing to accept low wages at low-skill jobs.
Another assumption of the software solution is that one can divorce the technical aspects of learning from the emotional, motivational, critical and creative aspects. However, there is another theory about how we learn. This theory claims that the context of our learning, the content of the curriculum, and the power relationships over who decides what and how we learn are part of the learning itself. When we learn to read by being put in front of a computer, we are learning about what the purpose of reading is. The content of the material teaches us what and who is considered important. If the ideas and content of what is read or learned about are not discussed, the child has no guidance and help in making meaning of it. Constructivist learning theory shows us that learning is a process of making sense of the world, based on one’s actions and interactions with the environment. We learned to speak and walk not by being explicitly taught to do so. Rather, we learned to talk because we had something we wanted to communicate and were surrounded by people who were doing so, and who helped us to do so, in a non-coercive environment. We learned to walk because we wanted to get somewhere, again in the company of others who already knew how to walk, and were willing to offer assistance when we wanted it.
What is the evidence for the efficacy of using software to teach basic skills? There is currently evidence with some research showing no gains, and other research showing some short-term gains, in reading and math scores for some students. There is no long-term evidence.
In contrast, progressive schools based on constructivist principals of learning have a track record. Contemporary examples such as Central Park East in New York City, Mission Hill in Boston, the Shutesbury Elementary School in Massachusetts, and many others have been successful with children from all walks of life, over the long term. These schools avoid scripted curriculum and use a minimum of teacher, or software-centered, instruction. They maximize the time students are engaged in projects that have a purpose beyond getting a grade from the teacher. These students leave school not just with the skills to be successful in our current economy, but also with the mindset and abilities needed to help make the world a better place for all. It is creating more of such schools and classrooms that I believe needs our advocacy and support. A focus on technological solutions may distract us from this larger purpose.
NICHOLAS MEIER, PH.D, is an Assistant Professor of Education at CSU Monterey Bay.