Will Computers Free Teachers to Teach More Creatively?

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. I would like to use this column to explore why this suggestion makes me uncomfortable.

In some ways I agree with this fellow. The main problem in education is not the difficulty of teaching children to read or do arithmetic. Despite claims to the contrary, virtually no student leaves school illiterate. Our students may not be as literate as we would like, but students who truly cannot decode text and do accurate arithmetic are rare outside of classes for the severely disabled. And such failures have only gotten rarer over each decade (1). I agree with him as well that an inordinate amount of time and professional development is spent on the training of the technical aspects of how to teach reading and arithmetic skills more effectively and at an earlier age. The main point we agree upon is 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. Due to the fact that these students generally do less well on standardized tests, the schools that serve them are pressured to focus on raising those test scores. Most of these schools rely on teacher-centered direct instruction focused on discrete skills to achieve this.

His solution of using computerized instruction of basic skills to free the teacher to do the work of teaching critical and creative thinking is based on a couple of assumptions. One assumption 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. It assumes that those who decide how teachers may use their time want teachers to do those other things. What could happen instead is that teachers, as professionals, are seen as superfluous. Since the computers are doing the “real” teaching, teachers become monitors whose job is to ensure that the students are sitting at the computer doing what they are supposed to be doing. I have actually seen after-school programs that run this way, using adults who are not trained or certified as teachers to oversee the students as they engage in such computer reading or math programs.

To counter this, I argue that we do not need to focus on developing or advocating for such software (and in any case, such software is rapidly being developed by the multi-billion dollar educational publishing industry which spares no expense in advocating for its usefulness). What we need to do is advocate for the second half—the focus on creative and critical thinking for the purpose of developing democratic citizens. There is a real lack of movement in that direction in the public schools. According to the mainstream media the purpose of education is about raising test scores to create a competitive workforce for the global economy. (And what does competitive mean? Best skilled? Or willing to work for the lowest wages?). Even if this first assumption is true, that software could be more efficient in the technical aspect of teaching, the second part is unlikely to become true until we change the perception of the purpose of schooling. That won’t happen without some strong grassroots advocacy since it challenges the status quo.

Another assumption of the software solution is that one can divorce the technical aspects of learning from the emotional, motivational, critical and creative aspects. This is a more fundamental difference in learning theory. What is known as Critical Learning Theory, as developed by Paolo Freire and others, argues that the technical aspects cannot be separated from these other factors (2). 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 (as developed by Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky) shows us that learning is a process of making sense of the world based on one’s actions and interactions with the environment. This theory tells us that we learn skills best in the context of meaningful and purposeful activities. 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—to have more freedom to explore our environment, again in the company of others who already knew how to walk, and were willing to offer assistance when we wanted it. Maybe this is true of all learning—that it is most efficient to learn to read, write and do arithmetic, as well as to learn to have strong democratic habits of mind, by having reasons that are meaningful and purposeful to the student in the company of others who can model and assist them as they learn. Am I talking pie in the sky? Let us examine the evidence.

What is the evidence for the efficacy of using software to teach basic skills? There is currently mixed evidence with some research showing no gains, and other research showing some short term gains, in reading and math scores for some students (3). There is no long term evidence as of yet.

In contrast, progressive schools based on constructivist principals of learning have a track record. The famous Eight Year Study (4) demonstrated its effectiveness at the high school level as far back as the 1930s. Contemporary examples such as Central Park East in New York City (5), Mission Hill in Boston (6), the Shutesbury Elementary School in Massachusetts (7) and many others have been extremely successful with children of all walks of life, over the long term. These schools avoid scripted curriculum and use a minimum of teacher-centered—or software-centered—instruction. They maximize the time students are engaged in projects that have a purpose beyond getting a grade from the teacher. They allow students to be the active agents in the learning process, in charge of much of the “what and how” of the learning. It is creating more of such schools and classrooms that I believe needs our advocacy and support. A focus on technological solutions may distract of from this larger purpose.

Endnotes:

  1. Richard Rothstein, The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 1998).
  2. Joan Wink, Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World, Third Edition (Longman, 2005).
  3. Andrew Trotter, “Major Study on Software Stirs Debate,” Education Week, April 11, 2007, pp. 1, 18.
  4. Wilford M. Aiken, The Story of the Eight-Year Study (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).
  5. David Bensman, Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning By Heart (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).
  6. Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).
  7. Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).
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