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The Absurdity of Ignoring the Potential of Technology to Support Individualization

July 3, 2017

I read Diane Ravitch’s blog every morning to get her take and her commenter’s take on emerging educational trends. While I generally agree with her analyses, I am disappointed that she and many of those who comment regularly seem stuck in the notion that schooling needs to be structured the way it is now and seem reflexively opposed to any kind of technological enhancements to schooling. Her post today and the comments that accompany it are a case in point.

Titled “The Absurdity of applying Industrial Lingo to Schools“, Ms. Ravitch’s post is a well reasoned argument against the notion that schools can be “scaled” the way businesses can be:

While it is possible for schools to adopt and adapt a program or a practice that has worked out for others, the very idea of reproducing cookie-cutter schools designed to get high test scores invalidates the professional wisdom of educators. You can stamp out cars and tools with the right equipment, but you can’t reproduce good schools via mechanical processes.

People who work in business, industry, finance, or the tech sector like to speak of “scaling up,” of “innovation,” of “best practices,” and of “replication,” which they know how to do.

They are frustrated that success in one school is not easily packaged and replicated and scaled up to every school in the district, the state, the nation. They can’t believe how difficult it is to identify and package “best practices.”

So far so good… But then Ms. Ravitch argues against “innovation” itself, apparently linking ALL innovation with charters, vouchers, and for-profit management.

The concept of “innovation” is also overrated. It is not innovative to introduce charters and vouchers and for-profit management. All that changes is who gets the money.

And this raises an intriguing question for me: have the so-called “edu-prenuers” expropriated the term “innovation” the way they have expropriated the term “reform”… or are public education supporters ceding “innovation” to them?  By rejecting “personalization” that is made possible by technological advances, Ms. Ravitch and those who comment most frequently appear to implicitly support the notion that schooling must be provided in the same format that was designed in the 1920s when children were first batched into grade levels based on their age groups and provided with direct instruction in large groups. My thinking is that public schools need to find a way to re-format themselves or they will soon become obsolete. Let me elaborate.

The personalization promoted by some so-called “edu-prenuers” like Khan Academy provides a means for teachers to individualize instruction by using carefully sequenced curricula that embed formative assessments. This form of “personalized learning” is basically an electronic version of the color-coded SRA reading series used extensively beginning in the early 1960s, a form of “programmed instruction” based on the behaviorist theories of B. F. Skinner. While I am very familiar with the animosity many educators feel toward Skinner and the shortcomings of the SRA series (see Audrey Watters article here), I am drawn to the notion that many hierarchical foundational skills (namely reading, science, mathematics, and to a degree foreign language) can be taught effectively using technology-based instruction like Khan Academy. As a first-year junior high math teacher in Philadelphia in 1970 I designed my own SRA-like program for a group of my students who struggled with the basics, a packet of mimeographed sheets that provided individualized instruction and increased the engagement of the class. Preparing this required hours of my time outside of the classroom but reduced the time I needed to spend grading tests, homework, and worksheets. It seemed like a reasonable trade-off since more of the students appeared to be mastering the fundamental skills they lacked when they entered my classroom.

Over the course of my career as an educator, I watched computer technology advance from a clunky card-reader linked to a mainframe in Philadelphia in the 1971 computer class I taught to junior high students… to Commodore PET computers I used in Bethel, Maine in the late 1970s to the various iterations of Apple computers that evolved thereafter…. to where we are today. We HAVE the wherewithal to provide the kind of individualization needed to assure that all students master the hierarchical foundational skills at their own rate. But everyone– including the “reformers”— seems to believe school needs to be formatted in age-based cohorts and that students need to progress from one “grade level” to the next in a fixed time sequence. That is the underlying premise of the standardized tests used to assess the effectiveness of schools and the progress students make and, evidently, the underlying premise of those who support public education and oppose any form of “innovation” that is linked to technology.

At the elementary level the community school concept, whereby public schools house social workers, medical care providers, pre-school programs, and before-and-after-school child care services, redefines the purpose of school facilities in a manner that would help break the 1920 industrial age model that reinforces social service silos. To be most effective, these providers would need to share information on children to ensure seamless services and avoid duplication of efforts. Technology can facilitate that exchange.

There are many promising developments at the policy level that can free public schools from the lockstep methods we currently use. Both Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, have abandoned the Carnegie Unit as the means for determining high school credits. This opens the door for the kind of de-schooling that some commenters decry… but it also promises to make high school far more relevant for those who do not aspire to college. Again, technology can facilitate this development.

I think that critics of “reform”, “innovation”, and “edu-prenuers” should also recognize that profiteering has long been present in public education. The sale of textbooks, workbooks, audio-visual equipment, and office supplies predates the event of computer technology. What IS different is the conglomeration of these formerly independent enterprises, the establishment of a testing-technology-content complex that limits competition, limits diversity of resources, and stifles the creativity of teachers. I believe it is possible to isolate this corporate consolidation from technology and innovation and, in so doing, find ways that technology can be used to individualize instruction without dehumanizing it, to de-school society without eliminating public education, and break away from the age-based cohorts that are based on the premise that children develop in lockstep.



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