Having technology does not make you a twenty-first century school

So, as part of my university course, we were asked to present something to our peers.  Five minutes max, as an exercise in public speaking.  I figured, what they hey, why not speak to my colleagues about something I believe in, and maybe leave a bit of a message.  So I had fun kicking hornets’ nests.

Good afternoon.  Colleagues and students who’ve spent any amount of time around me know that I am passionate about how technology lets us create really rich learning opportunities.  So the topic of my presentation today might be a bit of a shocker.  You see, I’m tired of hearing about “twenty-first century schools”.

The phrase is kind of ridiculous when you think about it.  It’s 2013.  We’re in the twenty-first century.  As a matter of definition, every school open today is a twenty-first century school.  And every teacher is a twenty-first century teacher, every student is a twenty-first century student.  If there are any eighteenth-century teachers still around today, I’d like to meet them.  The history geek in me would love to talk to them about what life was really like before confederation… not to mention that would be a pretty neat trick and I’d like to know how they managed it.

My main issue with the term “twenty-first century school”, though, isn’t the title.  We can go ahead and call things whatever we want.  It’s not the name that matters, as long as the name is accurate.  There’s an ad playing on TV, showing a teenage girl sneaking out of a window at night and being caught by her father.  A banner drops from the wall saying “I was going to the library”.  Cue upbeat music track, spotlights, and dancers.  The closing line?  “Dressing it up does not make it true”.  Some of you have probably seen the ad I’m talking about.  It was produced by Advertising Standards Canada to draw attention to the issue of truth in advertising.  What does that have to do with “twenty-first century schools”?  Well, it seems to me that we have an issue of the advertising, the name, not being entirely true.  In fact, when we look at what’s going on in a lot of schools, not much has changed aside from the presence of lots of fancy gadgets.

Here’s a basic truth: having technology does not make a school “twenty-first century”.  It’s not the technology that matters, the technology is inert, it alone doesn’t do anything.  It’s what we do with it, and what we ask students to do with it.  If all you do with a computer is word process documents, you’re using a really expensive typewriter.  Yes, I know that’s not entirely fair, computers can do a lot of fancy formatting and editing tricks that typewriters couldn’t, but the model of usage is still the same.  One person, by himself or herself, pushing keys to create a document that will end up being printed on dead trees.  There’s nothing terribly twenty-first century there.  Nor is a SmartBoard that is used to take notes functionally much different from a plain old whiteboard, or for that matter a blackboard.  And we’ve had those in schools for a hundred years.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying that computers are always used like typewriters or that SmartBoards are always used like blackboards.  Both of these tools can be used for some incredibly rich learning activities.  I’m suggesting, though, that far too often, they’re not.

And here’s another truth.  With rare exceptions, technology is not an outcome.  Making videos, creating web sites, using Google… those aren’t outcomes.  Communicating effectively to show understanding, enhancing the artistry of communication, accessing and organizing information for a particular purpose, those are outcomes.  Even in specialized tech courses, the end goal is still that students will develop the skills to use technology as a tool to accomplish some worthwhile purpose.

And while we’re on the topic of “worthwhile purpose”, why is it that so often students are asked to do things as assignments that have zero connection to life outside of school?

And there’s another incredible irony in how the education system handles technology.  Schools spend all this money on shiny new gadgets, and then paradoxically they make them as difficult to use as possible with filters and firewalls and policies and codes of conduct.  Now some of this is necessary.  I’m not saying that nothing should get blocked; there’s some content that students should not be exposed to… there’s content that should never exist in the first place.  And there’s a legitimate need to protect and manage school networks and systems to ensure security and reliability.  But many schools go overboard, and they block everything.  And then what happens?  Students go home and are free to access all of the sites we’ve blocked.  Alone.  Often without much supervision or guidance.  Does that make sense?  Kind of like telling Johnny or Suzy that they can take your shiny new car out of the driveway without any instruction or supervision.  They’ll figure it out.  I’m going to stick my neck out and say that maybe cyber-bullying isn’t a problem because schools allow students to access social media sites.  Maybe it’s a problem partially because they don’t.

And where the technology is located tells us a lot…  A lot of the time, computers in school are found in “labs”.  What does this say?  It says that using a computer is somehow a separate activity from the learning that takes place in the classroom.  It says that everyone needs to be ready to use a computer in their learning at the same moment in time, and often for the same purpose.  It says that some students, some classes, and some subjects get to learn using technology, and others don’t.  This almost never happens in the real world.  Do we have a room dedicated to just hammers in a woodworking shop, and if the carpenter needs to use a saw, he has to go to a different room?  Would that make sense?  We do this for MRI’s in hospitals, they have their own rooms, and doctors need to book them… but an MRI machine costs seven figures, and most hospitals only have one or two.  Do we really need to do that with tools that cost hundreds, not millions?

My laptop is open on my desk all day.  I use it when I need to, as a tool that helps me accomplish the tasks at hand.  Why should I expect students to work any differently?

Yes, we need computer labs.  There are courses where every student needs his or her own computer pretty much all the time.  Students taking a course in digital multimedia, or computer programming, or desktop publishing can’t do those things without a computer.  So labs of computers have a place.  But I think, and it’s just my opinion, that if the only places we find technology in our schools are in labs and on teachers’ desks, that’s a problem.

As I said, though, being a “twenty-first century school” is not, primarily, about the technology.  It’s about the learning.  So what does that learning look like for the average high school student today?  What are students’ days like?  Well, from 9 a.m. until 10:15 a.m., students might have, let’s say, Biology class.  Then from 10:20 until 11:35 they might have English class.  As if Biology were separate from English.  We don’t draw arbitrary distinctions between disciplines anywhere else that I know of other than in schools.  Imagine a patient who has come in to see a doctor with a health concern.  The doctor is not going to examine the patient, and then say “Well, I can’t communicate with you right now, and I can’t listen to you explaining your symptoms, and I definitely can’t consult a medical reference.  You see, right now I’m scheduled to do Biology.  I have English at 10:20.  If you wait around until then, I’ll be able to speak to communicate ideas and listen and read to enhance understanding.”  You’re laughing.  Isn’t that precisely what we ask students to do in school?

I’m not being fair.  I know I’m not being fair.  In five minutes, I’ve run around and kicked up a bunch of hornets’ nests.  I’ve posed lots of questions, and said more than one or two things that you probably find controversial.  Good.  That was by design.  As professionals, I think we need to pay attention to this stuff, because this is the world we live in and the world our students live in.  And I know there are awesome schools and teachers all over that get this stuff.  But perhaps we ought to stop talking about “twenty-first century schools” as though they’re something special, as though they’re the exception.  We owe it to our students to make every school a twenty-first century school, because we should want all of our students to be as equipped as possible to succeed and thrive in this world.

Full disclosure: This was the presentation I prepared, but I don’t read word for word when I present.  I cut some stuff out on the fly as I was presenting, because this is way more than 5 minutes of material and I did not want to run over.  The old “prepare more material than you think you’ll need”.

I think this is an idea worth discussing and sharing, so I thought I’d put it up.

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About tkboehm

High school teacher. Techie. Cadet leader. Bomber fan.
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