A good friend, a fellow educator, shared this article with me, and I thought that its sentiment was worth sharing as well. I agree with the position of this article, but want to aver that I am no Luddite; rather, I firmly believe (and practice) that technology in the hands of bright, talented, well-trained, creative educators can transform learning. The key is to have that technology in hands that can make the difference. Just as a new paint job on a car with an awful engine won’t help the ailing car go, neither will putting iPads in the hands of a failing teaching change his or her ability to inspire the next generation. Support our teachers with good professional development, and give them the space to grow.
Technology can never replace inspiring teachers
By ALBERT H. VERVAET
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2011
Over past decades we’ve seen a whole parade of educational “bandwagon” panaceas come and go. Among them: “Progressive Education,” “Back to Basics,” “No Child Left Behind” and, more lately, “Race to the Top.” Most all of those efforts were intended to mend an increasingly tattered American public education system, but for one reason or another they simply never proved totally successful, and in some cases they were even detrimental — although the verdict is not yet in on the last of those mentioned.
The newest magic elixir is the idea of minimizing the role of living teachers by replacing them with technology-based education, in the form of laptop computers and other technological devices. However, according to a major article appearing in one of the nation’s leading newspapers, a school district in Arizona serving 18,000 students invested roughly $33 million in technology-centric education (while, at the same time, laying off a number of teachers due to budgetary cutbacks!) only to see their very large investment produce no improvement in student performance. That’s most worrying — and expensive.
Realistically, it simply cannot be denied that, indeed, certain aspects of a child’s education can be enhanced by the use of automation and technology — but with special emphasis on the word “enhanced.” Recognition must also be given to the fact that in any worthy educational system there exist many less obvious, nebulous or subtle spheres which can only be instilled and imparted by means of the actual, living presence of talented, inspired (and inspiring) teachers.
Included among those spheres are many which fall in the realm of character development: reasoning ability, decision-making strategies, crisis management, self-control, self-awareness, tenacity, honesty, dedication and many others. Granted, not too long ago some of those areas were more the responsibility of the home, but over the years responsibility for inculcating those things has gradually shifted to the public schools. Whatever the case, their importance cannot be ignored or dismissed. It also needs saying that impressing those positive qualities on our kids is very often more easily accomplished by courses in the fine arts (music, drawing and painting, drama, literature, physical education, foreign language) and other subject areas which all too often are lopped off by the budget-cutter’s ax. But all the technology in the world simply can’t replace the living teacher — the very necessary “human element” which enables those character-heightening elements of any truly authentic educational program.
Here’s a practical example of the need for that human element: A certain amount of the dreaded, but like-it-or-not activity called “repetitive drill” is an essential and integral part of education. For instance: in grammar and English courses, students need to be taught proper punctuation usage, spelling, sentence and paragraph structure, and vocabulary. In social studies and history courses, knowledge of historical dates, events and the positive or negative influences of historical figures must be implanted and understood in the context of how they relate to contemporary society. In music, students learning to play a musical instrument must learn proper rudiments and techniques, and singers need to learn necessary breathing and muscle-usage techniques. All those areas of study and others require drill, and to teach and encourage students to do that drill we most certainly need talented, living teachers.
Another questionable thing about computer-centric education is that it can unintentionally encourage laziness. This is because accessibility to information is overly convenient. While in some ways easy accessibility is a good thing, it also denies students the very satisfying experience of finding answers on their own — via reading, use of encyclopedias, dictionaries and other means of hands-on, enriching, personal research.
A related manifestation of the negative influence which computers can have: College and university professors teaching courses requiring freshman students to write essays report that all too many of those frosh can’t construct an intelligent paragraph, and in some cases, not even a simple sentence without the tools afforded by computers: “Spelling and Grammar,” “Language,” “Auto-Summarize,” “Speech” and other easy-to-access writing aids.
All right: If computerized education isn’t the magic elixir to heal and mend the ills of our badly faltering education system, what, then, is? The answer: high-quality, living teachers, who have the opportunity to personally interact with their students. That answer, of course, leads to another question: How can we be assured of having such teachers in our classrooms?
One of the most logical answers is, we’d be well-advised to follow the example of nations that are outshining us educationally: nations where only top-of-the-class college graduates are recruited to become teachers; where teachers are paid salaries commensurate with doctors, lawyers and other careers bearing the label of professions; where teachers are considered to be on a civic and social prestige level equal to or exceeding that of other professionals.
Yes, traditional public school education most certainly needs upgrading, modernizing and improvement, and computerized education might have a partial role in achievement of that. But replacing talented teachers with computers simply isn’t the road to go down in doing so.
So then, sort the grain from the chaff. Give our education system a good bath; feed, nourish and improve it. But in the process, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Mr. Vervaet is a retired public school music teacher and a former adjunct professor at the SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music. He lives inHannawaFalls.