04 September 2011

Faith-Based Education and a Return to Shop Class

Today's NYT has a lengthy front page article that wonders why investments in classroom technology do not lead to better educational outcomes among students:
To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.
In 2008 Dick Nelson and Dan Sarewitz had a commentary in Nature (here in PDF) that eloquently summarized why it is that we should not expect technology in the classroom to reault in better educational outcomes as they suggest we should in the case of a tehcnology like vaccines.

They introduce three rules for technological fixes as follows:
For some social problems, scientific research and technological innovation deliver significant progress, while for others, such activities lead to little if any improvement. Remarkable advances have been made in disease reduction through vaccination efforts, for example. But the story for literacy is different. In the United States, nearly a half century of research, application of new technologies and development of new methods and policies has failed to translate into improved reading abilities for the nation’s children1.

Although vaccinating children and teaching them to read may seem so different as\ to make them incommensurable, they are similar in several important respects. Both are carried out by trained professionals in a\ controlled environment using the standard tools of their respective trades. Notably, each has been, and continues to be, the subject of considerable research. But the reasons why progress has been so uneven point to three simple rules for anticipating when more research and development (R&D) could help to yield rapid social progress. In a world of limited resources, the trick is distinguishing problems amenable to technological fixes from those that are not. Our rules provide guidance\ in making this distinction . . .

Both vaccinating and teaching involve skilfully produced artefacts. But unlike vaccines, the textbooks and software used in education do not embody the essence of what needs to be done. That is, they don’t provide the basic ‘go’ of teaching and learning. That depends on the skills of teachers and on the attributes of classrooms and students. Most importantly, the effectiveness of a vaccine is largely independent of who gives or receives it, and of the setting in which it is given. A health-care practitioner (unlike a teacher) doesn’t usually have to figure out what will work on a case-by- case basis — no matter if the child is rich or poor, if he or she speaks English or Mandarin. The vaccine captures the basic go in a technological artefact, distinguishing it from the teaching of reading.
The three rules for a technological fix proposed by Sarewitz and Nelson are:
I. The technology must largely embody the cause–effect relationship connecting problem to solution.
II. The effects of the technological fix must be assessable using relatively unambiguous or uncontroversial criteria.
III. Research and development is most likely to contribute decisively to solving a social problem when it focuses on improving a standardized technical core that already exists.
Obviously technology in the classroom fails with respect to each of the three criteria: (a) technology is not a causal factor in learning in the sense that more technology means more learning, (b) assessment of educational outcome sis itself difficult and contested, much less disentangling various causal factors, and (c) the lack of evidence that technology leads to improved educational outcomes means that there is no such standardized technological core.

The NY Times reports:
This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”

Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.
In this case, the evidence would seem to show fairly conclusively that the critics are right. Yet, despite the lack of evidence for the efficacy of technology in the classroom, the lack of data has not been an obstacle to developing a long-term love affair with the promise of technology.
In 1997, a science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton issued an urgent call about the need to equip schools with technology.

If such spending was not increased by billions of dollars, American competitiveness could suffer, according to the committee, whose members included educators like Charles M. Vest, then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and business executives like John A. Young, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.

To support its conclusion, the committee’s report cited the successes of individual schools that embraced computers and saw test scores rise or dropout rates fall. But while acknowledging that the research on technology’s impact was inadequate, the committee urged schools to adopt it anyhow.

The report’s final sentence read: “The panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology within America’s schools be deferred pending the completion of such research.”
A 2010 review by the US Department of Education (here in PDF) found very few systematic studies of the role of technology in K-12 education.  WHat this means is that the advocates of technology in the classroom as a means of improving educational outcomes are basing their advocacy on little more than faith -- faith that technology will make outcomes better, despite a lack of evidence to support that faith.

This sort of faith-based education will have consequences, consider this vignette from the Arizona school at the center of the NYT story:
“We have Smart Boards in every classroom but not enough money to buy copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizer,” said Nicole Cates, a co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Kyrene de la Colina, an elementary school . . .

But she loves the fact that her two children, a fourth-grader and first-grader, are learning technology, including PowerPoint and educational games.
The love affair with technology reflects a deeper problem in education, hinted at in this week's Economist:
[D]emand for educated labour is being reconfigured by technology, in much the same way that the demand for agricultural labour was reconfigured in the 19th century and that for factory labour in the 20th. Computers can not only perform repetitive mental tasks much faster than human beings. They can also empower amateurs to do what professionals once did: why hire a flesh-and-blood accountant to complete your tax return when Turbotax (a software package) will do the job at a fraction of the cost? And the variety of jobs that computers can do is multiplying as programmers teach them to deal with tone and linguistic ambiguity.

Several economists, including Paul Krugman, have begun to argue that post-industrial societies will be characterised not by a relentless rise in demand for the educated but by a great “hollowing out”, as mid-level jobs are destroyed by smart machines and high-level job growth slows. David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), points out that the main effect of automation in the computer era is not that it destroys blue-collar jobs but that it destroys any job that can be reduced to a routine. Alan Blinder, of Princeton University, argues that the jobs graduates have traditionally performed are if anything more “offshorable” than low-wage ones. A plumber or lorry-driver’s job cannot be outsourced to India.
So by all means lets have more technology in our education system -- such as technologies of operating machine tools, agricultural equipment, power systems and even food old-fashioned shop class.


  1. This one hits close to home for me. Our manufacturing sector in Dayton has seen plenty of hard times, but things are looking up now. It's just hard to find folks after the decades of cuts, and layoffs and plant closings. Decades of everyone telling kids that there's no future in manufacturing in the US.

    “We’ve basically given up on finding skilled workers,” said Steve Staub of Vandalia’s Staub Manufacturing Solutions. He said he has taken to hiring former auto technicians from Walmart who are reliable and are willing to train to perform his company’s work. Lack of Qualified Workers

    Some college degrees are more marketable than others.
    In Dayton, metals coater and finisher Techmetals Inc. is still hiring after filling 11 positions for quality technicians, chemical engineers, sales, plumbers, electricians and others this year. [...] as of late August, the company was still hiring and its customers were still ordering, he said.

    “We’re getting our best people direct out of college or Sinclair (Community College).”
    Inquire Within

  2. Technology in classrooms is useless unless students are able to think. A very rare commodity today.

    Most of them can read fluently but do they understand the finer points of what they are reading?

    By the way, who knows a plumber who has his own business? I do, and the guy is pretty smart. People skills, math, your professional skills and a lot more. My plumber actually talked about the coming crash of world economy in 2007. Said market was heating up and it cannot last, he's seen it before.

  3. I sincerely doubt that adding technology will lead to an improvement in any educational metric except say familiarity with technology. The recent flurry of reports on the difference between Asian/Japanese parents and American parents reflect a fundamental issue. Too many of those well meaning, supportive, friendly, non-striving American parents are our school teachers. This coupled with the on average abysmal quality of those who teach compounds the problem.
    P.S. My wife taught in HS for 13 years and has recently subbed at the local HS. She says that the quality of teachers on average remains mediocre both with respect to subject matter mastery and teaching methods. She reports few lesson plans, severely watered-down material, time wasting assignments and little apparent feedback and guidance to the students on their learning. There are no technical fixes for poor leadership, pedagogy and management.

  4. The dynamic for pushing technology into classrooms would seem pretty straightforward: a gigantic market expansion for companies providing the software, hardware, and services.

    Results in this context are irrelevant

  5. It seems to be 2 to different thoughts here. Education and employment. My personal view of using technology in the classroom to teach is way over the top. The telephone was a technological revolution for businesses. But nobody bothered to teach it. You can add things like the copier and the fax to that list. What happened in schools was the excessive exuberance of the 1990's with technology.

    Long before PC's there was something called "automation" much talked about in the 1950's and '60's and before that the assembly line and so on. Automation was seen as a job killer. It was early use of electronic computing. I don't by into Krugman's theory. This is just the gradual evolution of technology. People will need to adapt to new skills. Education level will have an increasing impact on employment. In the current recession college grads are at a 5% rate, HS 9% and dropouts a 25% rate.

    Linking the 2 issues employment and education is simple. Schools need to align their curricular to what is needed for today's jobs and emerging ones. I'm talking K to PHD. Basic subject matter, much of it useless, hasn't changed in our K-12 school systems since WWII.

  6. Roger, your timing is perfect. My local paper has an article about grants to public schools from the state of Pennsylvania. The inner city school system was denied a grant that asked for a new sound system for the auditorium and 2,063 iPads, among other things. The state said that the "proposals did not point to programs that would address academic achievement." It seems that some regulators are already aware of this issue.

  7. The Sloyd Method comes to mind as an important pedagogical method in this discussion. Students who engage in making tangible things with tools are engaging in critical thinking and problem solving. These skills transfer easily to learning contemporary technologies (PowerPoint, etc.), important career skills (Project Management), and also provide a base from which to cultivate life-long learning. Humans learn through all of their senses, and current pedagogies ignore the tactile and kinesthetic.

  8. If America wants to lead the world, our education should begin with the conveyance of primary concepts, and encourage people to develop a foundation uniquely tailored to their own circumstances.

    Technology is sabotaging the development of intuition. This is the same effect observed when people are provided the answer. The less people struggle to develop their own intelligence, the less capable they are of independent, critical thought; and, the less capable we are to compete with over 6 billion other people. We should also not underestimate the value of courage to live, and accept justifiable risks, in an often tumultuous world.

    Money is not the answer. More money, especially that recovered through involuntary exploitation (e.g., taxes), promotes corruption.

    The problem in America is comprehensive. The corruption of individuals and society begins at home, but it is exacerbated through government policies. With a piecemeal review, the underlying issues and causal factors are overlooked, which has lead to the denigration of individual dignity.

  9. Let me ask a much broader question. Pedagogy has been an established research field for 100 years. What has it found out that has actually improved our teaching?

    For contrast, ask the same question about medicine or physics.

  10. matthew hincman said: Students who engage in making tangible things with tools are engaging in critical thinking and problem solving.

    I couldn't agree more. I wish the young students we get had spent more time under a shade tree trouble shooting old cars, and far less time playing massively multiplayer online role-playing android apps. The constraints and complexity of a basic physical system are far richer than even the most complex computer game (at least for now). The thinking skills you learn from building and fixing basic mechanical and electrical things are especially invaluable in an experimental setting.

    For the most part, I can't complain about the skills new graduates have with the software and analysis tools. It's the basics that are very hit-or-miss. Things like, "use this multimeter to trouble shoot that circuit." It's not a lack of talent, it's just a lack of training or familiarity. Knowing how to trouble shoot is also the perfect primer for experimental design. The math becomes so much more vital when you have that background as motivation.

    n.n. said: Technology is sabotaging the development of intuition.
    I really disagree with that. Technology is just tools. Your next sentence nails it. You can't treat the tools as "black boxes". You've got to teach them what is going on "under the hood". Then they "own" that tool. They can use it, and extend it. Once they own it, they will surprise you with their intuitive leaps.

    This "tool ownership" aspect is also one of the reasons that "open source" is so important in an educational setting. You can show the learner that there's no magic. Only people, just like them, trying to solve problems.

  11. jstults@10:

    Technology is both a tool and an inhibitor. I would argue that when it is introduced early in the development cycle, it acts far more often in the latter form. For example, the introduction of calculators stifles the development of an intuitive knowledge of mathematics (e.g., numerical theory, algorithm development). So, my argument is more nuanced than is immediately obvious or recorded. There is a reasonable placement of technology and it is circumstantial.

    As for "open source", I agree. Our minds work through associative processes. While there may be inspired moments, there are no revolutions in the human world.

    As for "magic", the outcome of enlightenment was a rejection of superior or exceptional dignity. It is our society's departure from enlightenment, which has mislead people to believe in an inherent superior status of some individuals (e.g., athletes, scientists, politicians) and cooperatives (e.g., government). When people recognize their own dignity (and that of others), they will, once again, return to an enlightened path.

  12. We can pick our spots here. As a high school math teacher, I can assure you that programmable, graphing calculators can assist in the teaching and learning of mathematics. "y=sin(x)" compares to "y=2sin(x)" or "y=sin(2x)" in dramatically different ways. The calculator allows students to see that with out the tedious work of graphing them by hand. In the same way, word processed papers should allow students more opportunities for revisions, with corresponding improvements in paper writing. But only if the teacher or student reads the paper, makes re-writes, re-submits the paper, for more revisions. On the other hand, having technology for technology's sake is a waste of time. Having a smart board could create more work for the teacher without any increase in learning for the student. Students need exposure to thinking with and without technology. A PowerPoint presentation should be about the content, and not the transitions between slides.

    Interesting that all modern sewing machines sold in the U.S. of A. today are made elsewhere. My Singer treadle machine doesn't do buttons or zig-zags, but it sews very well.

  13. ...not enough money to buy copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizer...

    When the money to be spent in schools is subject to collective bargaining agreements it is hard to imagine any other outcome.

  14. Vaccines aren't very helpful if the child is being fed poison at home.

    Education begins at home.

    I once lived next to a woman who was very active in the PTA. Her child couldn't read at 7 years old. I asked her what books she was reading with her child. She said she was too busy with the PTA to read with the child.

    Hooked on Phonics and other 'magical techno' solutions work because they involve mommy or daddy in the child's education.

    With all due respect to Milwaukee and his preference of graphing calculators over graphing paper I don't know how to use a graphing calculator. If it's part of your course requirements then you have unintentionally excluded me from being involved in that part of my child's education.

    My youngest was reading bedtime stories to me when she was 6 years old, and her algebra and geometry classed used graphing paper. She's at Harvard Law School now.

  15. Very very good, Roger.

    What computers can't do is think creatively....or come up with totally new ideas....or deal correctly with people problems.

    Teaching children to THINK and READ/LISTEN/LEARN CRITICALLY, to use their minds to resolve problems logically and creatively , I believe to be the key. Of course, one needs a well-rounded and broad general education --covering the basics of history, geography, the sciences, and humanities -- to have the materials, the basic data, to think with.

    It is not hopeless -- teach a child how to learn and let her loose in a good school, with a little mentoring and direction, and the results will be all we could hope for.

  16. What are we talking about here? Technology? A compass and protractor are technology. Are we talking about computers then? If so then, yes, absolutely they need to be in the classroom. Why? Because many (most) students who graduate HS and either go to college or enter the workforce will be expected to know how to use them.