Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Before the computer could change School, School changed the computer

There is a lot of talk about how technology is disrupting education in ways that allows students to learn in different ways at any pace, any place and any time. Some elements of education reform has a lot of us pondering how technology will impact schools.

While it's true that School (with a capital S) has not changed very much over the years, we must be mindful of the reforms we impart on public education. After all, tradition for the sake of tradition is no better than change for the sake of change.

We owe it to our children to stop and seriously question whether technology and hyper-personalization should drive our education reforms.

I challenge you to watch the video below and ask yourself: Is this the ideology we want dictating our education systems?

Firstly, you'll note that this video is from 1954 -- makes you wonder why we think talking about iPads is revolutionary.

Secondly, you'll notice that the video features B.F Skinner, the grand-daddy of behavioristic psychology. For those who understand that we learn by constructing our own understanding from the inside while interacting with our environment, this should be a serious red flag.
  • Those who suggest teachers should be replaced by a technology that can simply grade more efficiently are at best revealing their primitive understanding for what education is all about and at worst are exposing their desire to bust teachers' unions and destroy public education. These people play politics and profit from education at our children's peril.
  • The dream of having learners intensely concentrate on using technology quickly becomes a nightmare when it is the technology that is using the learner. When children are mined for data, education becomes something done to them rather than by them. 
  • Technology that is used to elicit correct behaviour (rather than encouraging children to construct their own understanding) is sold as a daring departure from the status quo when really it is a tactic taken from the same behaviourist strategies that have been strangling the life out of classrooms for decades.
  • Technology used in this way turns children into empty receptacles that simply require filling. This is a perfect way to achieve a Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Paulo Freire writes:
"The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to "fill" the students with the contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity."
  • If technology is used as a way to correct students so as to help them always be certain about their learning, children will only know uncertainty. Alfie Kohn explains:
"When students are simply told the most efficient way of getting the answer, they get in the habit of looking to the adult, or the book, instead of thinking things through. They become less autonomous, more dependent. Stuck in the middle of a problem, they’re less likely to try to figure out what makes sense to do next and more likely to try to remember what they’re supposed to do next – that is, what behavioral response they’ve been taught to produce. Lots of practice can help some students get better at remembering the correct response, but not to get better at – or even accustomed to -- thinking."
  • Technology used this way merely perpetuates education as a spectator sport where the student is expected to play nothing more than a passive role.  
  • There is a reason why Seymour Papert said, "Before the computer could change School, School changed the computer."
It's tempting to get suckered into talking about technology when the real debate is over how children learn. Some might say there is a war going on in schools between behaviourism and constructivism and the kids are losing; while others have written "One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward K. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost."


  1. The New York Times (August 1915) on Dewey's Schools of Tomorrow before Dewey lost - . I can visualize Dewey's schools with the added benefit of technology as a learning tool. I'm sorry that so few others can see it. The handbook for creating schools where children knock down the doors to get in instead of to get out was written almost 100 years ago. We still haven't learned our lesson.

  2. For me, teaching online has been the ONLY way I have managed to create and offer the student-driven classes that I aspire to offer as a teacher. Esp. in college, where instructors do not even have their own classrooms and simply move from one empty, impersonal space to another, by teaching online I've been able to create a place filled with students, their ideas, their work, so that student projects (websites) drive the classes and the students are able to interact with each other far more than is possible in the typical college classroom with its limited space/time. Just speaking for myself, teaching online allowed me to leave behind the dire limitations of the college classroom to achieve something far more alive and dynamic, filled with good student energy. After 10 years of being able to teach with this kind of freedom online, you couldn't pay me enough to get me back in a college classroom. All my course materials here - - and student projects here: - with THANKS to Google who gives me the free tools needed (esp. Google Sites) for students to share their work online.

  3. Thanks for posting this video Joe. I shared it with a lot of my fellow teachers and admin. We are pushing for an iPad heavy technology integration in our school and sometimes it looks a lot like the "learning machine" video above. Luckily I have created an app that features two colorful thumb prints on a screen. At the moment your iPad begins to stop being a vehicle for creation and exploration, and instead becomes a tool for efficient transmition of knowledge, then you place both of your thumbs on the prints and smack yourself in the face quickly and repeatedly until you knock some sense back into your head.

  4. I sometimes wonder what dreams are dreamt for the world by those aspiring to correctness for all

  5. I'm not seeing that Skinner was trying to make students always be right. I see him trying to improve on lecture, textbooks, and 'educational' TV - something many of us are still trying to do. The fact that the people who get paid to lecture, publish textbooks and produce television shows were more successful in the education 'market' than the Skinner box is not Skinner's fault.
    I think he was sincerely attempting to make education more personal and differentiated, which is what current tools can do, too. I think he was very actively trying to assist students to construct knowledge. Skinner was much more than a behaviorist, and most definitely not the 'Grand-daddy'- he followed and diverged from the pure behaviorists, and was not all that far away from Piaget - see B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal by Marc Richelle.