Don’t Kill the Cats

The only sound at the moment is the muffled clicking of 12 keyboards. The class is dimly lit except for the white beam of light reflecting off the projector screen and the 12 phosphorescent light sources radiating from the laptops that each teacher seems to be telepathically connected to. I’m currently sitting in the back of this classroom, trying my best to stay focused during the full day Professional Development (PD) that is focused on integrating technology into the classroom, a topic and effort that has been constant for the last 8 years.

There is no shortage of educators, industry professionals, and politicians with a fair bit of techno lust that spout this marriage of technology and education as the holy grail for learning. And there is a fair bit of research that supports some of these claims- more and more of the job market requires digital skills, our world is only becoming more connected which requires this sort of knowledge, and a lot of old world jobs are disappearing making way for a large number of careers with steep technical requirements. All of this is valid…but, as I am sitting and staring at this stream of photons blasting my irises, I’m having a very weird moment of panic. I’m viewing this from the perspective of a student and I’m feeling mildly overwhelmed at the amount of content, tools, logins, plugins, references, annotations, and lesson plans that I’m supposed to keep track of: I am finally at information overload.

At this point in my revelation, I think a little background and establishment of pedigree is in order. I worked in the IT field throughout my 20’s and have taken on various consulting jobs since then- specializing in different aspects of computer networking and web design. For the past 10 years, I’ve worked as a professional educator teaching nearly all levels of English at the highschool level, including ELD and AP English. And, for the last 2 years I have directed and produced videos for a YouTube Channel as well as a podcast that I run with three co-hosts. Suffice it to say, I have experience working with technology. So, that brief Curriculum Vitae should be enough to emphasize that for me to be overwhelmed with the degree that education is now integrating and depending on digital tools in the classroom is significant.

So, let me see if I can paint this picture for you. I’m in an educational environment and I’m eager to learn. And I’ve been told for the last 8 years as an educator, as well as the last 20 years as an adult, that technology is supposed to make our lives easier. But as I’m looking at the projected screen I don’t see information, I don’t see learning… I see noise. The presenter has roughly 15 tabs open, each with their own corporate designed icon and each with their own catchy Web 2.0 name; Kami, Diigo, Kahoot, Socrative, Padlet, Thrively, Prezi, TurnitIn, Data Director, Plato,  iReady, LiteraryConnect, Khan Academy … and countless others that are all maneuvering to get those education investments dollars. And the bitch of it is, that each one of these tools are supposed to make learning easier; they’re supposed to make the process of learning more efficient, but more often than not, for a large number of students, it causes noise and confusion because it’s too much. The essence of learning at least in its beginning stages should not be choice and distraction, but focus.


How Did We Get Here

Public education has changed a lot over the last 25 years. It has moved from dusty chalk stained classrooms, with teachers who would blankly stare at their students through thick coke bottle glasses while focusing on rote educational skills and then transitioning to brightly lit spaces with sterile whiteboards, 50 inch projection screens, and in many schools- 1 to 1 computer access for all. This new educational movement has its heart in the right place; “Let’s try to eliminate any reason for students to not succeed.” And why would you not want that to be the pedagogy of a nation? The dilemma arises out of the byproduct of integrating technology and equal access to information for all. While we have access to more information than any other generation in history, learning is not necessarily easier or more efficient, in some respects, it is more difficult. It is increasingly more difficult to parse the wheat from the chaff, the music from the noise, and the reliable information from the direct to consumer advertising. And as much as school districts across the nation are investing endless amounts of capital into any and all educational tools, the sad reality is that none of them contain the Ruby Red Slippers that can take us back to Kansas, aka the mythical idealized education of the 1950’s that so many people are weirdly nostalgic about.

Progress is necessary and essential to improving our education system. Technology should be a part of the experience, but not be the primary platform for it. Experiences such as physically writing the shape of a letter on a page does a lot more for the mind and should not be completely replaced by a 101 button keyboard that generates the same limited tactile response, yet offer more distractions from the content as many students spend more time searching for the perfect font as opposed to perfecting their 5 paragraph masterpieces. Tactile response and analog stimulation is still needed for developing minds. Flashing lights and an infinite number of apps is more distraction than assistance in learning. And I’m going to admit that what I’m about to say is from a potentially biased point of view. I think that my generation went through the education system at the perfect time. But I am in no way saying that my generation is the most educated. What my statement means is that, for those born between the years of 1972 – 1985, the chances are that you have a pretty good hold on our analog past and what developed into our digital present. For those born during those years, including myself, our primary education was delivered with simple paper, pencil, and textbooks, but we still did have access to technology, although it was primarily to type papers and play some slow paced pixelated games and I imagine at some point we all died from dysentery. But it was not intrusive and it was not prevalent. I wholeheartedly believe that this was the ideal progression for learning- focus on the basics in a primarily analog environment for the formative years of education and slowly introduce all the tools that help with efficiency and large scale research when the time is right, sometime between the Sophomore and Junior year of high school.

Possibilities and Predictions

As much as, all the studies suggest that teenagers are capable of higher level thought and complex problem solving, we may never see their collective potential due to the ever increasing reasons not to perform in high school. Taking into consideration the endless and easy access to entertainment and the growing fear of not being able to pay for college, fear of the future and avoidance of long term focus is rampant, in fact, I am honestly surprised that test scores have been going up as much as they have, but I anticipate that they are extremely close to leveling off or taking a steep nosedive as a result of the first generation of common core kids nearing high school age. Easy and equal access to technology has highlighted the fact that any answer is nothing more than a internet search away, which means that there is less value in retaining information for future application. Critical thinking skills among adolescents has reportedly gone up, but they have gone up without traditional foundational skills, which seems akin to building a second story on a house without make sure the first floor is grounded to the earth.

I don’t have much real data to backup my claim. Most of it is based on my recollection of my own education and what I have been able to observe from my small corner of the nation over the last ten years as a professional educator, but I do know that we have some real issues to contend with. Professor and lecturer Sir Ken Robinson in one of his world renowned lectures correctly stated that, “Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth.” And of course there is no debating that, but the question really is, “Should education try to compete with that same level of stimulation?” My main concern is that it potentially turns education into spectacle, thus adding to the neurotic environment that school age kids already have to contend with instead of helping them tone down the background noise and develop some notion of focus as well as a minor return to some of the rote skills that have been vilified over the last 15 years.

What Now?

During several different periods in Europe between the 15th and 17th century, the bubonic plague decimated up to a third of the population and the severity of the plague ebbed and flowed due to the ever changing balance of cats, rats, and fleas. At one point, cats were thought to be the primary cause for the spread of the plague, so almost all the cats in certain regions of Europe were killed and as a result, the plague killed thousands of people. But several centuries later,  it is now common knowledge that the cause of the black plague was the fleas that fed on the rats that the cats chased and ate, thus making the cats the proverbial hero of the day. I see our current state of education in a similar manner. We are moving forward and making changes to our educational system when we can’t see the effects of our actions and many feel that we need to attack old traditions in order to prepare our children for the future. Traditional education was not wrong, just limited. The future technology based education is not wrong, just misguided and corporate minded. The traditional route and the future path are not mutually exclusive, they are tied together and need a better understanding to how they should work together. So instead of being so quick to kill the cats, we need to focus a little more on finding the fleas.


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