Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Computers vs. teachers and other frilly ed debates

I have plenty of opinions about

Teachers vs. computers.
Teaching about computers.
Teaching using computers.
Teaching computers to teach.

Which all falls under the banner of Technology in the Classroom or worse, Teaching in the 21st Century.  Which all strikes me as… frilly.

A colleague recently sent me this article from The Atlantic. 

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Below the link he wrote, “I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about the role of a teacher in this internet, Google driven, information rich economy.”

I tend to have a visceral reaction to tech stuff because I usually find it a distraction from the much more essential elements of effective teaching.  Anyone who asks the question from the headline, “What’s left for classroom instructors to do?” clearly does not understand the essential elements of effective teaching.

Most broadly I think tech/computers/internet/google are just another material that can be used effectively OR not-effectively to make learning happen.  It irritates me when people assume using technology in the classroom is inherently good just because “it’s part of our world now.” It is not inherently good. I’ve seen it misused or used without purpose, both of which create unnecessary distractions for both teachers and kids.  Debating about computers in classrooms to me is like debating the merits of pens vs. pencils or one textbook vs. another… this MATERIALS bucket.

My point of view on that entire bucket is… an effective teacher who can properly design and execute lessons can make learning happen with all OR NONE of these so the whole debate about one or the other material becomes somewhat nonsensical.  These are the frills of teaching.  The lace on the wedding dress. The icing on the cake.  You can have a great wedding, the core of the tradition, with all of these things OR NONE of these things.

Yes, computerized quizzes are fantastic for “filling the bucket” type learning.  Memorizing stuff like countries and capitals or getting a zillion reps at basic math problems.  I say that not to diminish that kind of learning- that kind of learning IS important!!  That’s PART of great teaching.  Part of it is about filling the bucket.  But why? Why memorize something when you can google it? The answer is- we need to memorize stuff so we can read things without having to stop every other sentence to look something up.  You need a foundation of knowledge to then be able to THINK WELL as you read a harder/more in depth text. Make connections, criticize, judge.  In the moment, fluently, without stopping.  You’re not going to be a good car mechanic if you don’t know the names of the tools and the parts.

All that said, I don’t believe computers and fill the bucket learning can REPLACE teachers who teach their kids a holistic DISCIPLINE.  Filling the bucket is the foundation for something bigger and harder.  For example, a music teacher, a soccer coach, a social studies teacher who actually teaches the discipline of research and writing arguments, a science teacher who actually teaches the discipline of the scientific method, an english teacher who actually teaches the discipline of literary analysis…  Learning any complex craft requires feedback on complex tasks and I think it takes a human mind both to prioritize the feedback and to communicate it with some social finesse.

Filling the bucket learning + practicing the bigger/harder tasks that are authentic to a discipline = solid curriculum.

Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of governments/schools/teachers swing too far to the left or right. Too much filling the bucket and not enough practicing the bigger/harder/authentic tasks. Or too many big tasks and not enough filling the bucket.  The beauty is always in the balance.

 In the end what irritates me most about debating the frills of teaching is its distance and distraction from the core of the craft.  In the same way that debating the frills of a wedding is a distraction from the core of the tradition.

So what’s the core of teaching? Great classroom teaching is getting kids to be able to do stuff that they weren’t able to do before. The essential parts of doing that well are: designing a solid curriculum with the formula above, generating good kid effort, checking if each kid gets it yet, and responding with clear feedback to kids when they aren’t there yet.  That’s the core.  That’s it.

I don’t understand why so many people think the core is somehow undefinable or so sensitively conditional depending on context.  It’s not. I taught on three continents with a wide range of access to materials.  

The core

Doesn’t change across culture.
Doesn’t change across disciplines.
Doesn’t change across class/money/materials.

Borrow a lesson plan or make your own.
Computers or no computers.
Pens or pencils.
Blue or pink.

They’re all just frills.

What keeps me up at night is… How many teachers in this world are able to perform the core of our craft truly well?  And who is CHECKING on that? And for those teachers who aren’t there yet, who is giving them FEEDBACK?

THAT’s the puzzle I care about.
Not the frills.
The core.


6 comments on “Computers vs. teachers and other frilly ed debates

  1. Sally
    May 2, 2015

    Great article, I hope you shared it with the The Atlantic.

  2. Lonnie Rich (Dad)
    May 2, 2015

    Right on! In the end, most of what is good is in the balance. All rote learning is boring and stifling; but no rote learning is empty — you can’t do creative thinking without something in your head to think about.

  3. Catherine
    May 3, 2015

    Great points, Sara! I especially like your point about why memorization still matters, for creating a foundation of knowledge. It was obvious when you said it, but it was always something I struggled to articulate when I taught. What do you think then, about requiring the memorization of something you won’t “need” to use later, e.g. memorizing a poem. My students participated in the Poetry Out Loud national recitation contest, and some students and parents did not think it was a valuable use of their time, in this age of Google. Since the mechanic metaphor you used doesn’t really apply here, what do you think? My gut says that it WAS valuable, but again, I’m not really able to articulate why.

    (P.S. Your ability to distill big ideas into their individual components, like you did here with teaching’s core, is clearly part of what makes you such a successful teacher.)

    • Sara Rich
      May 3, 2015

      What an interesting question! I think of performing a poem in the same way I think about performing music. At the beginner/intermediate level, we ask students to perform music written by others. Memorization in this context gives students a clear stepping stone on the way to performing well. You have to know the words of the poem. You have to know the notes of the music. That’s step 1, the foundation for the bigger/harder stuff which is HOW the words should be spoken, HOW the notes should be played. In poetry a reader has to infer the right tone, pace, etc. based on the writer’s meaning. In music, the player has to follow the written cues for dynamics, tone, pace. Memorization here is a way for both teacher and student to be sure they know the basics so they can then move on to tweaking and perfecting the REST of the performance!

      I think another thing that can hurt the perceived value of a performance like this is if kids only get to do a particular performance once. It’s the repetition of the big performances that motivates kids to get better and better at it but they have to have a second and third chance. I understand why many schools have chunked out curriculum the way they have. For example, each year there is one poetry unit. The problem is one unit is probably only a few weeks long and this isn’t always enough time for kids to have multiple performance cycles.

  4. bevwalls
    May 3, 2015

    I still remember the Canterbury Tales Prologues from almost 50 years ago. It’s amazing what a brain can hold onto. We certainly memorized in the 1950’s and 1960’s–at school, at church, at play and games. We performed for family, school events, church, recitals, and friends. All of those performances gave us confidence, poise, even leadership skills. We learned to focus, to express ideas and emotions with words or music. We learned the beauty of words and the power of a pause or silence, As Sara said, memorization became the first step in formulating our own personal expression., creating our own rhythms, and appreciating the power of the written and spoken word. Even the piano recital when I totally forgot my piece on the first page taught me much about failure and returning to try again. Our brain needs exercise, drills, and practice like our muscles. Memorization strengthens thinking skills, and the repetitions create synapses in our brains for connectivity.

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This entry was posted on May 2, 2015 by in teaching.
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