There was something exceptionally cool going on in Indianapolis this week during the NMSA annual conference where I just presented. Yet, it was also exceptionally troubling.
In the back of the exhibit hall somebody had set up a “Classroom of the 21rst Century”. Essentially, what they had done was bring in a class of real middle school students from a local Indy school and had them spend the day in an exhibit hall area that had been fashioned into a “21rst century classroom”.
There were laptops on every desk, an interactive whiteboard at the front of the room and all the latest digital gadgets that teachers and students can use for classroom instruction were on display — so that passerbys (and purchasers, of course) could catch a glimpse of education’s future.
And like I said they had brought in real kids to participate in a regular class that was simply being held on location at the conference. (About 25-30 multicultural 7th graders I believe, but it was very much set up as a real classroom.)
And so I watched for about 20 minutes. Like I said, the idea of it was very cool and I salute all the folks for being innovative and trying. However, a part of what I saw freaked me out.
Smartboards, laptops, autoresponders and the such were everywhere. Okay, cool. And lots of teachers and admins were gawking. Well, I was gawking as well… but for a different reason.
Because academic rigor, critical thinking and demanding intellectual thought were almost nowhere to be found. The display was basically “worksheet lessons” that had been digitalized.
I mean I get the good intentions of everyone but lots of old school educators remain skeptical of drinking the 21rst Century Digital Future Kool-Aid, and though I am a HUGE advocate of 21rst century skills, when I see what I saw, I understand why there is so much recalcitrance.
I watched it take 7 minutes – that’s right, 7 minutes – for a boy to come up to the front of the room and do a “fill in the blank worksheet style problem. Uh huh, a worksheet style problem.
The sentence on the interactive whiteboard was something like, “Libby is a ________________ retriever.” His task, fill in the blank. (I swear, I am not making this up.)
Now being that this was on a Smartboard, they had a picture of a golden retriever. And the teacher could make it bark. (Took him a bit though.) And the task (for the entire class) was to have 1 kid come to the board and write the proper “fill in the blank word” by hand into the blank on the board while 26 other kids watched and learned.
Learned what, I don’t know.
Of course the kid struggled with the digital pen for a wee bit, he accidentally leaned on a part of the board rendering it ineffective, the teacher tried to correct the kid’s mistake but they both found themselves writing at the same time so the board couldn’t respond properly and by the time all was said and done, over seven minutes had passed before this kid had written the word “golden” by hand into the blank… and then the teacher magically transformed the student handwriting into digital text with a press of his magic pen.
The audience went wow.
And I went WTF?
Like I said, seven minutes to fill in a single blank on a glorified, digitalized worksheet with a self-evident answer while the other 26 students did nada but try to remain well behaved.
In a way, being that I am the type of teacher who believes that there is a place for cell phones and the such in the classroom, this is my great fear. Just as some educators have turned computers into nothing more than glorified typewriters and then relaxed into believing they are incorporating technology into their curriculum by having done so, I am also afraid that the gadget craze is going to create a sense of false futurism.
The bells and whistles of technology are not going to replace the need for critical thinking and whether or not you mimeographed your worksheet question “Libby is a ________________ retriever.” in 1950 or you put it up on an interactive whiteboard at the front of a room filled with kids in some kind of one-to-one laptop environment, the actual teaching is still piss-poor.
If you are going to demonstrate a 21rst century classroom, these kids better be doing things like using the tech tools to build inquiry based webquests on the retriever breed or something… not “Libby is a ________________ retriever.”
Otherwise, what’s the point?
And more scary is how I saw the heavy hitting admins and superintendent types in the back almost salivating at the thought of all this 21rst century digital technology.
Lemme tell ya folks, I don’t care if “Libby is a %^#$Q* retriever.” Technology is a tool to wield but if we are not building the brain muscle of our kids, it’s better that these tools just stay on the shelf so that we don’t all dupe ourselves into believing that just because a class has laptops, Smartboards, and gadget up the yin-yang, there is actual learning going on.
And I am sorry if anyone from NMSA takes offense at this but if you are going to demonstrate a classroom lesson for the educational public to see, demonstrating scholarly rigor has got to be your first priority.
Let’s not let our eyes deviate from the real prize, right?