The Dangers of Saying 'No' to Edtech

CEO, One-to-One Institute

Those involved with transforming schools keep learners at the heart of the work.  Creating a learner-centric ecosystem that is bolstered by adult stakeholders’ understanding and execution of best practices and learning research is crucial.  It is also imperative to ‘know’ the landscape in which our young people currently engage and the one into which they will emerge when they leave PreK-12 education.  Unless one has been living under a rock the past 30+ years, it’s obvious that our global connectedness, powers of technology, defunct and retooled job markets have huge implications for education practice and outcomes.

My interest was piqued by two opinion articles in the Sunday, October 18th, NY Times:  “Lecture Me. Really”, Molly Worthen and “The Best Jobs Require Social Skills” , Clair Cain Miller.  The first article struck me as a ‘lecture’ about an age-old ‘teaching’, not necessarily ‘learning’ approach.  The author also lamented the incorporation of technologies in the learning ecosystem.  The second piece read as a future-vision expose on the ubiquitous nature and, at times, dominance of technologies and the need to recapture the importance and impact of the social-emotional aspects in PreK-12 education.

Assistant Professor Worthen strongly advocates the value of the ‘lecture’ and accompanying ‘note-taking’ (and weekly discussion sessions), as essential to learning, particularly in the humanities.  She says that, “Lectures are essential for teaching humanities’ most basic skills:  comprehension and reasoning……..essential (to) demands of working life and citizenship.”  Worthen challenges the research on ‘active learning’ methods (she cites ‘group work’ as an example). She also states that ‘active learning’ is a phenomenon known to have efficacy in the ‘hard sciences’... and that it is an attempt to disenfranchise the value of what one learns via humanities curricula.

Ms. Miller’s premise emerges from research and interviews. She found that the most lucrative and available jobs today require social skill expertise.  She says, “…skills like cooperation, empathy, and flexibility have become vital in modern-day work. ….and the only occupations that have shown consistent wage growth since 2000 require both cognitive and social skills.” Miller quotes David Demming, a Harvard assistant prof in education and economics.  He says that today’s work world requires the kinds of skills fostered in preschool.  “Children move from art projects to science experiments to the playground in small groups…their most important skills are sharing and negotiating….but that soon ends…replaced by lecture-style teaching of hard skills with less peer interaction.”

Both authors take to task the infusion of technologies in schools and in general.  Miller discusses how technologies have supplanted humans and human tasks in the work place and posits that machines are no replacement for necessary social, emotional and interpersonal skills.  Worthen says some colleagues no longer allow laptops in the lecture hall…and that students say ‘what a relief’.  She says technology has become not only a distraction but an obsession that prohibits ‘listening’ skills. Some of her colleagues go to great lengths to ‘teach’ students the art of listening via tending to the lecture, crafting thoughtful, organized notes, which, she says, helps learners connect ideas and understand arguments. The lecture, according to Worthen, places the highest priority on ‘connections between individual facts’ that leads to “..the building of an argument”, particularly in the humanities.   

Worthen also advocates for the weekly discussion groups that follow the lecture.  Miller talks about  ‘student-led discussions’ which she claims are imperative to developing collaboration and group skills.  If Worthen’s weekly discussion groups engage her students’ agency and leadership, they very well could be valuable to the debriefing and learning process. She doesn’t incorporate notions about students’ engagement, aside from listening and note-taking, as part of her advised process.

Miller dives into the need for group activities, ie. sports, drama, band, and ‘playing well with others’ to prepare youth for today’s work world. This is supported by one of Deming’s studies.  He looked at the economic ROI of social skills in the work place and controlled for items like cognitive skills, years of education and occupation.  The rate at which jobs required social skills “grew 24% between 1980 and 2012. (And) …jobs requiring repetitive tasks…that don’t necessarily require teamwork…declined.”

Education today can well incorporate all these learning activities.  There is definitely a place for the ‘lecture’ as part of diverse, engaged, robust learning activities.  Fullan and Langworthy discuss the teacher/learner partnership. That vision ensures student agency as an active partner in the learning process-using voice, choice and feedback.  That learner may also be a receptacle of information. It is what happens after one has acquired new knowledge that matters regarding mastery and competence. Ideally, Worthen’s weekly discussion would promote this happening.  Maybe there is an end product, artifact or creation Worthen expects to demonstrate students’ learning.  A learner’s actual ‘experience’ with learning matters greatly.

Miller says that today’s education system doesn’t well accommodate the development of social skills.  One-to-One Institute has worked in many schools and school districts.  All of them have a keen focus on students’ social and emotional development and wellbeing.  Some, of course, more than others; are more focused and intentional.  There is room for advancement in helping learners understand the significance of these universal skills not only in their present day world but in the global work place for which we are guiding their preparation.    

Worthen is short-sighted when she writes about the negative effects technology has had on teaching and learning.  Our global world engages all manner of technologies for all kinds of purposes.  Technologies enable collaborations, communications, sharing, feedback and, generally, human connections on multiple platforms for all kinds of human reasons. Relationships, empathy, caring, and social graces matter.  Research, analysis and problem-solving require teams to work together for the greater good, to establish and enhance caring connections. And, according to Miller and Demming, because it will be jobs that demand those skills that will be most prominent and lucrative today and into the future.

Leslie Wilson, founder and CEO of One-to-One Institute, has served education for 38+ years  in top level, key decision-making roles at state and local levels. Recognized as an international expert in education technology, Wilson is a frequent writer, presenter and interviewee. Among her many publications, she co-authored, “Project RED-The Technology Factor, Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost Effectiveness” which is the most broadly used research around successful implementation of 1:1 technologies in schools. 

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