January 22, 2013

Technology in education – are the roads wide enough?

Last week’s Technology in Education conference left me with a couple of ideas to ponder:

  1. There are a lot of good people on the front lines of education, teachers and administrators. They have the smarts and commitment to do great things. They’re creating lots of small successes, even in small, rural school district where bandwidth and access to computers remains an issue.
  2. During the morning sessions, including the keynote and two workshops, no one asked a question or made a comment. (One person did ask for clarification about the location of some materials, but there were no questions about the content.) Attendees at the afternoon sessions talked more. 
In 2007, ABC News ran a story, The Future of the Workplace: No Office, about the changing world of work. More than 40% of IBM’s employees don’t have a full-time office in an IBM facility. They work from home, customer sites, hotel rooms, airplanes, or, occasionally, an IBM office that’s set up to support visiting workers.
While K-16 (kindergarten through college) education brings lots of money and attention on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM curriculum, little is said about the way that people work.Collaborating with teams around the country or the world requires much more intentional communication. You can’t rely on corridor conversations to exchange ideas or schedule changes. You can’t keep your project plan on a whiteboard in the main conference room.

via Mr. Boffo Archives

The people from the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative included the ABC story in their presentation. After their talk, I asked the presenters how well educators understood the ways in which work has changed and will change even more. They said that there was little evidence of widespread appreciation of this type of change. Teachers and parents were OK with the new content included in STEM education, but weren’t seeing a need for learning about new ways to work.
Teaching new material in traditional ways fits well, in my opinion, with an educational model that lines up with standardized tests as the measure of educational success. Teaching old or new content in new ways may not.
Watching a couple hundred people sitting and listening to ideas about radically reinventing education is unsettling. It reminds me of my classes in the 60s, where a radical history professor would be spouting revolution and the students in the back of the classroom wondered if the Yippies were going to be on the mid-term.
Every airplane carries a black box (which isn’t really black, but orange so that it can be found easily after a crash) that contains recording devices that stores vital data and voice recordings.

Do you know why they don’t make airplanes the same way that they use in the black boxes? Because the roads aren’t wide enough.
(A plane built like that wouldn’t get off the ground and would have to drive to its destination.)
Educators are keenly aware that they’re measured by the kids’ test scores. Federal and state funding is tied to improvements in the numbers. Change has to be introduced carefully, lest it disrupt what’s already proved to work well enough. 
Added to that is an academic environment for educators that rewards obfuscation in language and thought.
The result is a risk-averse spirit that wraps innovation in thick protective layers.
The entrepreneurial spirit that we expect of our kids when they go to work is punished when applied to education. Entrepreneurs know that  meaningful failures are essential to eventual success. An essential element of physical and emotional well-being is resilience, the ability to adapt to change and setbacks and find new ways to move forward.
For the many people in politics and in the general public who don’t like government or educators, lower test score means that schools are failing again. Never mind that the lowered scores might be the result of incompetence or an experiment that didn’t turn out as hoped. The remedies for each type of failure are quite different.
Marco Annunziata is Chief Economist and executive director of Global Market Insight for GE. reported on on GE’s annual Innovation Barometer. More 300 global business leaders who were surveyed said that they want governments to cultivate more innovation in education to prepare students for often chaotic work that’s ahead. One respondent endorsed “strengthening the education system in a way that not only gives students a solid basis of knowledge, but also fuels an entrepreneurial culture and creates a closer alignment with business. “
This new world of work is less than a generation old. We don’t yet have proven methods for educating large numbers of students in the technologies and processes that will be a part of their lives.  We need to try some things, many of which may not work. No one likes the idea of experimenting on our kids. Truth be told, however, I don’t think we have much choice. We’re not going to get them to their future by driving down I-91 in a jet.