Our Schools–Back to the Future

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


While I am in complete agreement with the serious concerns that Nancy Bailey (See here ) and Peggy Robertson (See here) have brought up in reaction to the PBS NOVA program “School of the Future,” I found some of the segments encouraging. Watch here These segments emphasize the value of human interaction and the importance of caring about students rather than pushing the mindless morass of digital modules/digital badging/data monitoring, assessment, and tracking that many of us are alarmed about with “21st Century Learning.”

So I’ll begin with what I felt was positive about the program. The teacher at the Bronx, NY elementary school acknowledged that many of the students arrived at school with “baggage.” The segment discussed the “disruptive nature of adversity,” and stated that the prevention of the negative effects of this challenge was the “human buffer.” Children need to feel nurtured and safe, and that adults care about them. Yes! I also was pleased with the middle school in Columbia, Illinois. One of the techniques portrayed for helping this age group improve their learning was the use of Essential Questions, which guided their understanding of an entire unit. While frequent quizzes sets off alarm bells, I found that the strategy of reinforcing the previous day’s lesson with a short quiz every day seemed valuable. In needing to retrieve the past day’s learning, students were strengthening their long-term retention of the material. The key was that the quizzes were not scored, and so were not high stakes. From my experience teaching Latin to deaf high school students, frequent practice, even if not frequent quizzing, serves to solidify students’ learning.

While I am deeply suspicious of charter schools as a remedy for so-called failing public schools, I thought that the East Palo Alto Academy, a charter school, emphasized what high school students need to be engaged in their learning. The school has a small student body, which makes it logistically easier to match students with caring adults. The class included in the segment was a “restorative justice” class. I didn’t notice any computers in use. The aim was for teachers to create curricula that were culturally responsive and thus engaging for students. Students were graded on essays, presentations, and class participation. They were also encouraged to pursue their passions outside of the school day, such as at the Hip Hop Club. The school couples high expectations with love, support, and understanding.

Across the freeway from East Palo Alto is Palo Alto, an affluent area with two elite high schools. Here the students were under intense pressure to be academically successful. At Henry M. Gunn High School, the community had to confront “the dark side of intense academic expectations” when they suffered a spate of student suicides. This led to a re-evaluation of the stress levels the students were experiencing. The administration realized that they needed to focus on student well-being, not just achievement scores. So they added in down-time to the schedule—a longer lunch time and longer time to pass between classes. This gesture may not be a panacea, but it is a step in the right direction.

Now to the segments that I found problematic. Here is where the frenzied push for technology as the answer to “personalizing” education was on view. In one segment, the video went back to the end of World War II, when the US Air Force faced a challenge to upgrade their pilots to the task of flying jet airplanes. They now had to deal with planes that were more powerful, had greater speed, and depended on more complex technology. The comparison was made from this military/training challenge to student learning in public schools. The problem was framed as needing to adapt to the needs of millions of individual children rather than provide a standardized education geared to the average child. The answer? digital technology! Max Ventilla from AltSchool discussed the “21st Century Profession” as using digital technologies to build on the students’ own capabilities. The goal is called “mass customization.” This may be plausible, but it is not the only, and certainly not the best, way to frame the need for true personalization.

When Carol Dweck, the promoter of the notion of “Growth Mindset,” was interviewed, she made a startling statement: “The intersection of technology and psychology is a wonderful intersection. We want children to engage joyfully in a learning process.” Why does the Nazi phrase placed at the entrance to Auschwitz and other death camps come to mind—“Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free)? The viewers were then treated to a segment with Sal Kahn of the online Kahn Academy. According to Kahn, students prefer working with a computer to working one-on-one with a human being because they are inhibited when learning with a person. Why?  because they don’t want to be seen to fail, and they don’t want to feel that they’re wasting the other person’s time. Instead, they gleefully and effectively engage with computer modules chock full of bells and whistles, earning points along the way. Woohoo!

As many others have pointed out, technology is a tool for learning, and has a place, particularly with older, mature students. What all students need the most, however, is thoughtful, creative, dedicated, and sensitive human teachers to decide which technology may be beneficial at which times, and to engage students with empathy, encouraging them to explore their own potential and empower their own voice. Did we really need neuroscience to teach us this?



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