Technology: The Ugly Stepchild of the Public School System (even uglier than Social Studies)

Whenever I work with teachers – specifically those who in teach in low-income areas – the conversation inevitably turns to the multitude of obstacles preventing technology integration in many of today’s classrooms. High-stakes testing, standards-driven teaching, new and ever-changing curriculua, students five years (and more) behind their peers, English-language learners, no home support, no district support, no money – the list goes on and on.

I’ve been out of the classroom for only six months, so I remember these challenges well. Too often, they are dismissed by trainers and administrators who are pushing the latest and greatest fix-all. But they are real obstacles, and they are valid.

To teachers’ credit, we face all these challenges, day after day, head-on. We stay up until all hours of the night, planning the perfect lesson. We stay after school for hours, working with the kids who need us the most. We work harder than we ever knew possible, and we force them to learn.

With all that, the argument goes, how can we possibly be expected to teach technology?

Because without it, I would argue, all else is lost.

I didn’t always believe this. But there was a moment in 2007 when I recognized this as true, indisputable fact. I was at a conference listening to education technology expert David Warlick speak about 21st century literacy. He shared a quote from former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who predicted that the top ten jobs in 2010 would be jobs that didn’t even exist in 2004.

Seem ridiculous? Think about it. Corporations now employ people simply to update their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Millions of dollars are made every year creating iPhone apps – a technology only 18 months old. And things are only going to change faster as time goes on. The Sixth Sense was once something only seen in Minority Report, but now it’s here and will probably be in stores in the next year.

If you haven’t seen the “Did You Know?” video (or one of its many spin-offs) by now, its facts surely will drive this point home:

What does it mean?

The population of children alive in the world at this moment exceeds the population of the entire human race in all of history. A friend of mine pointed out that, statistically, the next Galileo, the next Einstein, the next Shakespeare are all children alive right now. Imagine what kind of world they will create. And imagine how fast they will be able to create it. That’s the world our students will live in. That’s the world they will need to be successful in.

As “Did You Know” points out, we are preparing our students to enter a world with jobs that don’t yet exist, which use technologies that haven’t yet been invented to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet. So how can we possibly predict what to teach, what they will need to be successful?

Just like we can reasonably assume they will all need to know how to read and how to speak, we can reasonably assume that technology will be a large part of all of our students’ lives.

Here is where so many teachers become overwhelmed, unsure of what to do. They pick one project, one piece of software, and spend months teaching their students all the ins and outs of PowerPoint or iMovie or Word. But this is where we fail our students. In a future with mobile projectors and touch-screen everything, do you really think all they’ll need to know is PowerPoint?

We clearly can’t teach our students how to use every piece of hardware and software on the market now, much less those that will be available in the future. But we don’t teach our students to read every book they’ll ever encounter either.

No, we teach them phonics, grammar, comprehension – the skills they’ll need to read everything they’ll ever encounter.

We must approach technology instruction in the same manner. We should focus on skill acquisition. What is it that they will, no doubt, need to be able to do in this new world? And, more importantly, how the hell will we teach it to them?

Again, I return to David Warlick. In his book, Redesigning Literacy for the 21st Century, he outlines what he refers to as the four Es. He claims that in the technological age, students will need to be able to:

  • expose truth
  • employ information
  • express ideas compellingly
  • act ethically

Expose truth

When we were younger, we did our research in libraries and textbooks, so that’s what our teachers taught us to use. We learned the Dewey Decimal System and card catalogues. But we never learned to question our sources. Why would we need to question an encyclopedia that had been edited by experts? The world of information is a very different place now.

Exposing truth means that students need to learn how find specific information from the seemingly infinite availability of knowledge on the Internet. They must be able to understand this information, in all formats (blogs, images, podcasts, videos). They need to evaluate whether the information is reliable – a tall order with Internet sources. Finally, they must be able to organize this electronic information within a Web browser or personal e-library.

Employ information

Math geeks rejoice! Technology allows us to interact with numbers in a format never before seen. Take, for example, Buzztracker, which displays the day’s news on a world map – the larger the dot, the greater percentage of news articles filed from that city. Check out the archive, and look up dates like August 28 – September 7, 2005. Start on the 28th, and keep clicking “tomorrow” to scroll through the dates. How does the news shift? Why does it shift on those dates? This is employing information in a way that can help us better understand our history. For a truly remarkable demonstration of employing information, check out Hans Rosling’s poverty presentation at TED.

Express ideas compellingly

We know there’s a ridiculous amount of information available on the Internet. Just this week’s New York Times papers contain more information than Thomas Jefferson came across in his lifetime. In such an ocean, it’s easy for facts to get lost. Our students will mature in a world where their voice is almost guaranteed to be lost in the crowd. Unless we teach them how to make themselves heard. This is where expressing ideas compellingly comes into play, and it’s one of the most easily integrated technology skills on the list. (It also makes classroom presentation day A LOT more entertaining.)

I met a high school teacher named Marco Torres a couple of years ago. One of his economics students asked him about the World Trade Organization protests she’d seen on the news and, like any great teacher, Marco suggested she find her own answers as an assignment for him. Rather than writing a paper that only he would read, she decided to create a documentary. The video went viral, and the high school student who made it was contacted by the women’s human rights conference in Paris and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Would that have happened had she simply completed a report?

Act ethically

The final of David Warlick’s 4 Es – ethics – is one of the most obvious skills but, sadly, one that is seldom taught. With each new advance comes the potential for misuse, and we must teach our students to behave responsibly and respectfully when using the tools of the 21st century. Even if we never use technology inside our schools, our students will use it. Just as we teach them to keep their hands to themselves, we need to start having discussions about things like plagiarism, cyber bullying and sexting.

How do I use it?

Having attended countless (and often useless) professional development sessions myself, I know what the next question is: This is all well and good, Katy, but it’s a little abstract. Specifically, how am I going to teach kids to “express ideas compellingly” while still teaching them to multiply 3-digit by 2-digit numbers, to keep their hands to themselves, to write legibly, and to use test-taking strategies?

That’s where this blog comes into play. I hope that in the coming weeks, months and years, Stretch Your Digital Dollar can be a resource for teachers looking for specific, realistic, and cheap ways to integrate teaching technology skills into their everyday classrooms.

From here on out, nearly every blog entry will be divided into three sections:

  1. An overview of some sort of hardware or software that schools can use for little to no money.
  2. Ideas for integrating this technology with specific lesson objectives that are already being taught. I’ll offer at least three lesson ideas: one at an elementary level, one at a middle school level, and one at high school level.
  3. Wherever possible, I’ll also include relevant links to existing lesson plans and student products.

Here’s a sneak peak at what’s to come on Stretch Your Digital Dollar:

  • February 1: The $55 Interactive Whiteboard
  • February 8: One Laptop for Every Student Finally an Affordable Option
  • February 15: From Trash to Treasure: Three Easy Steps to Convert Corporate Garbage into Free Classroom PCs
  • February 22: Use What Their Mamas Gave ’Em: Students’ Cell Phones in Education

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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