Thursday, March 28, 2013

Deus ex Machina: Saving Public K-12?

Can technology recharge American public education?  In spite of naïve punditry seeking to brand the evolution of technology in US public education as “magical thinking,” there is a strong case that pursuit offers a better chance of effective change than present reform.

But to even address the technology question requires positioning the major forces, or in cases inertia, that put American public schools in the cross-hairs of both a politically liberal administration, and ironically and simultaneously, of political conservative extremism.  Though the behind-the-scenes motivations for the thrusts may be complex to obscure, both sides now threaten the very goal they give lip service, creating more effective Pre K-12 learning.  It has been politically incorrect to speak to the realities that provoked NCLB and its progeny, but for understanding how technology might drive school improvement a prerequisite.

The question our media refuse to ask, or do so sotto voce:  Why did NCLB finally blossom, and why is a convoluted reform agenda being despotically superimposed on the nation’s public schools.  A full explanation is not that our alleged reformers are simply power driven ideologues.  One answer is that America’s public schools some time ago ceased to evolve in addressing contemporary knowledge and technological change – in sum failing for decades.  

For example, large scale and cost effective digital computing emerged beyond the Univacs in Census and the Defense Department over a half-century ago.   While adoption life cycles for new technology can range as high as 10 to 20 years, US public education must be classified in Rogers’ scheme as “laggards.”

The whys of public K-12 inertia are complex and may have more to do with the scale and complexity of that system’s infrastructure, systems theory, state leadership failures, the formats of local system oversight, collegiate education failure, and bureaucracy’s inherent flaws, than the integrity of most teachers and administrators.  But it is also not rocket science to perceive a massive contradiction in present reform, flogging public school teachers based on simplistic testing to extract systemic change, when the quality of leadership and management of public schools is flawed by human resource failures. Trying to reform public K-12 by only addressing teachers, without recognizing the concomitant need to reform school administration and board oversight is a fool's definition of a mission.

Obviously there is enormous complexity within the above scenarios.  So it is even less credible that a one-size-fits-all, and even more factory-oriented solution to public school reform is driving policy and tactics.  A last irony, the forms that alleged reform has taken now promise national disruption of a century of some evolving critical thought and problem solving via our schools, and at precisely the time in history, with knowledge and technologies increasing logistically, that the US needs a strategically aware and creative next generation.  That should scare the bejeebers out of the public education bureaucracy, its reformers, and aware parents, or perhaps all of us?

How does technology alter this conundrum?

Consider the core question, if the premise is that the goal of evolution of public schools is installation of high order thinking skills (HOTS).  What components of the Pre K-12 infrastructure model could be changed to affect greater learning outcomes?  Pragmatically, there are a limited number of factors sufficiently comprehensive and massive to nudge the 99,000 US public schools to a different place or level.  Not mutually exclusive:  Reduction in socioeconomic and cultural diversity powered by a more inclusive middle-income class; comprehensive change in the oversight of schools; re-education of a large fraction of over three million teachers; re-education and/or development of tens of thousands of school administrators to create more competent leadership and management; a trillion dollar increase of investment in all public schools; a sea-change in parental beliefs and values relative to many K-12 systems' aversion to real learning; the simplistic and untested assumption more standardized testing and penalties for teachers will stimulate HOTS; or more comprehensive applications of technology.

Equally pragmatically, and even without detailed assessment of how each of the first seven factors’ mass and internal structure block change, common sense and history mitigate against their remediation in less than multiple decades.  The proposition that bullying students and teachers with even more intrusive simplistic testing will ramp up learning beyond short-term memory of deconstructed knowledge fragments, and suddenly materialize education equity really is “magical thinking.”  Seeking technology solutions to enhance learning seems less a reach, but is not a free lunch.

Note this is a question even more basic than whether an education system finds a way to integrate technology into its pedagogical processes.  The nasty content question inside the process question is, if our public schools have inadequate mastery of technology, how do they create that learning in their clients and required to survive in a world that will become increasingly technologically driven by the time they enter its practice?  Public education appears to have missed the reality that it exists on technology:  Language, Gutenberg, graphics, black-green-or-whiteboards, the copying machine, transistors, calculators, the minimal statistical logic to keep score, actually understanding how learning occurs neural biologically as well as socially, the psychological modeling of teacher-student interaction processes that enable teaching, the experimental and math technologies to test pedagogies, and on?  Where was the progression of technology learning by our public schools short-circuited?

The technology pundit’s convenient ridicule of schools that spend millions of dollars on pads or laptops, or any other gadget isn’t misplaced, but terribly trite.  Any system that can’t envision technology beyond “stuff,” systems that invest without a glimmer of intelligence or awareness that it is not the hardware but the processes it enables, deserves not ridicule but replacement.  The technology now emerging from every conceptual discipline launching technology, from neural biology, through AI, miniaturization of technologies, social tools evolution, to quantum computing promises game changers in communication, learning protocols, and productivity.  But the devil gets an advocate. 

School systems that lack the intellectual capacity to see, and merge technology enhancements with the human component of learning, both from the effects of technology in mediating the learner’s senses that feed then permit neural plasticity, and that leverage the ministrations of a teacher, will misuse and waste technology.  Coming full circle, most of our public Pre K-12 schools are presently as well equipped to integrate advanced technologies into either curricula or classroom rubrics as they were adroit in recognizing the need for self-reform decades ago.  That suggests the issue is not “magical thinking” but the need for an Edisonian revival and some guts.

It is axiomatic, from the logic of science through how work gets done, that a prerequisite to achievement is true goal definition.  In the paraphrase of Lewis Carroll’s words in Alice in Wonderland – singularly pertinent in viewing present public Pre K-12 reform – “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” 

If the goal of public Pre K-12 reform embodies only test scores and phony state grades, Carroll’s wit may be the epitaph for America’s public schools?

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