Better Technology, Better Schools?

imageIn critical ways, technology has transformed how we live. This has been true, in a sense, for more than two centuries or since the Industrial Revolution gained full steam, but never more so than in the recent period as new developments and their application have come rapidly.

Technological developments have not been in the form of huge pieces of equipment that can accomplish more efficiently what previously required more workers. A distinguishing characteristic of the new technology is smallness in the form of ever-tinier chips that can do wondrous things, as well as in phenomena we refer to as virtual. The economic and societal implications of these innovations are enormous; they are perhaps the primary reasons why economic improvement may not result in comparable employment growth.

In tandem with what technology has wrought in the larger economy are developments that impact on how we go about our daily chores. Cell phones are making land-based phones obsolete, and they also can serve as cameras and minicomputers. When we get monthly statements from our banks, we now receive digitalized tiny versions of the checks we wrote, not the originals. The Internet provides nearly all the information we need and a lot that we do not need. Then there is social networking, now the rage among the young, that allows for the electronic trappings of connectedness that is devoid of emotional connection, so that the greater the reliance on networking, the greater the degree of alienation. Knowing tons of people superficially is a poor substitute for the comfort of knowing a small number of people well.

Whatever the consequences of technology, schools and classrooms have not been full participants in the parade, as they have been scarcely affected by the wonders that technology brings. There are, of course, Smart Boards that can bring excitement to a classroom, and few schools are worthy of respect unless they have invested heavily in computers that somehow are utilized in the educational process. It would be a stretch to say that the school/classroom arrangement is at the end of the first decade of the new millennium a faithful replica of what existed a generation ago.

For all of the new equipment, at the elementary and secondary levels, however, formal education substantially resembles what it looked like in 1980. Teachers face students in classrooms, giving lessons and asking and taking questions. Students have textbooks, some that they shlep home. There are assignments, tests and grades, as well as rules mandating attendance and proper behavior, extra-curricular activities and so on. Why do our schools appear to be backward in employing technology, a question that has urgency because of the financial constraints facing most schools, as well as the reality that the traditional classroom configuration and school curriculum do not result in educational success for a great number of students?

What is perplexing about the status quo quality of basic education is that there have been confident predictions, including by respected scholars, that schools and classrooms will imminently be transformed by technology so that the familiar pattern of children sitting at desks with open books will be replaced by arrangements that rely heavily on the Internet and allow for more individualized instruction.

The conventional classroom arrangement provides multiple benefits that may be lost if technology becomes dominant, in much the same way that technology can have a baneful effect on other social interactions. The virtual world is with us and can be utilized for good, yet there will be an emotional void if it comes to replace the more direct way in which people interact. Education is a learning experience, an intellectual experience, yet it is also a social experience and an emotional experience. What a teacher can accomplish in a classroom cannot be replaced or duplicated by machines or chips. Students, especially younger students, need teachers who can facilitate the process of socialization, which is a key goal of all basic education.

A teacher in a classroom can sense at times how the home environment is affecting a child, which may lead to successful intervention that is beneficial. A teacher in a classroom can pick up health problems, emotional or physical, and here too, intervention will be beneficial. There are numerous other examples of how the familiar classroom arrangement can accomplish societal goals that may well be lost if education comes to rely on technology as the primary instrumentality of instruction.

This isn’t a plea for a hyper-conservative approach to education. It is to say that in welcoming the new, we must not reject too much of the old.
Education is not a static experience that is impervious to change. There should be an extended role in the classroom for technology, if only because it already is a huge presence in the lives of many children. The challenge is to integrate technology into formal education—a challenge that is difficult for financial and other reasons.

The discussion of technology and basic education should include these points:

1. At the suggestion of a friend, more than a year ago I read Chaos in the Classroom, (Durham, NC, 2008)a widely read book by a noted scholar who was certain that a brave new educational world was in the making. The author asserted that soon the long-standing classroom configuration would be replaced by technology-centered education that allowed students to focus on what they wanted to learn and study in settings that, to one extent or another, were of their choosing. The “chaos” in the title was borrowed from physics and was meant to suggest that change would not be incremental.
False prophecy is not new; nor are visions of utopia that never took root on this earth. Decades ago there were popular publications confidently predicting monumental life-changing technological innovations, such as moving sidewalks in the sky where pedestrians could stroll and shop. The lesson is simple, whether for education or other experiences: All societies change, and every century or two there may be cataclysmic changes but anyone who is waiting for the Big Bang to occur is apt to be disappointed. This is especially true in education.

2. As grade level rises, so do opportunities for experimentation and individualized instruction. Pre-school and the lower grades need to be as they are, but from the middle school onward, technology can allow for the breaking away, to an extent, from the familiar classroom pattern, provided that the classroom and the teacher remain central to the educational experience.

3. Education is inherently conservative; it need not be static. It isn’t a good idea to retain all that is merely because this is the path of least resistance. There is a vital need to reexamine curriculum, to ask and challenge whether what is being taught is needed or can be improved on. One example is the inclusion of geometry in the high school mathematics curriculum. In all candor, I asked this question sixty years ago while a student at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School taking a geometry class.

History, which I taught at the junior high school and high school levels for a couple of years while pursuing my doctorate, is another subject desperately in need of reexamination. The teaching of history is too much a rote experience rooted in textbooks that aren’t sufficiently challenging. What’s the point about memorizing scads of facts? So that if the student ever appears on a quiz show he or she will be a whiz?

4. Whatever improvements can or should be made and whether they are through technology or other vehicles of reform, it is well to be mindful of the truth that the reach of our schools and teachers is limited. There is an obligation to examine and explore better ways of doing things. At the end of the day, it remains that there is a world out there that is largely apart from the schools and, at times, antithetical to what education seeks to accomplish. This world includes dysfunctions in family life and the powerful attraction of out-of-school experiences that impel too many of our young away from the necessary commitment to study and educational growth. Teachers must always try to reach out to students, yet we must not blame our schools for failures that occur in the larger society, and these failures will not be remedied by better technology.

Technology is an issue for Jewish schools, but of far less centrality than it is for public schools and private schools. One reason is financial. Nearly all of our yeshivot and day schools are hard-pressed to meet their obligations and, as yet, governmental funds are not available in any meaningful way to assist our schools if they want to purchase what technology offers.

A second factor arises from the nature of the curriculum. A Smart Board may make the study of Gemara (or another Judaic subject) more exciting, but it is a certainty that our religious study will remain, as it has been for many generations, text-oriented, with students studying the same religious books that previous generations of students have studied. Secular studies are admittedly different, and there has been modest progress in utilizing technology in many schools because of the assistance received from the Gruss Foundation. Even so, except perhaps in the handful of affluent day schools, what exists in our schools is a pale shadow of what is found in a great number of public schools.

On top of this, there is the question of appropriateness, meaning the fear that technology and the access that it provides can be utilized in ways that are contrary to the values and mission of Torah education. This is a larger subject that transcends school walls because life transcends school walls. There are ample reasons for educators to be concerned about what is available to their students. However that question is resolved, it remains that yeshivot and day schools will be hesitant about technological change even if funds were available.

Dr. Marvin Schick has served for thirty-eight years as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph (RJJ) School, a voluntary position. He is senior advisor to the Avi Chai Foundation and writes frequently on Jewish communal life. This article is reprinted with permission from the RJJ Newsletter (November 2010).

This article was featured in the Spring 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
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