Here’s a stunner from the weekend New York Times, in a front-page article, no less: “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” I’m shocked, shocked!

Who in their right mind thinks that spending $5000 per classroom on a whiteboard is going to improve student achievement? It has been an endless parade of technological snake oil in my lifetime: TV! Filmstrips! LCD projectors and powerpoint! Videodiscs! Hyperdecks! Cable TV! Graphic calculators! The Internet!….

Uh, people: it’s a tool, grafted onto a system that doesn’t know what to do with it. Why would these tools make any more difference in deeper learning than moving from pencils to ball point pens or from print books to e-books? I have seen countless lessons using whiteboards and the whole thing is utterly superficial – and unnecessary. It merely replicates low-level lessons using bits and bytes instead of chalk. Look, I love my iPad and I have been a techie and early adopter of technology all my life (remember surround-sound amps and speakers? IBM Selectrics? Had ‘em.), but how will increasing the amount of hardware, software, and information available in and of themselves improve thoughtful and effective learning?

In fact, the overwhelming amount of information now available will surely impede learning for many students in the absence of good teaching grounded in good curriculum. We see this already in the crazy viral urban myths flowing daily through the Internet, and in the breakdown of trustworthy media sources for serious news that leads to people hearing only what they want to hear politically.

Tools don’t drive education; changes in schooling call forth new worthy tools. A good example is the move to modular furniture: it only happened when the pedagogy demanded it, not before. Until and unless we rethink from the ground up what an effective and engaging curriculum is and therefore what kinds of instruction and tools best support it, no cool new tool invented by outsiders to schools will likely make a dent in our medieval model of learning. That won’t stop salespeople from well-heeled companies from making outlandish promises but the problem is not enough caveat emptor: why people buy this stuff puzzles and depresses me.

It’s the Mission and curriculum, stupid. Here’s a sobering reminder from one expert of what is really needed in a technological society, i.e. an education devoted to critical inquiry and evaluation, not just more information:

“The technology of tomorrow requires not millions of lightly-lettered [adults], ready to work in unison at endlessly repetitious jobs,… but [people] who can make critical judgments, who can weave their way through novel environments, who are quick to spot new relationships in the rapidly changing reality. It requires men who, in C. P. Snow’s compelling term, ‘have the future in their bones’.

“The present curriculum and its divisions into airtight compartments is not based on any well thought out conception of contemporary human needs. Still less is it based on any grasp of the future, any understanding of what skills Johnny will require to live in the hurricane’s eye of change. It is based on inertia — and a bloody clash of academic guilds, each bent on aggrandizing its budget, pay scales and status.”

“As for curriculum… instead of assuming that every subject taught today is taught for a reason, should begin from the reverse premise: nothing should be included in the required curriculum unless it can be strongly justified in terms of the future…tens of millions of children today are forced by law to spend precious hours of their lives grinding away at material whose future utility is highly questionable. Anyone who thinks the present curriculum makes sense is invited to explain to an intelligent 14-year-old why algebra or French or any other subject is essential for him. Adult answers are almost always evasive. The reason is simple: the present curriculum is a mindless holdover from the past.”

Who said this? Alvin Toffler, in Future Shock, 40 years ago. The argument is even more compelling today.

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