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Lawrence Summers Gives Great Keynote at NY Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference

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How is technology going to change the classroom? That was the number one question being discussed at the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference held yesterday, September 22 in the Times Center.

Four hundred invited attendees including distinguished policy makers, entrepreneurs, and educators came up with a variety of answers.

Dr. Lawrence H.Summers, former President of Harvard, gave an insightful keynote address in which he talked about how technology will change education.

Summers made three main points.

His first point was with technology we will have vastly improved educational materials. We will be able to differentiate instruction more easily. The potential is there and it will be coming.

His second point was that technology is going to change what people need to be educated about. Education is going to be more about processing information, than knowing information. People no longer need to memorize large bodies of information because today information is available at your fingertips on your mobile phone or on your computer. Learning to access that information and process it is the key. In Greek times, people memorized large amounts of material because that was the only way to access them.

He gave an example that soon a time will come soon when you can talk into a phone in one language and the phone will translate for you into a language of your choice. That will reduce the need to learn another language, but language study will still be important to really understand a culture.

His third main point was that what it means to be skillful is going to change; that is, the way in which our minds work and the way in which we collaborate is going to change. School is going to be about and should be about developing the capacity fo collaborate and to build distinctive individual strength. We need classes that teach collaboration and build individual strengths.

Dr. Summers also said that as a country we stunningly underappreciate public school teachers. He elaborated saying how he went to an elementary school classroom of his child and was overwhelmed by the skills required to engage 30 small children from 8 to 3 every day.

Some other important messages of the day came from Harri Skog, Finnish Secretary of the Ministry of Education to talked about the importance of respecting teachers, giving them the freedom to teach as they see fit and supporting their work. He said that technology was not as the highest levels in Finland but that teachers were encouraged to use it if it fit with their teaching plans. He emphasized that technology will not replace teachers. "Technology is a good servant but not a master," he said.

Similar ideas were expressed by Horn Mun Cheah, Director of Educational Technology, Ministry of Education, Singapore who focused on the importance of good school leaders and a supporting infrastructure for teachers. His question was can kids do better if they are supported with technology. If the answer is yes, then they use technology. He also asked if the scores on the PISA test were really representative of the kind of skills and knowledge that kids need in the global economy today. A good question.

In response to a question, Dr. Summers said that indicators and measures in education were very important but that when they become the point, they become the problem. He cited the NCLB issue and the number of districts and teachers that have been caught cheating, and the teachers who focus on teaching to the test. "We need to find ways of achieving accountablility that does not torture the process, " he said.

New York Times columnist David Brooks moderated the first session and brought up his concern about technology undermining the authority in the classroom. In fact, many people felt that this was was a good development in the classroom. They felt that the role of teachers in the 21st century had changed and that learning was more of a collaborative process between the teacher and the students. They favored the democratization of education which allows students to collaborate and learn independently using the Internet as a source of information.

There were many more interesting speakers and sessions and they can all be found at http://www.nytschoolsfortomorrow.com