Huffpost Education

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Thompson Headshot

How Long Can the Bubble-in Mania Last?

Posted: Updated:

It is sad that technology has been imposed on urban schools in such a dubious way that the New Jersey teachers union had to challenge the legality of Merit Prep charter school in court. It is even sadder that advocates of "blended learning" would fill up a cafeteria full of low-income 11-year-olds, putting them to work on computer tutorials. The Hechinger Report's "In New Jersey, Teachers Union Fights Blended Learning" buried the lede. The saddest point is that even advocates of this technology acknowledge that middle class families and older students would reject Merit's emphasis on drills.

It fell to Richard Colvin to comment:

It's unfortunate that the enormous potential of digitization to create environments that give them nearly infinite opportunities to be creative, curious problem-solvers who apply and gain disciplinary knowledge as they play and work is being squandered on drills and digital work sheets.

How did we get here? How did we get to the point where schools would admittedly be experimenting on low-income children? It is hard enough to understand how we got to the 21st century and we still have high-stakes standardized testing forcing drill-and-kill on students. But, why are our technological miracles being devoted to command and control, as opposed to liberating children's minds?

In the early 1960s, as America was passing the Soviet Union in the space race, my elementary school offered the great adventure of bringing us to the junior high when introducing something exceptionally important. I vividly remember that we were brought there for a documentary about the 21st century. It predicted that the standard workweek would be less than 20 hours. That is why school should not be seen as a matter of dollars and cents. Our principal reinforced the message that schooling was about exchanging ideas, creativity and better improving the quality of our lives in all the leisure time we would be enjoying.

Ok, he was wrong on the economics, but he was right on the pedagogy. That was the era of Pax Americana. Our conservative town was not a hotbed of progressive education. We just assumed that the goal was for everyone to have the opportunity to think critically and problem-solve.

Young people today may not have the same confidence in the future but, still, their energy could revitalize our troubled urban schools. In the 1960s, the Peace Corps provided both a challenge and an opportunity to serve. Today, Teach for America draws on the same idealism. Too often, however, the TFA ideology has stressed a macho approach to fighting poverty. The two-year commitment allows for a demonstration that the candidate has what it takes to survive urban schools, in order to move to Wall Street and/or brass knuckled edu-politics.

Instead, we need a Computer Gaming for America for 20-somethings who could coach students in developing creative software programs. We need a Social Networking for America for teaching the skills, and ethics, necessary for a digital democracy. Rather than drilling students for high-stakes bubble-in tests, why can't recent college graduates guide projects where inner city students are given real challenges -- such as reinventing the automobile or designing green cities?

Sadly, our post-modern age has not found a way around the dictum, "To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." As long as we are obsessed with primitive standardized test "outcomes," technology will primarily be used as a weapon. As long as computer systems are used to keep score in the educational blame game, they will not be able to help liberate children's minds.

But, once again, the times they could be a-changin. After Sputnik, we had a spasm of standardized testing and fear-based decision-making. It is hard to believe that today's punitive use of standardized testing is seen as anything other than cruel. It is impossible to believe that a society which has created such digital miracles will not soon relegate those primitive metrics to the ash heap of history. Soon, I anticipate, creative young digital natives will be invited into our schools and we will follow their lead in nurturing sense of intellectual, social and creative adventure in schools that have endured all the rote instruction that educators and students can stand.