10/28/2010 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nurture Human Talents

Work in an urban school district, and you quickly realize the reality of these words:

"Economically disadvantaged students, who often use the computer for remediation and basic skills, learn to do what the computer tells them, while more affluent students, who use it to learn programming and tool applications, learn to tell the computer what to do. Those who cannot claim computers as their own tool for exploring the world never grasp the power of technology...They are controlled by technology as adults--just as drill-and-practice routines controlled them as students."

Source: Toward Digital Equity: Bridging the Divide in Education

I learned this lesson working in a smaller urban school district as a bilingual/ESL teacher. The lesson there, put kids in front of computers so that they can be drilled in grammar. After all, drill-n-practice in grammar would surely translate into gains for writing and speaking proficiency. NOT!

"In my eyes," shares Robert Peterson, "many children in urban America are oppressed by a few key institutions: school, family, and community." How do we accomplish this in schools while at the same time congratulating ourselves that we're doing well? Well, let's take a look.

It's important to review the long-standing research.

"Independent studies of integrated learning system technologies have subsequently confirmed that learning discrete skills in isolation does little to support students in transferring knowledge to other domains of experience. This lack of transferability of skills from integrated learning system performance to other tasks is well-documented in the research literature."(NCREL, 2002)

"Machines are not as effective as live teachers; ILS teaching is too mechanical, too impersonal; Pupils will find ILS instruction boring and repetitive, and thus can lose their motivation to learn; ILS can teach routine skills but they cannot teacher higher order thinking skills or conceptual thinking." (White, 1993)

"Low socio-economic status (SES) schools with predominately minority populations used their computers to administer drill and practice computer-based instruction. Low SES schools with predominately white populations preferred to use computers with their higher-achieving students to teach programming and computer skills." (Balajthy, 1989)

As you can see from the bolded section above, as well as the quote from Toward Digital Equity, the observation that technology is often used for drill-n-kill with low socio-economic groups of students. Allow me to put this plainly -- we are referring to Americans of African, Hispanic descent, a point emphasized by this quote from this Educational Insanity blog post:

"Overall, African-American students are much more likely to use computers to practice or drill on math facts than White students. Given the significant achievement gap that exists, these differences partly explain why, overall, the there is a negative correlation between using computers to practice or drill on math facts and math achievement."

The names of the drill-n-practice, tutorial tools don't even matter anymore. They've been passed like hot potatoes from one large company to another. What DOES matter is how educators in schools continue to use technology to DOMESTICATE children rather than EMPOWER them. Every time we sit a child down in front of a computer and expect it to drill them on a skill, we are teaching them to be obedient (and that it is good to be so), not ask questions but to answer them.

Worse, since drill-n-kill programs make an end-run around reputedly incompetent teachers, it is children in public schools--rather than private, elitist charter schools -- that end up suffering computer disempowerment.

Patrick Finn writes in his book, Literacy with an Attitude, the following:

"First, there is empowering education, which leads to powerful literacy, the kind of literacy that leads to positions of power and authority. Second, there is domesticating education, which leads to functional literacy, literacy that makes a person productive and dependable but not troublesome. Over time, political, social and economic forces have brought us to a place where the working class (and to a surprising degree, the middle class) gets domesticating education and functional literacy, and the rich get empower education and powerful literacy. We don't worry about a literate working class because the kind of literacy they get doesn't make them dangerous."

This is exactly the kind of education I saw time and again as I travelled from district to district as a classroom teacher, campus instructional technology coordinator and district instructional technology specialist, and regional education specialist. As I've read Finn's book, I am amazed at how well it explains my experiences as a bilingual educator who often found himself in portable buildings with his class. Consider this statement:

"Powerful literacy involves creativity and reason -- the ability to evaluate, analyze and synthesize what is is also the ability to write one's ideas so that another person can understand them."

For me, this is creativity, which students seldom have the opportunity to develop in schools because dangerous literacy students in schools today can get teachers' fired.

Just get along, just support the economic model, but don't rock the boat. That's the message our schools send when we teach writing and focus on mechanics, and in math when we teach facts and formulas without context and engaging problem-solving opportunities.

Steve Hargadon, along with a growing cabal of education bloggers, emphasize that The Internet is becoming a platform of unparalleled creativity....Customization, Collaboration and Creation are the New Model.

Sounding the alarm for society to salvage creativity, the venerable Sir Ken Robinson reminds us to not set limits on human gifts:

"Human talent is deep, diverse, and extraordinarily rich...Education should expose and develop that...We assume that talent is identified and nurtured by education...However, countless people go through the whole of their education without discovering/ connecting with their true elemental talents and ability. That is because education was designed to do something else..."

Finn writes something that is particularly fascinating, a sentence my eyes slipped over without reading and then I was pulled up short:

"We engage in dozens of political acts and make dozens of political statements in our classrooms every day that support the status quo. We don't think of them as political because they are not controversial."

Oppressing our offspring...could just as easily be empowering our educators to deal with these topics, to move beyond drill-n-kill to create-n-collaborate. Isn't it time we changed the reality in schools today with actions that nurture human talent rather than force it along passionless, obsolete areas of study?