THE BLOG
10/24/2012 01:09 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

How Quickly Things Fall Off the Cliff

After considering the comments on my recent post and a couple of other interesting reads in other places, I'm going to throw out a scenario here just to see what you think.

What if five years from now, we've moved (or are quickly moving) to a structure of schools that basically offloads almost all rote learning to personalized technology solutions aimed at creating enough mastery in kids to pass some type of examination or quest?

Is that a challenge or an opportunity? Both?

I don't think that's beyond the realm of consideration given the explosion of individuals and corporations and others who are pushing this "flipped" version of teaching, one that is arguably more efficient, more individualized, cheaper and, in some instances, better (in a passing the test sense) than what's available in most classrooms right now. (And please, don't hear me hating on teachers here. Far from it. Just pointing out the realities.) In fact, it's already happening. From yesterday"s piece in USA Today on Rocketship Schools:

At a time when standardized testing is as contentious as ever, Rocketship has doubled-down on testing, using it as a signpost for teachers, not a Scarlet Letter. Guided by test scores, teachers outsource basic skills instruction to a series of computer programs, most of which are digital games.  As students log on in the computer lab, they access what amounts to an individualized skills plan, the day's instruction based on assessments that adjust to their performance.

And then there's the iSchool in New York City. At last year's EduCon, representatives of the school talked of homework being almost solely dedicated to prepping for the test, freeing up the majority of class time for collaborative project work.

And, of course, Yale professors who would pretty much like to get rid of those annoying school things altogether.

Crazy? I don't think so. Remember Clay Christensen's "disruptive innovation" theory? 

Disruption theory argues that a consistent pattern repeats itself from industry to industry. New entrants to a field establish a foothold at the low end and move up the value network—eating away at the customer base of incumbents—by using a scalable advantage and typically entering the market with a lower-margin profit formula.

Education has been able to hold off disruptors as long as access to the stuff of school was scarce. But now? The "low end" is being flooded by "innovators" who are seeking to change structures, change accredidation, change the very definition of teaching and schooling. And our first reaction is, "yeah, but they can't replace the teacher." 

Well, that depends on what your goals are, right?

And here's the other thing: I'm also not sure any of us get how fast this is coming. We've been seduced by the "glacial pace of change of education" into thinking that we still have lots of time to figure it out. But, as Christensen notes about the disruptions that have come to the news industry:

I think we didn’t quite understand, and still don’t really understand, how quickly things fall off the cliff.

And we should think ourselves different here... why? Kodak, anyone? (See reason #1) U.S. Postal Service?

But let me ask again, is this a challenge or an opportunity? I find it hard to argue against the idea that technology may very well be a better vehicle to teach basic skills and content, that it will soon (if not already) deliver that stuff in a personalized, engaging way. And, that if it can do that, we could, like the iSchool, do all sorts of great learning with kids in the classroom. We'd be good with that, right?

So why am I not clicking my heels in glee? 

Because a) I'm not convinced that offloading basic skills as self-paced homework after school is any different from the problems with homework to begin with, problems that Alfie Kohn articulates so well, b) we've set up the evaluation of teachers to be such that they, not technology, are held directly responsible for "student learning" as evidenced by the test, which means we're gonna have to rewrite all that freshly minted policy we've been passing across the country and c) probably most importantly, running inquiry based, student directed, authentic, transparent, bold classrooms is not something most teachers have been prepped for or have deep experience with. By and large, that's not how we're defining "good teachers." And in the end, what good is making time for that stuff if we have a professional staff that through little fault of their own is unprepared to employ it? (Not saying that teachers can't become great inquiry based teachers, by the way. Just saying for most it will require a big shift in thinking and practice.)

Which brings me in this long meandering post to the conversation around Scott McLeod's Struggling With Educator's Lack of Technology Fluency. He writes:

And yet, I continually run into significant numbers of educators who still don’t know how to work their Internet browser. They struggle with copying and pasting. They get confused just clicking between two or three different browser tabs. They don’t conceptually understand the difference between their browser’s Google search box and the box where they can actually type in the URL and get there directly. They have no idea that they can right-click on things like hyperlinks or images. And so on… [And this is just the Internet browser. I'm not even talking about individual software programs or online tools.]  What hope do these teachers have of providing meaningful, technology-rich learning experiences for their students? What hope do these leaders have of creating and adequately supporting powerful, technology-rich learning environments for students and staff? Little to none.

Now add technology-rich inquiry on to that...

No quesiton, we need to support teachers in this change. We need to tell them at every turn that they matter, and that the role they play in kids' lives is irreplacable, not because it's lip service, but because it's true. And we need to carve out whatever time and technology and support that we can to help them move their practice to become more fluent with the changes in tools and pedagogies.

But we also need to be clear. This is not an option, and if the institution can't or won't make the commitment to change, educators have to make the commitment for themselves anyway. I'm not pushing hard on those who are just waking up to these changes and sincerely didn't have the broader context for what's happening. But I am pushing hard on those who do know the world is changing but choose to either ignore it or, as my friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says, be pitiful as opposed to being powerful. We need individuals to be powerful right now. We need to say to those teachers who are still in  a decades old mindset "we need you to be powerful right now. Take a year, take two if you need to, but move. I'll help. We'll help. But You. Must. Change."

I think we didn’t quite understand, and still don’t really understand, how quickly things fall off the cliff.

We'd better start.