Reading thousands of articles about schools and education and learning over the past decades has honed what I’ll call a “what they really mean” responder in my head. It’s the little piece of brain software that triggers every time I come across a quote or a description that leaves something out, some snippet of context that is obviously present but just gets ignored.
Here’s an example from a post in the Hechinger Report from last week discussing the distraction caused by cellphones and smartphones in the classroom:
“On the one hand, we know that most students bring a mini-supercomputer to school every day, a device with vast potential for learning. On the other hand, just how and even if smartphones might help students learn remains a troubling question.”
On the surface, that quote doesn’t make much sense, does it? We know that smartphones are learning tools, but we don’t know if they are learning tools. Seems like a contradiction. It makes more sense when you figure out “what they really mean,” which is that smartphones are great devices for kids to learn stuff they are interested in, but when in comes to learning school stuff, we struggle to see the connection. And so, as is the case in this article, we start looking for reasons to ban them outright. (Thankfully, the author provides a fairly balanced debate about that.)
But hand-wringing about smart phones misses the bigger concern, that of the modern relevance of our curriculum. And I emphasize “our.” We situate success or failure of almost any technology or pedagogy in terms of achieving mastery (of some sort) over the subject matter, the stuff, which all too often is delivered in isolated pieces with little connection to the real world. It’s a classic case, again, of trying to figure out how a technology can help us do the wrong thing right, when the right thing would be to start where the learner is rather than asking them to start where we are.
As Roger Schank wrote a few days ago:
The problem in education is simple enough folks. It’s boring. It is irrelevant to the interests and needs of most kids. They don’t need to learn classical Greek or ancient history. They should be encouraged to learn what they want to learn. Could we do something radical and ask kids what they want to learn how to do and then help them learn how to do it?”
Perhaps if we did that, we’d have an easier time of figuring out the value of smartphones in the classroom.