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May Issue

Vol 29|No 5|May 2019


Are technologies making us smarter? Wiser? More compassionate?

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

My relationship with computers as allies in the business of educating students began back in the late 1960s as I began teaching at the Greenwich Country Day School fresh out of university. The school had the foresight to acquire and install terminals connected to the mainframe at the University of Bridgeport.

That was 50 years ago and the potential of computing to enhance learning was enormous but also virgin territory.

Since then we have seen many foolish and wasteful efforts along with some that were magical and quite beneficial.

Half a century later, it seems worthwhile to pause and reflect upon the impact computers and computing have had upon schools, learning, and the society as a whole.

Smarter?

Almost everyone now owns a smart phone that allows immediate access to Google and the answers to questions of fact, so that friends sitting in a restaurant can fact-check each other during conversations or arguments.

This is no small matter. But being well-informed, factually, is not exactly the same as being "smart" - "having or showing a quick-witted intelligence." Do our minds now show an improved level of imagination, understanding and creativity thanks to our laptops and smart phones?

Sadly, the national test scores for American students (NAEP tests) show little improvement in this regard since 1992. The percentage of students able to read, write and think above the "proficient" level is virtually unchanged.

After several decades of intense focus on improving test scores, less than half of the American students taking the NAEP reading test performed at or above the "proficient" level on the 2017 test. Only 35% of fourth graders and 35% of eighth graders performed at or above the "proficient" level. They would have to be "smarter" to reach higher levels.



How about the general population? Are they smarter thanks to their smart phones? A study conducted by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies suggests that many adults have trouble performing some very basic tasks.

The International Survey of Adult Skills (ISAS) "is designed to assess adults over a broad range of abilities: from simple reading to complex computer-based problem-solving skills. All countries that participated in PIAAC in 2012 assessed the domains of literacy and numeracy in both a paper-and-pencil mode and a computer-administered mode. In addition, some countries assessed problem solving (administered on a computer) as well as components of reading (administered only in a paper-and-pencil mode)."

How did American adults fare when compared to adults in other nations?

Take a look at the data: Fast Facts Adult skills in an international context.

The USA came in behind 13 nations in Literacy, behind 19 nations in Numeracy, and behind 18 nations in Problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

How could this be after all the money we have spent equipping schools, classrooms, homes and offices with computers and other technologies?

If we wished improved thinking and problem-solving abilities thanks to these devices, we would have to devote far more time and energy to what educators would call "metacognition" - thinking about thinking - showing students how to employ mind-mapping and synthesis strategies to build meaning rather than surrendering to Google's view of truth. It may be that the technologies have unwittingly induced a kind of mental laziness. It is now easy to find answers. Why teach students to build their own?

In many American school districts, little money was spent on professional development to equip teachers to use the technologies in this powerful manner. Most of the money was devoted to the purchase of equipment and the installation of networks. Teaching metacognition was no priority.

Wiser?

Is it too much to ask that students leave school with a dose of wisdom? The Serenity Prayer quoted below sets a high bar.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

In the 1990s, many schools explored programs like Costa and Kallick's Habits of Mind intended to help students reach for wisdom and understanding:

  • Persisting

  • Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision

  • Managing impulsivity

  • Gathering data through all senses

  • Listening with understanding and empathy

  • Creating, imagining, innovating

  • Thinking flexibly

  • Responding with wonderment and awe

  • Thinking about thinking (metacognition)

  • Taking responsible risks

  • Striving for accuracy

  • Finding humor

  • Questioning and posing problems

  • Thinking interdependently

  • Applying past knowledge to new situations

  • Remaining open to continuous learning

Unfortunately, notions like educating "the whole child" and "Habits of Mind" have been pretty much discarded as the USA spent two decades committed to a corporate approach to school reform engineered by folks like Bill Gates who had no true grasp of schooling and learning. Central to these efforts was a focus on testing, accountability and fear.

What was missing? Capacity building! There was little funding for the professional development that would equip teachers to shift practice in promising directions.

The people engineering these "reforms" often had little experience making change and improvement in schools and arrogantly assumed their corporate experience was sufficient and appropriate. Their failures have proved them wrong. And their lack of wisdom is now evident. They probably never read or understood the Serenity Prayer above.

Schools are not factories and children are not hamburgers.

For the past 16 years, the USA has devoted far too much energy to "high stakes testing" as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act and then to the Core Standards which were intended to lift the performance of students on challenging thinking tasks. Despite this focus, results have been disappointing and the whole issue of wisdom has gained little attention.

More compassionate?

The health and well-being of a society depends upon the capacity of its citizens to understand and care about others. Without this caring and compassion, life can become a "dog eat dog" struggle with civility in retreat as I outlined in my 2017 article, "What good is civility?"

American publications are currently filled with articles lamenting the polarization and viciousness of public discourse as leaders from the President on down indulge in attack and insult rather than seeking harmony and common ground. To be polite is seen as being weak.

Social media is often blamed for this shift in behavior, as today's gladiators trade barbs with poisoned-tipped Tweets and decency takes a back seat to hostility.

How can schools exhort students to act honorably and kindly when a nation's leaders set such a poor example?

When the Internet first burst on the scene there were some who predicted a "golden age" of understanding encouraged by the ease with which citizens of all nations might communicate. This hope has proven, unfortunately, to be wishful thinking. Proximity can lead to contempt, sadly.

There are some schools, fortunately, that tackle this challenge head on by integrating good values into their programs. International Baccalaureate schools, for example, are firmly committed to compassion, understanding and community building:

IB learners strive to become inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective. These attributes represent a broad range of human capacities and responsibilities that go beyond intellectual development and academic success. Source

Other schools may adopt programs such as CHARACTER COUNTS:

. . . utilizes its Six Pillars of Character: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship and The Six Success Skills or performance values and traits: Learning, Self-Discipline, Positivity, Perseverance, Resilience and Diligence as foundational strategies while incorporating other nation’s best-practices and methodologies. Besides emphasizing and promoting a focus on positive school climate, other defining elements of CHARACTER COUNTS! are intensive decision-making strategies, mindfulness, growth mindset and behavioral change theories.

It should be noted that some of these character education programs have been accused of indoctrination aimed at creating docile and cooperative students rather than thoughtful young ones capable of handling ambiguity, dilemmas and complexity. Good programs nurture decision-making and reasoning powers rather than the memorization of maxims (a short, pithy statement expressing a general truth or rule of conduct.)

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