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November Issue

Vol 30|No 2|November 2019



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Technology for the sake of technology

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

I have been warning about technology for the sake of technology for more than two decades, calling this foolish approach to educational planning "toolishness." A 2001 cartoon said it well.

Toolishness . . .

There are no global boundaries when it comes to toolishness.

It has spread far and wide . . . a fondness for tools that transcends purpose and utility . . . as when folks grab a hammer to paint a flower just because they like hammers or because hammers are trendy or when they allow a computer to speak for them to an audience instead of telling their stories with a natural voice or when people turn to search engines to find truths more likely to reside in books or their own hearts.

Toolishness is closely associated with other terms such as Foolishness, PowerPointlessness, MicroSoftness, Mentalsoftness™, Disneyfication, Edutainment and Infotainment.

Pedagogy trumps technology

While it should be obvious to those who have worked with students, employing cool tools without powerful teaching strategies (pedagogy) gets you "same old - same old." No progress! Most districts bought the equipment without investing in capacity building - 4-5 days each year of professional development equipping teachers to use these tools to improve students' reading, writing and math performance.

In October 2019, in the USA, the NAEP tests actually showed a decline in performance.

"Across the Board, Scores Drop in Math and Reading for U.S. Students" - US News and World Report

Math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders in the United States dropped since 2017, and the decrease in reading achievement has government researchers particularly concerned.

"Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest performing students are doing worse," Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said during a press call Tuesday.

As reported in the September issue of this journal, "25 years of so-called reform have left almost two thirds of American students still stranded below the proficient level on the NAEP tests and managed to increase the percentage scoring at the proficient level by a meager 8 percentage points. This factory-style, corporate approach to education has robbed children of a balanced curriculum while failing to achieve decent results."

Computers were sold to schools with the promise that they would improve reading, math and writing, but these promises never came true.

One international study reported by US News and World Report showed that "Computer Use in School Doesn't Help Test Scores."

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at computer use among 15-year-olds across 31 nations and regions, and found that students who used computers more at school had both lower reading and lower math scores, as measured by PISA or Program for International Student Assessment. The study, published Sept. 15, 2015, was actually conducted back in 2012, when the average student across the world, for example, was using the Internet once a week, doing software drills once a month, and emailing once a month. But the highest-performing students were using computers in the classroom less than that.


An example of capacity building

We have evidence that student writing improves when their teachers have spent a week or more learning effective pedagodgy.

In March of 2011, I published an article, "Laptop Thinking and Writing" that outlined in considerable detail how student writing might be improved with these tools. In that same article I lamented the elimination by Congress of funding for the National Writing Project, an organization that had been instrumental in supporting professional development for teachers of writing.

Fortunately, in October of 2015, the organization received "new grant funding through the U.S. Department of Education's Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program. With $5.5M awarded for the first year of a three-year program, this investment in NWP's College-Ready Writers Program: Expanding the Reach of Effective Teacher-Leaders to Support All Student . . . "

Evaluation results for this propgram have been quite positive according to a study reported in Education Week: "Popular Writing Program Found to Yield Gains." The program stressed good teaching and learning but did not focus on effective use of writing technologies.

Hopefully, we will see further investment in programs like these, but I hope more schools will show how the "writing as process" approach can benefit from the use of laptops. This process is described in Chapter 2 of my book, available as a companion article to this piece this month. Click here to download a PDF version of this chapter.


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In many schools that use computers for writing, there is little attention paid to the ways electronic text and computers can actually transform and enhance the composition of ideas and paragraphs.

The best professional development for writing would include substantial investment in mind-mapping and idea-processing - a process outlined in my book and in my article, "Connecting the dots."



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