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March Issue

Vol 31|No 4|March 2021

© iStock -------------- you can order Laptop Thinking and Writing here.

Mission Accomplished?

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Some of us were working in schools as teachers and principals when microcomputers first made their appearance in the 1970s, and we can remember some confusion when it came to mission.

Just how would these small computers transform classrooms and learning?

Fans fell into two camps. There were some who saw microcomputers as promising teaching machines that would lift the performance of readers along with math scores. Others argued they were better suited to nurture thinking and problem-solving skills — the computer as tool.

© iStock

Where have all the turtles gone?

If we taught students how to program computers, the reasoning went, they would become more logical thinkers. So some of us trained teachers and students to move turtles around on the screen using LOGO — a computer language advocated by Seymour Papert in his 1980 book, Mindstorms.

Despite lots of enthusiasm, a review of such efforts published in Educational Leadership at that time could find scant evidence that student thinking was actually improved.

The computer as teacher also failed to deliver on the grandiose promises made by its proponents and the companies selling the software.

And then came the Internet

In the mid 1990s the Internet came to schools promising great change. Some of us saw the Web as an opportunity to create what I called "free range students" in a 1998 Phi Delta Kappan article "Grazing the Net: Raising a Generation of Free Range Students".

"The theme of this article is the value of raising young people to think, explore and make meaning for themselves."

At the time I warned that schools would only see benefits if they invested in professional development aimed at nurturing such student thinking.
Will we see dramatic increases in student achievement to justify this investment?

In many cases — those districts which fail to clarify learning goals and fund professional development — the answer will be "No!" There is no credible evidence that networks improve student reading, math or thinking skills unless they are in service of carefully crafted learning programs which show students how to interpret information and make up their own minds.

In the best cases - with the right program planning and robust professional development - schools will use these new tools and resources in ways which will improve student performance on high stakes state tests.
We entered a phase during which being connected was the primary goal. Spending was focused on buying and networking computers as many schools did "technology for the sake of technology." Professional development to stress student thinking and problem-solving was rare.

And then they laptopped schools

For a decade, schools played with a number of foolish ideas. Some argued that filling rooms with laptops would lead to great learning gains. The evidence sugggested otherwise. We went through many years of powerpointlessness and suffered through a new form of plagiarism as students found it easy to cut and paste the thinking of others.

The verdict after forty years

One of the best ways of judging the success in the United States of ventures like No Child Left Behind and the various technology efforts is to look at the scores achieved on the NAEP tests (National Assessment of Educational Progress). If the investment in new technologies had fulfilled its promise, the percentage of students scoring at the higher levels of the Writing Test would have dramatically increased from 1980 to now. One cannot score well on this test without demonstrating logical thought.

Unfortunately, the last time this test was administered nationally was in 2011. The percentage of students scoring at or above the Proficient level at grades 4, 8 and 11 was quite low, as it has been for decades -- reported in the table below. We must turn to the reading test to find more current results.

2011 Writing Assessment Grade 4 Grade 8 Grade 11
Percent Proficient or above

Quoting from the NAEP website:

Nearly 294,000 fourth- and eighth-grade students across the nation participated in the 2019 reading assessment. The 2019 results are compared to 2017 and previous assessments back to the 1990s. Results are available for the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Department of Defense schools, as well as for 27 participating large urban districts.

NAEP Proficient

One of the three NAEP achievement levels, representing solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.

As is true with the writing test, students cannot score at or above proficient on this test unless they are capable of logical thought and inference. The results reported since 1992 show minimal progress, as only a third of the students manage a score of proficient or above.

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Despite the huge investment in technology, the pressures of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standards, the thinking skills and capabilities of American students seem to have stagnated rather than improved.

How could this be? Some of us have complained about a continuing failure to fund professional development so that teachers might employ the new tools in ways that nurtured student thought. Regardless, the data suggest that the mission first intended for microcomputers remains unaccomplished.

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