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The Chandler classroom conundrum

by Alan Markow, published

It’s hard to tell whether Chandler, Arizona’s popular technology-driven classroom program is the wave-of-the-future, an expensive failure or something in between.  According to the New York Times:

“The class, and the Kanye School District as a whole, offer what some see as a utopian vision of education’s future. Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject.”

Thus far, standardized tests show Chandler’s schools performing no better in math and English studies than its traditional Arizona counterparts.  This would come as no surprise to the late Dr. David Ausubel, leading light of the school of cognitive thought structure, who believed in teaching children rather than letting them experiment their way to knowledge.

In one Chandler class, the Times notes:

“…students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.”

Dr. Ausubel, who died in 2008, believed that to learn, a student must be given a set of “advanced organizers” on which to build new knowledge.  And the most efficient way to provide that teaching is the traditional pedagogical approach of the lecture.  While it sounds boring, it works when put in the hands of skilled instructors.  Technology can be helpful as an adjunct, but is rarely able to replace basic teaching.  But that’s not the case in Chandler.  Again, from the Times article:

“The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.”

If Chandler proves out to be an expensive failure, it will be because the schools have skipped the basic steps of presenting advanced organizers and lectures in favor of experimentation.

But the emotional belief in technology has become nearly a religion in learning, and the lack of proof that technology alone works is ignored in the same manner that Governor Rick Perry chooses to ignore the fact that his abstinence only teaching program doesn’t work in Texas.  When confronted with statistics showing that teen pregnancies have increased since the state began its abstinence only program, Perry told a television audience, “From my own personal life experience, abstinence only teaching works.”

While there were gasps and giggles from the audience, and likely sneers from the kinds of intellectuals who populate the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pay attention to the eerily similar words of Mark Share, head of technology for Arizona’s Kyrene School District, when he asked voters to spend $46.3 million on technology with no proof of effectiveness:

“If we know something works, why wait?”

Dr. Ausubel must be rolling over in his grave

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