Tuesday, April 3, 2012


My fellow Americans, I wrote about this terrible law three times already, and sure enough, it’s time for number four. Laugh or cry, every one of these posts told about well-intended folks who made American education worse by trying to make it better.

To recap, Part One featured twisted tales and outright lies we told kids to make them honest. Part Two explained how 70’s textbook tales aimed to foster racial and gender equality by turning everyone into model citizens—everyone, that is, except for white males. Part 3 said that when American students were ranked 22nd and 27th in the world in science and math, educators started testing kids like mad and drumming rote facts into their heads in an effort to play catch up. The Unintended Consequence? A nation of bored kids poised to lose their creativity and joy of learning in the process.

So ladies and gentlemen, what new Unintended Consequences have reared their heads this time around? May I present The Technology-will-Save-Us Kitchen Sink Solution. It says that students can use high tech gadgets to find out everything they’ll ever need to know, and here’s how it works:

The vibe is that traditional textbooks are a thing of the past. Despite some publishers’ best efforts, a lot of textbooks are bland, boring, and full of errors, and they promote politically correct agendas that obscure vital but inconvenient truths. Besides that, they’re expensive, they weigh a ton, and they take up way too much space in kid’s lockers.

So what’s the educational wave of the future? Meet South Korea, which boasts the fastest internet speed in the world (the US is ranked 13th). Five years ago, the South Koreans decided they wanted to become the world’s leaders in education, so they swapped their traditional textbooks for digital devices that incorporated all kinds of bells and whistles; high definition videos, embedded assessments, plenty of interactive features, links to a multitude of online sources, and more.

Well now we’re gearing up to do the same thing big-time in the United States. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants schools to put digital textbooks into every classroom within the next five years. Apple recently unveiled its interactive digital textbooks for high school math and science, and Discovery Education is featuring cloud-based digital textbooks for K-12 science and middle school social studies.

You can see the advantages right off the bat: Digital textbooks are cheaper than paper ones; kids won’t have to break their backs carrying around a load of books (though maybe they could use the exercise); and you can find loads of material wherever there’s an internet connection.

But what’s the Unintended Consequence? Let’s take a look at what has happened in South Korea during their grand experiment. The surprise is that they have decided to reverse course because the kids are so hooked on all the gadgets that they’re often way too distracted to concentrate on a given subject. And what’s worse, it’s often hard to figure out what’s true and what’s not when you search for material online.

According to a March 25 article in The Washington Post, “At Seoul’s Guil Elementary School, where fifth- and sixth-graders participate in the trial…students toggle between their digital textbook and the Internet, which they use like an encyclopedia for fact-checking and research… On this particular day, students are learning about pinhole cameras — a simple device that captures images upside-down. When teacher Lee Yeon-ji asks her 24 students how the device works, she sends them to the Internet. ‘I think I found something that sounds true,’ one student says.”

What?? They THINK something SOUNDS true? Now there’s the rub. How can students learn the facts by guessing whether or not the material they find online is accurate? If kids are deluged by an ocean of material or distracted by apps that lead them off in dozens of directions, how can they even think straight much less learn anything?

Obviously this method makes cheating easy too. Say a tenth grader has to write an essay about the Civil War, for example. He can scan a bunch of papers online and copy anything he likes. How will the teacher ever know that the report is his?

Look around; kids are already addicted to gadgets anyway. Their attention spans are getting shorter and shorter all the time, even without digital textbooks that spin off in all directions, don’t round out the material in one place, and don’t offer a trustworthy set of interesting facts. Already too many young people can’t sit still and read a great book straight through. What will happen to their comprehension level, sense of direction, and analytical skills if they try to learn by flying through the cloud this way and that every other minute?

I’m definitely not saying that the cloud is evil and that gadgets are bad; we just have to guide the way we use such technologies in schools. Of course there are lots of great ways to learn both on and offline that don’t involve books of any kind, but since books are the focus here, you know exactly where this is going, so here it comes….

What would really help the most as we go forward are fewer distracting bells and whistles and more noses in outstanding nonfiction books. More than almost any paper or digital textbook you can find, nonfiction books allow kids to read and enjoy and learn from an engaging, well-rounded, professionally vetted, totally accurate piece of work that’s all in one place (and is also conveniently connected to the curriculum). Whether online or on paper, the best books can bring subject matter vividly and accurately to life. And in the bargain they can teach kids to concentrate hard and to think things all the way through.


Unknown said...

Yay! Roz! Methinks that the powers-that-be are no longer capable of critical thinking. One point Nicholas Carr made in The Shallows, a brilliant book about the dangers of technology on thinking, is that the invention of the book promoted deep thinking--one person could develop a thesis, elaborate on it and defend it all in one place. Books allowed the human race to develop skills of focus and concentration that weaned us from our hard-wired tendency to be distracted. The lesson from this Korean experiment reveals how quickly these hard-won skills, gained from centuries of reading books, can be undone.

Sandy Brehl said...

I'm reading Imagine. Pixar, king of all techies, uses a practice of group critiquing, fiercely trashing minute elements of ideas that lack strength, then "plussing" ideas toward possible improvements. Couldn't we put that into practice in these educational decisions? *sigh* Of course not- it's all gung ho! then Oh, No!
Thanks for a great post.

Annalisa said...

i used to love things that "sounded true" because they were so close to reality in some ways...made me feel smart to think up those "almost true" things. but wow! indeed, nonfiction needs to be proven facts and lots of research, not just wiki inputs by anyone. the spectrum of gray/grey is ever widening and I feel bad for generations to come...they might have just way too many things to choose from and nothing really secure or firm to believe in or call fact. doubting everything isn't a healthy way to live.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks for these thoughtful comments, everyone. Students might be at risk of drowning in the current flood of unrelated information and colorful apps. It's as though they (and we) are flooded with a gazillion free candies - yaaaaaayyyyyy!!!!! They can eat as many as they want, but where's the beef?