Debunking the 'Education Is Broken' Myth

This post was originally published on Weston Kieschnick's blog.

I’d like to clear something up straight away. To say education is broken beyond repair is insulting. It’s insulting to all those in classrooms, school offices, and district buildings working tirelessly and thanklessly to educate our children. Furthermore, this assertion is wholly inaccurate. In the 2015-2016 school year, we graduated 84 percent of our high school students—our highest share of high school graduates ever. And half of those graduates are off to college every year, a record high.

At the same time, outcomes continue to be on the up and up. Since the 1970s, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been monitoring student achievement of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds. The latest results show steady and solid gains in both reading and math for 9- and 13-year-olds, as well as significant improvements in closing the achievement gap across ethnic and gender lines. Things are not perfect, but we are all united in a commitment to moving the metrics of success in the right direction. And we always have been.

The Evolution of Digital Technology

I’m a child of the 1980s who came of age in the 1990s. I remember life before digital technologies. I remember stealthily attempting to pass notes—actual pen on actual paper notes, folded ornately—in class. I remember stretching the spiral telephone cord under my bedroom door so I could talk to girls without my parents eavesdropping. I remember the mortification of mom picking up in another room and telling me it was time to go to bed.

I’d heard stories of a few people around town who had those giant cell phones that came in their own briefcases. But those were for “rich” people. When I needed to get a hold of someone, I would call that person’s landline and ask the parent who answered if my friend was around. A good chunk of the time, the busy signal would greet me. Until answering machines went mainstream, the phone would often ring and ring and ring. Once cellphones got affordable and accessible, they took off like wildfire. But it would still be years before we were using T9 to send text messages. (Old school friends, please turn to the new teacher next to you and explain what T9 is.)

It wasn’t until college that everyone had email addresses. Even then, we mostly used them to make social plans—only after we endured minutes of AOL screeching at us as it tried to make internet contact through dial-up.

My upbringing was, for the most part, analog. Yet my life today is, for the most part, digital. Now how did that happen? Based on the rhetoric around how rapidly our schools are failing because of how slowly they’ve been adapting to the digital world, you’d think I’d be sitting somewhere in the dark, probably on the fringes of society, barely able to function, much less working in the 21st century.

But I’m not. I’m writing a book on a laptop and collaborating with my editor via Google Docs—in between recording and editing my podcast and blasting updates through my social media channels. And, after we help the kids with iPad-based homework and put them to bed, my wife and I are kicking back in front of a movie we cue up on our Amazon Prime Video streaming service. I’ve managed to adapt from the analog to the digital world and thrive thanks to the education I got as a kid—long before iDevices, Tweets, and virtual clouds were things.

We Aren’t Failing Our Students

To say that we are failing our students because technology isn’t front and center in our schools is an insult to teachers. It’s an insult to my teachers. And it’s an insult to all the millions of people like me who have been able to adapt in their careers as technologies have become more prevalent components of them. We have been able to do this because of—not in spite of—our teachers.

To say we’re failing our kids because we still use some strategies and tools that we used in the 20th century is just plain foolish. It places all the emphasis on the shiny new objects, and takes way too much emphasis off tried and true instructional strategies and pedagogy. 

At its core, how is an iPad any different from a pencil? Or the typewriter? Or the calculator? Or the newspaper, for that matter? At one point, each of these technologies was new and disruptive. Just because they came along didn’t mean we upended instruction as we knew it. We folded them into what was working just great in our classrooms for more efficiency and effectiveness. 

What’s different today is the rate at which technologies are proliferating. Yes, rapid change is trickier to track. But we educators have adapted to new technologies before, and we will do it again. We just need smart guidance on smart technology integration.

Adapting to New Tech in the Classroom

When I speak about this with educators, I often use the analogy of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technologies found in hospitals all over the world. MRI technology is incredible. It changed medicine by letting doctors see pictures of soft tissues inside the body with a level of detail and depth not possible with the X-Ray or CT scan, and without exposing the patient to radiation. By way of this technology, doctors can make better and earlier diagnoses of certain health conditions and, in the best of scenarios, treat them before they become life threatening to the patient.

Who isn’t supportive of the widespread adoption of MRI technologies in medicine? When MRIs first came on the scene, we didn’t roll the machines up to doctors’ offices and say, “We’ve got this amazing new imaging technology we think you’re really going to like. It’s going to make you more effective at what you do, and it’s going to get more detail about your patients’ health. In turn, you’re going to be able to deliver them the specific care they need to get healthy. So good luck figuring out how to use it!”

Of course we didn’t do this. We didn’t do this because we know that doctors need to devote their time to what they were trained to do—deliver care to patients. It’s not a good use of their time to read manuals about MRI technologies and try to teach themselves the right way to use them.

Yet this is exactly what we did to teachers when it has come to digital technologies. These technologies absolutely have the power to make teachers better at what they do. They absolutely have the ability to deliver more targeted instruction to all students. But instead of providing them with purposeful, specific training about what works and what doesn’t—as doctors received for the MRI—we have expected them to figure it out.

It would have been absurd, even dangerous, to ask doctors to figure out how to use MRI machines themselves. And it’s just as absurd, even just as dangerous, to ask teachers to figure out technologies on their own. When we take teachers away from student time, when we waste instructional classroom time on haphazard technology integration, we increase the likelihood of failing our students.

Education isn’t broken. How we think about technology use and teacher training around it is. Only when the arrival of technology is accompanied by the arrival of meaningful professional development will we finally begin to deliver on the promise of blended learning.

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You can book a keynote with Weston Kieschnick, ICLE Senior Fellow and Shaped contributor, to bring his expertise about blended learning and coaching to your school or district. You can also view our full list of thought leaders who provide customized presentations on a range of key education issues.

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