Monday, July 26, 2010

Media Monday: Technology and Education

Technological advancements have proven themselves a real boon to the world of education. And in the special education corner of that world, new technologies have been especially useful. Research and anecdotal evidence alike suggest that students with learning challenges learn more easily from modern technologies and digital media than from more traditional delivery systems. Initially, they are engaged by the novelty of the presentation method, but the real benefit is that new technologies are often more adaptable to the learning needs of individual students in ways that older technologies and methods are not.

This is a typical challenge for the education system. Because students are educated in "batches," the system is necessarily limited in the degree to which education can be individualized. The result? Children who need to learn in ways the system cannot provide are pathologized. But when a method of education is found that can engage these "disabled" students, the students are given an opportunity not formerly available to them.

However, I would like to present a different angle on this particular area of growth in the education field. What does the fact that children have trouble being engaged by interaction between teacher and student say about the skills of the teacher? Mind, this isn't to condemn teachers or belittle the challenges they facing managing a classroom full of children. This question is intended to use teachers as an example of how our society is changing as a whole.

When was the last time you met someone who could tell you a story in such a way that you felt you were there? When was the last time someone introduced a new concept to you in such an effective way that you were inspired to synthesize that new information with older knowledge and come up with a compelling hypothesis of your own--one so intriguing that you knew you just had to do more research? That doesn't happen much anymore.

We are reliant on the written word and upon visual representations to convey information and ideas more than we are reliant on the spoken word (either in lecture or in conversation) or on physical demonstrations.

Historically, before the majority of the population was literate or books were readily available, memorization and story-telling were prized skills. Philosophers and scientists actively studied memory to try to develop new and more effective means of memorization. Such lengthy tracts as The Odyssey, The Iliad, the Bible (especially the Old Testament), and The Histories of Herodotus were intended to be recited dramatically from memory rather than read in books. I don't know about you, dear reader, but I think I would be hard pressed just to memorize the book of Genesis, let alone the whole Old Testament!

With the spread of literacy, memorization became much less important, but story-telling remained something of a folk art. Through the first half or so of the twentieth century, story-telling remained important in that theater (for plays, not movies) was still a very common form of entertainment and people who did public speaking had to rely on their ability to communicate effectively (tell their story) to charm a crowd--no bright lights or make-up, no cue cards, no teleprompter, and the really good speakers memorized their speeches.

In today's world of sound-bites and digital everything, these arts are being lost. However, I do not think they are irrelevant.

Let's get back to technology in the classroom. Part of why students are engaged by it is that they are intrigued by novelty. But what happens when the novelty wears off? Does the engagement go away too? If so, the solution is illusory. Moreover, it means that novelty in general is attractive, not necessarily that a specific kind of novelty is attractive. A teacher who knows how to bring history to life could provide a similar level of novelty, as could one who can explain mathematical concepts in such away that the work feels intuitive to the students. And those are skills that don't require an investment in the newest tech toys every year.

Of course, teachers should take advantage of modern technology too--anything they need to bring their topic to life and reach as many students as possible! And students need to be familiar with technological tools in order to grow into adults who are competitive in the workforce. But I think choices about how to incorporate technology in the classroom should be left more to the teacher, who knows her needs better than anyone else.

In the meantime, I think that aspiring educators, especially those who wish to work with students who have learning challenges, would be well-served by focusing on learning as much as they can about effective story-telling and public speaking. They put on an educational performance five days a week for their students, and they need to know how to make the performance a good one. Exciting props can't do it all.

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