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A teacher’s view of teacher surveys about youth & tech

Monday’s post was about two surveys of US teachers about what technology’s doing to students’ academic performance. Today, a guest commentary from Marianne Malmstrom, who teaches grades 3-8 at the Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, N.J., after I asked her what she thought of the research and the New York Times’s coverage:

“At least the New York Times and Pew stated several times the findings were subjective!…

“Of course the kids can’t focus! They live in a world of fast cars, and school asks them to travel via horse and buggy!” Referring to high school teacher Hope Molina Porter’s comment to the Times that she was now an “entertainer,” Marianne wrote, “Good teachers can ‘jump around the room’ and ‘entertain’ kids by decorating the buggies with streamers & sporty flame decals, but all the shine in the world won’t bring an outmoded means of transportation up to speed.”

Continuing the metaphor, she wrote, “Even if some schools are progressive enough to let kids bring their own cars to school, they insist that kids drive no faster (or farther) than the pace of the buggy. It is, after all, a tried and true means of getting from point A to point B. Besides, something bad might happen in those dangerous fast cars.”

Like me, Marianne questioned the value of surveying people who generally haven’t used technology in teaching. It’s like seeking a dispassionate view from those with a bias. “Can anyone truly understand without experience? If one does not understand, can one truly evaluate? That’s what I’m reading in these studies. They are not evaluating the whole picture. They are making sweeping assumptions based on measurements taken with outdated tools (and perceptions).” Referring to teachers in general, she continued, “We have a ‘horse and buggy’ mentality and are dismayed that our kids are zipping past us with unfamiliar technology. We are unable to comprehend their agility in driving that technology. And we have no clue where they are going because we refuse to get out of the buggy and take the ride with them. We continue to misinterpret the situation because we won’t budge. We sit in our buggies with an air of authority, clutching the reins with a white knuckled grip. Frozen in fear, we yell after our kids as they speed by, ‘We are your elders, we know what’s best for you! Come back here!’

“It’s a ridiculous metaphor, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe the disconnect. As life screeched to a stand still on the East Coast [last] week [with Hurricane Sandy], it has given us pause to reflect on how much we rely on electricity, phones, Internet and gas. None of us wants to go backwards, and yet that’s what we expect of kids.

“One of the positive effects of the storm has been spending more time getting to know and help our friends and neighbors. It can be easy to get caught up in our fast-paced world and forget to carve out time to attend to our face-to-face relationships, or just take time to just get quiet. But then it was probably hard to do the same when we were working to survive off the land.

“I agree whole-heartedly that we all need balance in life. Kids sometimes need adults to help them set healthy limits. The question is, how can we do that if we are so disconnected and don’t understand their world? The head of Common Sense Media [quoted in the Times] talked with total certainty that what the kids are doing online falls entirely in the category of ‘entertainment’…. What kids are doing online is far more sophisticated than entertainment. What I have experienced and observed first-hand, working with students in virtual spaces, is that they are learning in much more complex ways than we imagine. They are connecting, playing, creating, collaborating, learning and teaching each other. We do our children and students a disservice to dismiss that…. It’s our kids who are adapting to our changing world as so brilliantly illustrated in the story of the Ethiopian six-year-olds and the box of Android tablets [see this]. Kids are wonderfully capable of learning by themselves. What will we do with that information? How will we adapt and redesign learning spaces that are relevant for children in this century? In this decade? Now? This could truly be a new renaissance if we are willing to step out of the ‘dark age’ of industrialized, standardized, consumption-driven education.

“Kids need the wisdom of adults, but we can’t force them to stay behind in our horse-driven carriage in order to get it. Until we are able to swallow our fear and get into the car with them, they will be out their navigating the world without the benefit of our wisdom. Will we join them? Who knows, they may be even be willing to teach us how to drive the car ourselves!”

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