Technology : are we discriminating enough in how we use it in schools?

For better and worse, our species has a new toy – technology – that consumes a great deal of attention both in and out of schools. In schools, technology is used to gather and report data about students and their learning outcomes, and as a learning tool.

Compared to earlier decades, technology now gives us relatively easy access to remarkable streams of data about students and learning,  Those who set educational policy at the district, state, and national  levels  benefit from the availability of this data. The question is, how much data is enough?

Professional development these days frequently sees teachers spending their workshop time learning the ins and outs of new assessment tools. These assessment tools (often created and owned by the corporate testing giant Pearson) provide very clear data about mastery of a variety of skill areas, usually in math and literacy. The resulting spreadsheets are impressive and easy to read. Will these spreadsheets transform teaching and learning in a positive direction?

Most teachers will tell you they view data from assessments created by companies as somewhat helpful but overall hardly pivotal when it comes to teaching children effectively. They say they can usually determine without the help of standardized assessments where students stand in terms of skill levels and learning gaps. They think the assessments should be used when teachers are puzzled and feel the need for additional information and suggest they are not necessary for most students. These teachers think they would like the tools to be available on an as-needed basis.

What teachers do say they need in order to perform at the highest level is time with colleagues for planning curriculum and discussing individual students; time with students without interruptions from outside forces like testing sessions; students able and ready to learn because they are clean, nourished, and well-rested.

Like devices in the home, technology provides schools with opportunities they should embrace when truly warranted, and when truly valuable, and otherwise resist. The years a student is in school should be treated with kid gloves – they come around once, and time wasted is rarely regained.

One wonders about the message given to students by some of these assessment tools. For example, one scores higher on some tests when reading quickly. Speed of response impacts score. Why is it better to read fast than to read slowly? Some of the greatest writers in history read and wrote very slowly indeed. What we need to look for is deep thinking, which is where we are going to find the answers to help humankind sustain ourselves on earth. That deep thinking may come from quick readers, and it may come from slow readers. Speed is not what we should be focused on – deep thinking is what matters. Not all assessment tools are created equal.

When I walk through schools I often see signs on doors indicating testing is taking place, or glance in classrooms and see students sitting at individual desks using ipads. We should have excellent reasons for taking school time for these purposes. Ipads and other devices can be used for very important reasons in schools, or they can be used as a time filler and a crowd managing device. I would much rather look in a classroom and see students engaged in active, collaborative, hands-on projects, with devices and standardized assessments serving as tools, rather than as the main item on the learning menu.

Technological devices are new, and they are captivating. Humans just love to play with them. Examples of worthwhile uses of data in schools include the ability to compare educational outcomes for boys and girls; children of color and white children; children living in poverty and those living more comfortably; learning overall when using one math program versus another. Examples of devices helping learning include connecting with students across the world; coding; blogging. However just because something can be useful does not mean it is always useful, and the time has come to be more discriminating in what we do with technology in relation to schools.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.