Common Sense: There's No App for That

An article in this morning's New York Times explains how after investing $33 million in technology, a school district in Arizona has seen almost no improvement in test scores.


It's no surprise that we as a society have a sort-of blind faith that technology is able to solve all of our problems. Yet while the iPad can and should replace textbooks, it can't replace common sense. Unfortunately that's exactly what's happening in education reform. We're focused so much on the device that we're ignoring what's on it.

Take math. Students dislike it and perform badly in it. Each year they ask, "What does this mean?" and "When will I use this?" And what's our answer? A new platform. This is like reading a novel, hating it, and concluding it would be better on the Kindle. Students find the book disengaging and irrelevant, but instead of rewriting it, we simply reformat it.

So what can explain this? I'd argue there are a few factors:

  1. Evaluating quality content is harder than evaluating quality technology. Try this. Which is better: Connected Math or Everyday Math? How about: the iPhone/iOS or Android?
  2. We often confuse the platform for the content itself. Houghton Mifflin* made news when it announced that it was creating iPad versions of its textbooks, and a host of websites now promise students a "revolutionary" new way to access education. Yet in each of these cases the material--the thing that's actually being taught--is exactly the same as its always been. The media may herald these as dramatic steps forward, but crtl-v is by definition not innovation. Hormel can design all the cans it wants but it's still SPAM.
  3. Much of the funding for education reform comes from large foundations, many of whom view their role as to push the envelope in public education. Organizations such as NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation tend to support initiatives like alternative teacher preparation programs, technology platforms and charter schools. Because their entrepreneurial emphasis is to reshape the future rather than build upon the present, there's often an unavoidable disconnect between what teachers want today and what foundations want them to want tomorrow. Ask a teacher what they'd rather have: a dynamic learning management system that tracks students by individual skill, or an engaging lesson on percents. Then ask what a foundation would rather fund. (Incidentally, we were recently contacted by a school district which had been awarded a $30,000 grant to buy iPads but had no money leftover for content. It's not the district's fault: surely the grant was only for the tablets themselves. But if a funder is going to spend that much money on devices, wouldn't it make sense to also ensure that the schools can put something good on them?  There's a reason Apple advertises apps: without the App Store the iPad is useless.  Just ask HP.)
  4. Just as there's a disconnect between foundations and teachers, there's often a disconnect between administrators and teachers as well. Teachers answer to principals who answer to the superintendent who answers to the school board, many of whom have never taught. When they say they want schools to look different, the easiest way to do that is to dress the schools up with projectors, interactive white boards, laptops, tablets, etc. School boards have elections and there's no easier sound bite than "technology."
  5. As a country, we seem to care more about style than substance. Want proof?  Two words: Jersey Shore.

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is the sixth one: we humans are very good at seeing only what we want to see, finding only what we're looking for. You believe the world is flat? You'll find evidence for that. You don't believe in global warming? There's a scientists somewhere who will back you up. You think technology will fix education? The high school in my town is failing despite its laptop-for-every-student program, but that's okay: try the next town over. I'm sure the New York Times will be happy to reprint the same article next year...and the next...and the next.

Technology is great. I love my iPhone. It can do all sorts of things, but making me a better dancer isn't one of them. Every day parents ask their kids, "What did you learn today?" It's never "How did you learn it?" or "On what device did you learn it?" but always, "What?" Yet so long as the answer to that doesn't change, neither will educational outcomes.

We need to stop pretending that technology can fix problems that aren't technological in nature. Kids are bored. They don't know why they're learning what they're learning. The solution isn't asking the question better. The solution is asking a better question.


Correction: the original version of this post said that it was Pearson who had released an iPad version of its textbook. It was actually Houghton Mifflin. Sorry about that.

9 thoughts on “Common Sense: There's No App for That”

  1. Yes! I love technology and my smartboard has definitely improved my delivery. Given the choice, I first invest my time in writing a good, engaging lesson-- then with any time I have left, I format it for the board and add the bells and whistles. As a sidenote, lots of teachers still using smartboards as an old fashioned overhead projector. Great post.

  2. Totally agree. We got a grant for 21 pen-based tablet PC's (Thanks HP!). Before implementation, we first figured out how to connect to students (collaborative software). The technology provides the much needed vehicle to give us a virtual workspace where we have built a community of learners. Foundational math students may be hesitant to express themselves - this way they can participate anonymously until they feel more confident.

  3. Common sense should indeed rule. And you're quite right: brewing up an engaging lesson should be the first order of business. That doesn't mean abandoning tech. It's a shame that the debate devolves into a "tech vs. people" cat fight. We should be exploring what tools help learning, how, when & why. Sometimes those "tools" will be digital; sometimes not. The conversation will move forward only when we explore the nuances, not scream absolutes at one another.

  4. Whoa. Whoa. Let's just slow the roll on Jersey Shore, okay. Big fan right here.


    Yet in each of these cases the material–the thing that’s actually being taught–is exactly the same as its always been.

    You're sure about that? I mean, I'm curious how you know the contents of a curriculum that hasn't yet been published.

  5. Dan, I'm happy to have you defend Jersey Shore. But let's keep it in perspective. Karim wrote:
    As a country, we seem to care more about style than substance. Want proof? Two words: Jersey Shore.
    Are you defending JS as substantive?
    I think Karim is rightly skeptical of publisher claims to be doing something revolutionary by going to a new platform. If you look at extant examples of technological innovation from publishers, you'll see a whole lotta cut-and-paste from the dead-tree version. And the Gates Foundation funding? Bill is all about Sal Khan right now. That's style over substance, for sure. Innovative platform for unchanged content.
    I'm hoping Karim is proven wrong. But none of the top players in the project he cites gives me hope that he will be.
    Now if we can promote @ddmeyer a few steps up the ladder, I'd be more hopeful.

    1. Triangleman:

      "I think Karim is rightly skeptical of publisher claims to be doing something revolutionary by going to a new platform."

      Shoot. /I'm/ skeptical and I'm /working/ for one of them. I guess I should ask Karim for a link to the Pearson iPad project he's referring to. I'm only aware of one, and it's only in development, which made me curious how Karim knew "the material–the thing that’s actually being taught–is exactly the same as its always been."

      1. My bad. It was actually Houghton Mifflin that I was thinking of. Here’s the link:

        Dan, if they’re using your stuff for part of their iPad launch, I’m sure the Pearson version will be much better. I just hope they don’t copy-paste the rest of the material. Based on what you've written about the team, I'm hopeful that Pearson is rethinking the content from the ground-up. Otherwise what is truly engaging material (my take on WCYDWT) risks getting lost among the heroically mediocre: eating creme brulee after Luchables.

  6. You're right that kids are bored, but to make the problem "relevant" doesn't make it interesting for those that don't give a crap. Some kids like math, some don't. Providing examples that show "people really do use this stuff" doesn't in and of itself make someone instantly interested in math. Morris Kline tried this with Calculus. I don't think that a revolution in excitement took place. What we need to do is make sure we don't kill the excitement of kids who are interested -- it happens a lot -- and accept the fact that many don't care.

    We need to spend more time encouraging kids to spend time following _their own_ interests. We are so fixated on an outdated model for schooling that we can't even see the the real problem. Pretending that most need to know math much above algebra is just self-serving, and you could say something similar about every field.

    P.S. - Computers are distractions. Sometimes fun distractions, but distractions nonetheless.

  7. It is impossible for schools to focus on issues which are actually important right now, like curriculum (which is terribly outdated), delivery of curriculum (through medium such as technology), and student engagement.

    Schools are forced to dance for their dinner and that means manipulating data in order to meet some artificial standard that was created in a bubble.

    Schools will be good, students will learn and teachers will be effective if, and only if, the public decides that educating our cbildren is something we value. When we look at education as an investment and not a burden, then we can get down to the business of teaching and learning.

    If and when this does happen, I hope our leaders will be wise enough to know what they don't know and allow actual educators to re-build it. Until then...we are either walking the plank or already treading water.

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