Friday, June 03, 2011

The Brave New World

This isn’t the best of times for teachers. Budgetary shortfalls in states and localities have put teachers on the defensive regarding pensions and benefits, with a dose of meanness being added to the unhappy brew by right wing lawmakers and critics who apparently believe that teachers should be available for target practice. For sure, teachers unions have abused the public trust by seeking pension arrangements that cannot be justified or sustained, along with work rules and much else that have sent the cost of public education skyrocketing.

It is fair to ask whether society is receiving fair value for the tons of money being spent on basic education. Corrective measures are the order of the day. Pensions will be cut, at least for new hires, and there will be givebacks. Class size will be increased and extra-curricular activities and educational enhancements will be scaled back. Nearly every nook and cranny of public education will be examined to locate savings, the primary exceptions being the army of experts, too many bedecked with pseudo-credentials, who although they aren’t in schools or classrooms endlessly tell those who are what is deficient in their performance. This army will grow in cost and size because, after all, how can savings be achieved without the help of more and more well-paid experts.

We will also get more urgent advocacy of the use of technology in basic education, the aim being to improve students’ attentiveness and performance and also to save money. These are admirable goals. Of note, calls for heightened reliance on educational technology in the classroom have been around for at least two decades, yet when we compare how computers, the Internet, etc. have transformed offices, businesses, communications and information-gathering and much else, schools and classrooms appear to be a societal backwater. Why, despite what technology offers, do schools operate much the same as they operated before there was a Silicon Valley?

This is a fair question. What isn’t fair are some of the explanations, including the charge that in order to protect jobs, teacher unions resist change or that since teachers were mainly trained the old way, they aren’t comfortable with the new technology. Teachers are no more technologically challenged than workers in other fields where technological change is everywhere evident.

Schooling is an intensive human experience, encompassing numerous student and teacher interactions and countless interactions among students. A large part, but far from all, of this experience is formal education in a pristine sense, meaning the acquisition of skills and knowledge that will allow students to grow intellectually and have productive lives. In this process, technology is certainly helpful and can for certain students or certain subjects transcend in efficacy what can be achieved by teachers in front of a classroom of children.

But even in the conveying of knowledge, we ought to pause and recognize that what dedicated and effective teachers accomplish – and there are plenty of such teachers – transcends what technology can achieve. Good teaching aims to get students to think, not merely to accumulate information. Good teaching raises questions and inspires students to seek greater heights. This is one reason why many of us fondly remember decades later the blessings that came our way in the form of an excellent teacher.

There are avenues of intellectual stimulation for children of school age outside of the conventional school classrooms. One example is when a child reads not only what is assigned but also out of curiosity or pleasure and becomes addicted to reading. Another is when a student’s imagination impels him or her to think and inquire beyond what is taught in the assigned text. In these experiences – and there are others – technology can advance what would otherwise be beyond a student’s reach. The role of technology in formal and informal education needs to be expanded, but not to the detriment of the vital classroom experience and certainly not to the point of teacher-less classrooms as some are advocating and as are being introduced in Florida and elsewhere.

We need to be mindful that schools and teachers have crucial auxiliary responsibilities that have expanded over the years as a result of profound societal changes, including in family life, the frightening increase among the young of severe social pathologies and greater public concern for the well-being of children. Teachers in classrooms do more than teach. Without the title or even recognition of the role, they are also social workers. They need to be alert to telltale signs of problems at home, for instance whether a student is being neglected or abused. They need to be alert to physical and emotional issues. Schools today are links to health and mental health providers. I doubt that any of us has met a computer or device that can perform these roles.

In ordinary situations and without these additional social welfare burdens that society has placed on them, schools and teachers are vital in the development of children who are being molded, at least hopefully, to act respectfully, to show deference to properly expressed authority and to learn how to get along with other children. Here, too, technology is certain to fall short.

The march of technology is, of course, inevitable and it brings meaningful benefits. But it is also a dialectical development, as when jobs are lost or family life disrupted. Perhaps there can be no gain without pain or, as some have put it, you cannot make an omelet without cracking eggs. The brave new world that is technology contributes to the spread of the social disease called alienation and also anomie – and that’s just the first letter in the alphabet. I do not argue against technology. Technological advance does not result in a dystopia, nor is the end result a utopia. What I worry about is not the impact on teachers, although that is a consideration because they deserve respect and not the abuse that they receive from some quarters. My concern is for the children who need teachers, who need someone to talk to and someone to guide them.