Oh, there’s so much gone wrong in this story

Patrick Welsh has taught English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia for more than 30 years. Last week, he wrote an editorial for the Washington Post called A School That’s Too High on Gizmos. Patrick relates his view of T.C. Williams as a school run by an administration consumed with…

“…technolust- a disorder affecting publicity-obsessed school administrators nationwide that manifests itself in an insatiable need to acquire the latest, fastest, most exotic computer gadgets, whether teachers and students need them or want them. Technolust is in its advanced stages at T.C., where our administrators have made such a fetish of technology that some of my colleagues are referring to us as “Gizmo High.”

As Patrick provides examples of technology gone wild, the story comes to life. Valiant teachers resisting miseducative practices, hints of collusion with hardware and software vendors, administrators seeking glory and headlines, teachers marginalized and ridiculed for not falling in line. Something is definitely wrong here. This sounds like a war between administration and teachers, with technology used as a weapon.

But read on. That’s not all that’s wrong with this picture…

Of course, the big question isn’t whether teachers like spending their time learning one new gizmo after another, but whether a parade of new technologies will help kids learn. From what I can see, that’s not the case. Says one math teacher: “Math grows out of the end of a pencil. You don’t want the quick answer; you want students to be able to develop the answer, to discover the why of it. The administration seems to think that computers will make math easy, but it has to be a painful, step-by-step process.”

Math grows out of the end of a pencil? It has to be painful? Did a math teacher actually say that? Have they noticed it’s not the 19th century anymore? Maybe there’s something else going on here.

I see the same thing in my classes, especially when it comes to writing essays. Many students send their papers in over the Internet, and while the margins are correct and the fonts attractive, the writing is worse than ever. It’s as if the rule is: Write one draft, run spell check, hit “send” and pray.

OK, now the point comes clear. For these teachers, the computers are not just a symptom, they are the problem. But the computer isn’t making students worse writers or setting these “rules”. Do the teachers have any responsibility for standards, for requiring excellent writing. Are the computers to blame for this too?

It seems that technology is a convenient scapegoat for problems faced by this school. Technology doesn’t solve problems, but it doesn’t cause them either. Yes, technology is supposed to make teaching more effective. The students should be using them for authentic activities, not for online worksheets. It should have been a collaborative effort with teachers to decide what to purchase and how to use it. The professional development should have been more than edu-jargon. Yes, yes, yes–many wrongs here.

But that’s not all that’s wrong. To wrap up his editorial, Patrick finds an example of how technology “should” be used.

North Point High School for Science, Technology and Industry in Waldorf went with ceiling-mounted LCD projectors but nixed the idea of laptops for all students. “Our philosophy is to have whatever technology our teachers want to do their jobs better available to them,” Principal Kim Hill told me. “Technology is just a tool, not an end in itself. It will never replace good teaching.”

Of course, LCD projectors are the more comfortable way, the way that ensures that teaching or learning doesn’t change, but gives the illusion of progress. Notice the false choice set up here. “Technology…will never replace good teaching.” Who is claiming that technology replaces good teaching? By the way, did you notice this is the North Point High School for Science, Technology and Industry!

It’s hard to know the truth of a situation based on one article from one point of view. It certainly sounds bad, and possibly is such a poisoned environment that it will take years to undo the damage. But from my point of view, blaming technology, even extreme “technolust” for the problems described here is only half the story. The other half of the story is how many ways school reform efforts can go wrong, and how fragile and rare it is when it goes right.

So much money, so much potential, so much waste, so much time lost, so much gone wrong.


9 Replies to “Oh, there’s so much gone wrong in this story”

  1. Sylvia. Your points are well written. This article is certainly very negative. It appears that there was not a lot of buy-in from all the teachers with the use of technology.

    It saddens me because they are not seeing the connection between students use of technology and learning. There is a lack of willingness to change with the times.

    There has been a lot of damage done here that it would be hard to repair. I hope this one person’s opinion is not representative of those in the school. It sounds like he needs to find a new place to work!

  2. Amen, Sylvia. The Educon experience brought home the point that the tech is just a tool, like a pencil= a solution for misplaced homework, or excuses of “I left it at home”. If it’s a google doc, you can get it anywhere! When it’s due, it’s due, regardless if you are present that day or not.

    The community is the issue. We have an education system that is largely based on an us versus them system- teachers versus students. Teachers may talk about teaching and helping students learn, but how much of a daily classroom instruction is spent on maintaining a sense of authority, top down instruction – How many teachers give tests that are true/false/multiple choice- easier to grade, sure, but does it really let a student show you what they know and have learned? Shouldn’t we use tests as diagnostic of mastering material rather than a way to simply pass judgment on students? If a class does poorly on the test, how much of that is due to the student(s), and how much of it is the test or the teacher’s fault for not emphasizing those points in class?

    Once we get teachers and students on the same side of learning, instead of in opposite camps, then we’ll be able to make unbelieveable progress in education. Face it- grownups hate to work for bosses who don’t trust or respect them; why should we assume students are any different?

    The tech is just a tool- the lack of a compassionate educational philosophy is the true problem.

  3. I’m a big fan of putting the activity before the tool… and it does sound like perhaps the school is going overboard with its technolust if it’s not building a community of practice around good learning. But if both the teachers and the technologists could come together and impart some of their wisdom to the others, perhaps the teachers could become fans of the tools and the technologists could understand a bit more about learning.

    Or maybe these teachers and technologists just need to throw the doors open and see what the kids come up with.

  4. Hi Sylvia. Thought-provoking post! Is is extremely sad, but there are still too many educators who continue to believe in the model of education that has been failing the majority of learners for decades.

    In our failed model, the teacher is the primary authority and font of information. In that model, you must have strong aptitude for traditional academic skills, especially the abilities to process words and to take tests. Most teachers, myself included, are teachers because we were pretty good with those skills.

    The majority of intelligent learners, however, have different learning strengths. The power of technology in the classroom is that it offers viable learning tools for learners with alternative learning modes. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for many educators to recognize this.

    The biggest problem with schools, and the greatest impediment to beneficial change, is that schools are run by people who were good at school. The expectation is that all learners should be like us. –Paul

  5. What bothers me most about this article is that the students in this district are left hanging in the balance. It seems to me that the teachers here can not see the forest through the trees and that there is an incredible feeling of frustration. Where did this frustration come from and why are they blaming technology? It has never been about the technology it had always been about the learning and how we can encourage students to own their learning.

    Students are not writing poorly because of computers, they are writing poorly because they don’t own the assignment. Being passionate about something forces you to be thorough and I hate to say this as a former English teacher, but it isn’t always about the grammar either. Its got more to do with the content and that comes from authentic learning experiences. My writing has just now started to come alive because of my interest in blogging. I know that a larger audience will be reading what I write so I think about the end result a bit more. This mindset comes with maturity though not from reverting back to a paper and pencil.

    What this school needs is a group of teachers whose only responsibility is to offer follow-up and assistance to those who are using the technology and to provide training to those who would like to.

    Ahh…in a perfect world!

  6. Wasn’t Remember The Titans based on T.C. Williams High School? It is an interesting “equal access” issue, both in terms of technology and desegregation. If Patrick Welsh has worked at that high school for over 30 years, it was at a time the high school was still dealing with desegregation. I wonder if he was a foot dragger then as well?

    Here are teacher testimonials from the high school website that highlight the positive use of technology.

  7. I don’t think it is a “poisoned” environment, I think the point that we should take from this is that although we need technology in our classrooms, it’s not a black or white solution, it shouldn’t replace what our teachers need for interaction, encouragement, motivation, and… teaching! There has to be a way to grow both areas at once, not completely dump technology in classrooms and hope that that solves problems. I think in the case of this highschool we just set the other end of the spectrum, now off to find the happy medium!

  8. Unfortunately, I think the reactions to technology expressed by Patrick and other teachers at TC are not uncommon. Even if educators don’t say it as bluntly as the math teacher, far too many believe that computers and all the other equipment are a distraction at best and a major waste of time and money at their worst.

    But I don’t blame the teachers as much as administrators and city politicians. Having watched the new TC being put together (from the vantage point of a neighboring district), it was clear the city was determined to make this a “show place”.

    In their big budgets, however, they left out the major revisions to the curriculum and teaching practices necessary to take advantage of the power in the tools they were buying. This is one more example of the “if you install it, they will learn” philosophy of instructional technology.

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