August 9, 2020

Dear Chris and Will

First, my good friend Chris Lehmann wrote about in “Why I Am Against For Profit Schools,” how the school privatization movement (and I would add the Obama administration) have embraced the rhetoric of personalization and individualization to replace teachers with less expensive drill and practice systems. These integrated “learning” systems reduce education to an endless  series of multiple-choice quizzes. (read what I wrote about this idea in 1992, Integrated Learning Systems, The New Slavery) They never have worked and never will.

Since the evidence supporting computerized teaching systems has been weak since WWII, the dystopians and their bankers pushing this idea feel compelled to dress it up in fancy names like “Carpe Diem,” “Flipped Classroom,” “School of One,” “Blast,” “Khan Academy,” etc…. Each of these old wines in new marketing slogans have at their core a desire to reduce the cost of education as low as possible and attempt to do so by replacing qualified educators with 200 terminals, Math Blaster and an armed security guard.

Soon after Chris published his article, our mutual friend Will Richardson wrote “The Thin Value Proposition,” in which he too agrees with Chris and argues that the the value in schooling is the establishment of relationships among teachers and students. I often end my speeches by saying that teachers make memories and when students come back to reminisce, they never speak about the time they raised PISA scores or used all of their spelling words in a sentence, they remember meaningful projects teachers created the context for.

I agree with the arguments made by Chris and Will. They perfectly frame the terms of the conundrum many of us who advocate the use of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression face when more powerful forces wish to use computers as tools of oppression, cost-cutting or antidotes for progressive education. How is it possible to love computers in education and hate the popular implementations of computers in education?

It is questions like this that led me to create The Daily Papert two years ago.

Papert articulated Will’s argument twenty-two years ago.

“It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”– it only hobbles the good ones.”

Papert. S. (1990, July). Perestroika and Epistemological Politics. Speech presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Sydney, Australia.

Seymour Papert began giving voice to Chris Lehmann’s concerns as far back as 1968!

“The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a skinner box.”

Papert S. (1980). Teaching Children Thinking in Taylor, R., Ed., The Computer in School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. New York: Teachers College Press. pp. 161 -176.

Note: This paper was originally presented in 1970 at the IFIP World Conference on Computers in Education in Amsterdam. The paper was published as an MIT Logo Memo No. 2. Nicholas Negroponte reports that Papert first presented this work in 1968.

3 thoughts on “Dear Chris and Will

  1. Gary,

    Thanks for sharing the insight of both Chris and Will alongside your previous work and that of Papert. My question is if these theories and ideas have been around why are we cycling back to them? In other words, why do you think teachers are seemingly unaware of “old” ideas that are resurfacing with new terms or packaging? Is this just that we are that unaware/uninformed or all on the journey of discovery and in different places?

    Josh

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