In Search of the Holy Grail (May 2002)

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On the front seat of a New Orleans taxi was a television the cabbie managed to watch while driving. The TV was tuned to an infomercial for a miracle home food dehydrator. The show demonstrated all of the ways in which this amazing technology would revolutionize your life. The host actually made the following claim, “You can save hundreds of dollars per year on jerky alone!” I thought to myself, “How much money would you need to spend on jerky before you could save hundreds of dollars? Are folks blowing their retirement savings on wrinkled meat?” When I blurted out, “Better living through turkey jerky,” the driver shook his head and replied, “Yeah, technology is getting crazy.”

The high-tech industry is ruled by the quest for the “killer app,” the next big thing that will change the world and create enormous wealth. Word processing, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, e-mail and the Web are considered good examples of the killer app. Interactive television, videophones and Internet appliances once hyped as the next killer app, have failed to excite the consumer, let alone change the world.

Since the beginning of time charlatans, snake oil salesman and preachers have preyed upon the hopes, fears and insecurities of their fellow citizens. Human nature holds out hope for the quick fix when challenges seem daunting. Since there may be no more complex endeavor than the education of children, it should surprise no one that educators are bombarded with promises of get-smart-quick schemes.

The simplest ideas are easiest to sell. They offer us comfort and speak to our fantasies. This is as true in education as at the supermarket. Consumers want a quicker, easier way to do housework, and educators want a painless, simple way for all kids to learn. When high-tech meets education, noble goals perpetuate simplistic illusions like the notion that drill and practice, whether on flashcards, CD-ROM or the Web, will revolutionize education. I don’t happen to believe that computers can teach, but those who do must acknowledge that most learning software does no more than test kids on previous knowledge.

Show Time
The modem analog of the carnival sideshow is the conference exhibit hall. Corporate jugglers, magicians and free tchochkes are used to lure attendees to high-powered sales pitches for the next killer app.

It is my obligation as a journalist to share with you two amazing products sold at a recent national conference. Either of these products could revolutionize education.

One corporation with an impressive name has manufactured personal desktop-size erasable whiteboards. The salesperson explained how this remarkable technology would be used. An innovative teacher asks the class a question. The students then calculate the answer before writing it on their personal markerboard. Each student then holds the board up so the teacher can see who has the correct answer and their peers can learn who is stupid. Erase your board and await the next question. This product is rated PG for pre-Gutenberg.

My favorite contender for education’s killer-app is the new $25 digital hall pass. When a kid takes the hall pass, a dock on the pass and the teacher’s desk cradle keeps track of the elapsed time spent away from the markerboard lesson. Be AWOL too long and face the punishment.

A recent editorial predicts that education’s killer app will be customized learning. While educators should do everything possible to create a learning environment that meets the needs of each learner, customized learning is a terrible idea. Customized learning suggests that an anonymous cartel of know-it-ails can design activities for every learner.

This egocentrism points to a disturbing trend in our discourse about education. We remove agency from the learner as learning is increasingly referred to as a noun, i.e…. We need to improve the learning. Instead of learning being viewed as an active process, our rhetoric suggests passivity.

You can’t customize learning because you do not learn for someone else. Learning is a continuous process engaged in by the learner, not the teacher, superintendent, politician or salesman. Learning results suggests a terminal condition. Learning reflects lifelong growth, curiosity and creativity. I offer a simple message to the hucksters, opportunists, demagogues and the educators confused by their rhetoric. The real killer app will place the child at the center of the learning process.

Originally published in the May 2002 issue of District Administration

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