Insomnia can ruin a perfectly good day. I have a sense that today will be such a day.

I awoke to a tweet from my friend Will Richardson announcing that he was asked to be in one of those New York Times online “debates” where a handful of people are asked to write short essays without knowing who the other combattants are or what they had to say. I participated in such a “debate” about online learning in 2011.

I then read an entry by popular edublogger and teacher Vicki Davis that was so problematic, I felt compelled to respond.

Ms. Davis’ essay begins as follows:

“My fourth grade child plays adaptive games on my iPad as part of his weekly routine. I am convinced that games like “Stack the States” and “Math Rocket” have helped him learn. These adaptive programs are great but fall short for one reason: there is no feedback loop. I need to know if my child consistently forgets the capital of Rhode Island or where Wyoming is on the map.”

and includes other whoppers like:

“Adaptive testing is really about personalizing the knowledge of the student. It is about understanding the individual student. If we can understand enough individual students and aggregate the data, then a school can create a plan to help those students progress and move ahead.”

Unfortunately, the NYTimes web site only allows for short comments. Therefore, I have included a few of my thoughts here.

With all due respect to Lori (commenter) and Vicki (the columnist), the scenario you describe has little to do with the potential of computers to amplify human potential.

Computer-assisted instruction or drill and practice software, apparently now dressed-up as the fancy-sounding “adaptive learning” has been the holy grail of those wishing to reduce education costs and shortcut education for the past half century.

Any teacher who thinks he can be replaced by a computer, probably should be. Yet, this handful of magic beans promising that computers can “teach” where humans have failed is folly folks have unwisely invested their faith in for decades.

First of all, at best such software merely TESTS PRIOR KNOWLEDGE. It does not teach. Just like flash cards don’t teach, electronic flash cards will result in similar short-term results – temporary memorization without understanding or long-term comprehension.

Such “memorize the capitals,” “multiply faster” or “memorize vocabulary words quicker” systems address the low-hanging fruit of education, recall of facts, and as you demonstrated in your article – fail at even that.

I truly do not understand how anyone, especially educators, can conflate and confuse testing, teaching and learning. They are neither synonymous, nor interchangeable.

You cannot personalize knowledge! Knowledge by its very nature IS personal. It is constructed by the learner and is the result of experience. It is not the result of test-taking.

It is one thing to let your kid play with such software on a long car trip via 99 cent iPad apps, but the same misguided nonsense is being packaged as adaptive learning systems, integrated learning systems, “School of One” or other similar junk that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per school.

These “systems” are likely to be implemented in schools with the greatest needs and most at stake. In such cases, only stockholders profit at the expense of children who need much richer learning opportunities; the kinds that computers could offer if used to give agency to the learner and amplify human potential. Instead of learning to program, build robots, compose music, make films, design simulations, educationally impoverished children are being fed a steady diet of expensive low-level test-prep dressed up as artificial intelligence and adaptive learning.

I won’t bore you with all of the ways such software gets motivation wrong or how the content “taught” lacks relevance and context. Feedback is a whole lot more complicated than “wrong, try again” or “wrong, here’s an easier problem.”

Pretending that artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where competent teachers may be replaced by apps is at best wishful thinking, regardless of what the vendors tell you.

I am saddened most by educational technology enthusiasts advocating uses of computers that reinforce the worst aspects of schooling.

I am horrified that you actually believe that “I need to know if my child consistently forgets the capital of Rhode Island or where Wyoming is on the map.” That is the example you choose to debate the future of education?

I strongly urge you to read the following books to gain a deeper perspective on these issues:

The Connected Family” by Seymour Papert

Computer Environments for Children: A Reflection on Theories of Learning and Education” by Cynthia Solomon

We are cheating our students by turning reading into a game of dodgeball.

There is lots of talk about games and education these days. Educators mystified by students’ indifference to schooling are all too easily taken in by slick talkers drawing grandiose conclusions from some kids’ love aff airs with video games. Rather than take the steps necessary to make school more social, teachers more engaging, and curriculum more relevant, we either shift blame to parents, TV and hip hop, or seek salvation in the lessons of Grand Theft Auto.

Kids have always spent long periods of time engaged in activities different from those valued by school. Most display a talent for developing an encyclopedic knowledge of topics from dinosaurs to sports statistics to gossip. Children whose passion or aptitudes happen to match the tested curriculum are declared “good students.”

While we marvel at the intensity and focus required for children to achieve video game success, we are quick to label the same children as having attention deficits while in class. The capacity of children for intensity is squandered by mountains of worksheets, timed tests and other curricular contradictions.

Students as Workers

While we obviously recognize the value of play in video games, we cancel recess and build schools without playgrounds, referring to students “as workers.” As fewer children enjoy the sportsmanship and healthy competition learned from a friendly game of kickball with classmates, they have been transformed into soldiers in a high-stakes political game of international economic competitiveness.

Perhaps there are many more distractions facing children today, but great teachers continue to create environments where their students want to be and to learn. The answer to bad teaching is better teaching, not another worksheet, get tough movement or quick fix. The sad truth is that schools may be better at destroying interest in a subject than inspiring it.

A friend used to require his students to write a weekly television show review. This satisfied a variety of language arts objectives and shared the unintended consequence of the traditional book report: Students’ interest in TV would decrease with each report required.

Illiteracy is not a problem among preschoolers. Every toddler enjoys books. It isn’t until children attend school that they begin to feel self-conscious or failures as readers. We tell kids what to read. We interrupt their reading with comprehension quizzes. We rush, test, score, fail and recover them. We reduce the world of literature to “Fawn at Dawn.” In way too many cases, school has a highly effective prophylactic affect on reading. An alarming number of learning disabilities result.

Winning Points

Too often, schools respond to the literacy crises they create by turning reading into a game. I remember being told that I read 750 words per minute, a feat unmatched by TV’s Steve Austin. The secret behind my bionic ability was a talent for guessing answers to multiple-choice questions, not superhuman comprehension.

Many classrooms today use a popular software program to test student reading. No longer do students read for pleasure or information. They read to win points in a misguided effort to mechanize teaching and learning. This perverse notion of motivation turns reading into a contest with winners and losers. Strong readers choose simpler books to rack up points quickly, while struggling readers are humiliated by the public nature of their scores.

Guess what? Teachers tend to become dependent on teacher-proof systems and stop exercising professional judgment. While the company behind this system has been very nimble and creates tests for new books, teachers are unlikely to value the reading of a book not in the system.

Reading for fun wastes time you could spend crushing your classmates. With score tables automatically generated and parents alerted to their child’s pole position, teachers will invariably use the points in grading students regardless of the program’s intent.

Turning reading into a game is neither effective nor very good for inspiring lifelong readers.

Originally published in District Administration Magazine – April 2008