July 21, 2024


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

16 thoughts on “Wrong

  1. Have been thinking about this for the last day or so after discussing the eschoolnews “top ed-tech picks for 2012” which seemed inundated with learning systems that spruce up and decorate “kill-and-drill” assessments. Wasn’t there a time when that was considered bad teaching? Thanks for the response to this disturbing trend.

    Now I have to go download some electronic flash cards because my second grader dropped a letter grade because she is not fast enough on her timed math facts assessments.

  2. Hi JD,

    Thanks for reading my post. I only read eSchoolNews when someone shoves it under my nose. 🙂

    Here is an article I wrote on the subject of such “systems” in 1992 – http://bit.ly/ft5Srf

    You cant’t accuse me of inconsistency.

  3. Thank you for that strong response! I read the article and was really saddened by both tone and topic. Thanks for expressing and sharing this- we desperately need your voice!

  4. Hello Gary,
    I have not read the other articles, just your response here. However, this thinking that ICT (technology) is about skill and drill is something that we see at the lower end of the scale. That is not dismiss it entirely as it may have some benefits with reinforcing knowledge or as you said assessing prior knowledge. BUT the use of ICT for the creative aspects such as film making, podcasting etc provide both teachers and students a full spectrum of skills and knowledge to draw upon and learn. Unfortunately I still see today that programs such as Mathletics are incorporated into an ICT program and are seen to be meeting the needs of the school community. There are many messages about ICT and it depends on which have been heard by leaders as to which direction schools go. Just like there are many messages about education in general, often conflicting.

  5. Gary,

    One big thing to share here is that the New York Times contacted me and did not ask me about the topic to write about. They asked if I would write about Adaptive Learning. It was that or nothing, although I would have preferred to write about global collaboration in the classroom, differentiation, and the other things I’m more passionate about, that was the topic and it was write it or just not do it, so I decided to write it. To characterize that I think this is the “salvation of education” is preposterous. Take it for what it is… about adaptive learning and the drawbacks and how it could be used. It isn’t meant to be some sort of banner I carry. It is my opinion on adaptive learning and how it can be used.

    People want to talk about learning analytics and adaptive learning and so we must show them the place for these tools and the drawbacks. STandardized testing isn’t going to go away and so we should show how it could be done that would be more helpful. But the approach of just saying everyone is dumb and doesn’t get it isn’t helpful.

    It is crazy that we are “standardized testing” to the extent we are – but if we’re going to do it, it should move from pen and paper onto some sort of adaptive format that we can use.

    Secondly, we can’t replace a teacher with such a thing. Are you crazy? I reread my article and it didn’t say that. In fact, I had a nice like 700 word article that was hacked way down.

    Finally, there is a place for adaptive learning, however, the way it is being done now IS NOT working. There are no feedback loops. I don’t really care if you think memorization is not the way to go – that doesn’t help me help my fourth grader ace his states and capitals test or learn his math facts. You can tell me to go to another school all you want to, but the fact is I’m in a town of 5000 and don’t have the choices. These are the facts of modern education.

    If you have to have your child do memorization then the way to do it is with the gaming and other tools IF we can only get the feedback tools in place to build that link between the teachers and the parents.

    I will say that this piece was a challenge. In fact, the first edit so butchered what I said that I emailed them and told them I would not allow it to be published and to find someone else. It did get down to what I wanted to say, however, it was so edited (for brevity) that it left out the parts about the links with the teachers and what should be done. I think in this case it would have been better longer but it is what it is.

    Take things for what they are and when you raise red flags and start panicking people (who don’t even go read the original post.) ICT isn’t about skill and drill. It is so much more. I would have loved to write about Flat Classroom but that wasn’t an option available to me by the time they got to me. 😉

    The fact is I agree with so many things both you and the commenters have said here. I don’t think we are as far a part as you conclude us to be.

  6. Thank you for the thoughtful post Gary. It’s a bit of a worry seeing the proliferation of iPads in some Australian schools where drill and kill is taking centre stage. Rather like an electronic worksheet really. Wouldn’t it be great if school systems, school administrators and teachers ask the big question WHY before the devices are placed into the hands of the learner.

  7. As for the combatants, etc. we were told what to write on– it wasn’t an open ended question about what would improve education. If that is how they are portraying it that is not right. I was asked to write on adaptive learning and the place it should have if any.

  8. Gary – you didn’t link to the original post or to my blog in this article. That seems very closed to me. You only linked to your own work.

  9. Helen,

    It might be helpful if those of us who promote richer more thoughtful uses of computers if we either ignored or stopped giving any credibility to drill and practice software. Bad ideas don’t need our help promoting them.

    When I teach educational computing at the graduate level, I never show or discuss computer-assisted instruction. People are well aware of it. My discussion of it only bestows legitimacy.

    CAI software may help a kid with a very narrow skill deficit, but in most cases causes students to fall further behind as the dosage of drill and practice is increased to address their growing lag behind peers.

    See you in March (I hope),


  10. My sincere apologies to Vicki Davis for not including a link to the source of her original essay. That was an accidental oversight that I have since corrected above.

    That link provides an important context for my critique.

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