The dangers of education technology

Technology is undermining math and science education, argues Konstantin Kakaes, a New America Foundation fellow, on Slate. Fancy gizmos and software shortcuts waste money and weaken learning, he writes.

When Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., recently renovated its classrooms, Vern Williams, who might be the best math teacher in the country, had to fight to keep his blackboard. The school was putting in new “interactive whiteboards” in every room, part of a broader effort to increase the use of technology in education. . . . It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.

. . . Williams doesn’t just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version. His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old—not because they can’t afford new ones, but because Williams and a handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better. The school’s parent-teacher association buys them from used bookstores because the county won’t pay for them (despite the plentiful money for technology). His preferred algebra book, he says, is “in-your-face algebra. They give amazing outstanding examples. They teach the lessons.”

The modern textbooks, he says, contain hundreds of extraneous, confusing, and often outright wrong examples, instead of presenting mathematical ideas in a coherent way.

Technology can help students learn concepts, advocates claim. In practice, that doesn’t happen, Kakaes writes. Students are even more likely to arrive in college with little understanding of math. The graphing calculator has done the work for them.

A science teacher demonstrated the superiority of her interactive whiteboard by showing him a music video featuring a Rube Goldberg machine. He wasn’t impressed. Then she showed a drawing of an electric circuit in which wires connect a light bulb to a battery. Close the circuit and the bulb lights up.

Her students like it when the bulb lights up, she says, because it reminds them of a video game. But this shortcut is dangerous. Learning how to visualize—as required when an electric circuit is drawn on a blackboard—is vital for developing the ability to think abstractly. You also have to make students manipulate real circuits with real batteries, with real wires that connect them and sometimes break. Showing them a toy circuit in computer software is an unhappy middle ground between these two useful teaching exercises: You neither learn how to trouble-shoot in the real world, nor do you think clearly about how electrons work.

Math and science require hard work, practice and perseverance, says Williams. There are no shortcuts.

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