World’s best classrooms are low-tech

In nations with the highest-performing students, classrooms “contain very little tech wizardry,” writes Amanda Ripley on Slate Magazine.  “Children sit at rows of desks, staring up at a teacher who stands in front of a well-worn chalkboard,” just like in U.S. classrooms in 1989 or 1959.

“In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

Kristin De Jesus, a San Diego high school student, is attending a public school in South Korea as an exchange student.

“In California, we use white boards, while in Korea they use chalkboards,” she says. “There is a dirt field outside. We have a projector, that’s about it.” Back home, teachers would hand out Mac laptops for kids to work on in class. But in Korea, the only computers are older PCs, and they remain in the computer lab, which is used only once a week for computer class.

Korean students attend school for eight or nine hours a day and then study hard at night.  “When I was in California, I barely ever studied and did pretty well in my classes,” De Jesus admits.

Finland also excels on international tests — but without long school hours or high pressure, Ripley notes. Both South Korea and Finland have one thing in common: Smart teachers. All teachers come from the top third of the class,  according to a McKinsey survey which found only 23 percent of U.S. teachers were top-third students.

On a visit to a high-performing KIPP school in Washington, D.C., Ripley counted four computers in a fifth-grade math class, “an ink-jet printer, and an overhead projector that looked to be at least 15 years old.”

Later, I asked (Lisa) Suben, who has been teaching for eight years, what the perfect classroom would look like. “If I were designing my ideal classroom, there’d be another body teaching. Or there’d be 36 hours in the day instead of 24.”

Suben praises computer-adaptive tests, which produce instant results she can use to understand how each student is doing.”It might say, ‘You know how to round to the hundreds, but you don’t know how to round to the thousands?’ That’s, for me, an aha moment.”  But Suben’s desert-island teaching tool is the overhead projector. “I wouldn’t be able to give up the overhead, because then I’d have to turn my back to the class,” she said.

KIPP DC founder Susan Schaeffler, a former teacher, says it would cost $300,000 to put an interactive white board in every classroom in the school.  “I’d rather pay Lisa Suben more to stay forever.”