Technology and Underserved Communities
I sometimes make fun of the AP students that I work with:
“Was the Constitution signed on a Monday or Tuesday?”
“How does that help you answer a question on federalism?”
“I don’t know but it could be important one day.”
“It won’t be. Are you going to break out into a Jessie Spano freakout if we don’t answer that in the next few minutes?”
As a teacher, I hold the very unpopular opinion that we aren’t actually teaching students to know facts, theorems, and authors just for the sake of knowing those things on their own. We are teaching students how to learn and most importantly, to actually LIKE learning.
I realized some of that the other day when I was reading to my six-year old. It was a book of maps. And like everyone else, I have read countless things about reading to kids. My son has heard me read everything from The Economist to “Very Smart Brothas” to Ta’Nehisi Coates. So back to the book of maps. He actually has a few of these types of books and there really isn’t much text in them. But we got into a conversation this last time about how Turkey is partly in Asia and Europe, and what that means for migrants. And then the recent attacks at the airport. I was impressed with my son’s capacity and what his curiosity leads to. And I realized that is what we are really doing with the reading. He wants to read and watch the news because he’s curious and wants to know what’s happening. And as he gets older, he wants his language abilities to match the questions he’s asking.
And the older we get the more we are trying to do that: match what our brain is thinking and wanting with language to articulate it.
I had this same thought when I was looking at this recent article on the use of tech for underrepresented groups. As a teacher, I use a lot of technology but I don’t use it to explain for me; I use it as a conduit. Sometimes I use it to help students make the most of their words on Twitter or I use it to help them organize their thoughts in Popplet. Sometimes I use it so that they learn to collaborate as in Google Docs or even to learn how to research as in Google Books. But never, never do I use it to access information…at least not until this year. This year, due to the passing of a teacher, I was given the task of being two people at once. I relied heavily on technology to be that second person and in my perfectionist lens, it failed miserably. I gave the students opportunities to collaborate and articulate their thoughts but the human was absent from their learning and that’s why it failed. And the students felt it too. The Snap Chat generation wanted to hear me talk, they said, rather than stare at another device.
As a college counselor, I think about this a lot too. There are a ton of online tools available to “teach” students and most of those claim to be able to reach underrepresented groups. But they don’t, primarily because the human is missing. Who do they ask questions to? Who is tailoring the lesson to fit their needs? Who is sifting through information to know what they have to learn and what’s not necessary? I saw a study recently about the high schools that have the highest admissions to elite colleges, and one stood out to me: Stanford’s Online High School. Some of the classes they offer sound pretty awesome and I’m down to take them. But what are we saying about teachers and technology when students can achieve on such high levels with almost no human interaction.
As a college counselor, I again hit some frustration using the type of technology that is available and supposedly good for underrepresented groups because of the mere fact that it is available online and considered accessible. I can look at a student’s gradebook and test scores and know that the reason Algebra didn’t work out that time is because the student has quite grasped absolute values and the point of a number line. If a student doesn’t know the number line, Geometry is going to be all bad. But I don’t need the student to repeat all of Algebra to get that point. So I’ve created courses such as a preview of Geometry for students who failed Algebra, and it only looks at the skills in Algebra that are necessary for success later, not at everything, causing students to have low self esteem when it comes to the tough subjects. I hate hearing “I’m just bad at math” when the reality is that most students need more work in conceptual math because they’ve never done it before.
I’ve had this thought with many courses and continue to create and revise courses to make them accessible to my clients. We don’t need to know how Mr. Darcy ate his lunch; we need to know why Jane Austen put him in the story. How would the story change if he was twenty years older, for example? I like to start my US History class talking about why are we starting this discussion in 1492, and very little to do with who sailed where. I introduce derivatives by asking students to try to figure out the slope of a curvy line; why can’t you do it? Point is, teaching is an art and science: teaching students to be curious and to communicate that curiosity in order to satisfy it.
There are two big things that I have been conceptualizing recently, one of which I talked about in an email to my clients. I am moving to an online platform. Having said all of that about technology, the most important part for me is to maintain the art and science of teaching. With that, I welcome suggestions from you on how to do that. What do you find is most important when you use online tools? What annoys you? What do you wish it did? Take the survey or say something in the comments below.