The cover article of this month’s Phi Delta Kappan is titled “Conspiracy Theory: Lessons for Leaders from Two Centuries of School Reform” (James Nehring). It presents a similar argument to the one that I presented above with an emphasis on longstanding cultural factors that obstruct school reform today. His six historical factors are:
1. The tendency to view schools as factories.
2. The tendency of community fears to drive school activity.
3. The tendency to impose plans that look great from above and make little sense at the ground level.
4. The tendency of the system to crush promising innovation.
5. The tendency of schools to say less to all legitimate requests.
6. The tendency to promote favored groups to the detriment of others.
The article pulls examples from 100-150 years ago of both progressive and regressive tendencies in school organization. It’s always fascinating to read quotes from that long ago that sound like they were written yesterday. It reminds me of a Life Magazine cover I have in my office. It decries the urgent state of teacher pay and training and shows an “Oregon science teacher with handmade prop.” The date is 1953!
In the Kappan article, Nehring compares language used to describe schooling before and after the industrial revolution. In the early days of industrialization, schools are describe as factories that produce products through an assembly-line method, much as they are today. Standardization and performance are primary. In stark contrast, earlier language is agrarian in nature: children are cultivated, learning environments are groomed. Nehring wonders whether a return to agrarian language would more closely match what we know is more effective teaching.
Fast-forward to the present, and we see a lot of speculation on the new face of learning in an information age. While I will argue that we still very much rely on industrial manufacturing, let’s consider for a moment an educational environment whose families are largely rooted in an information age economy. It may be the case that a world of networked information stores and communication vehicles leads to the kind of wide-open, globally-based information education that some bloggers propose. Yet, this could be another educational blunder if one considers that the optimal educational environment still bears more similarity to the metaphors of cultivation and individual attention than to global interconnectivity and information retrieval.
Teachers understand individual relationships best, and even the most technologically savvy warn of the increasing depersonalization of computer-based environments. Though Second Life or blogging may create an educational environment in which there is constant connectivity and tons of messages flying back and forth among students and teachers, this does not necessarily produce the nurturing, reflective learning environments required for proper education.
Can technology enhance nurturing teacher-student relationships and individual attention to educational progress? Definitely. I think of multi-year electronic portfolios in Elgg or Drupal and individual teacher comments on assignments in Moodle. I don’t think of class blogs or social networks. In this case, more connectivity does not necessarily mean better. Let us remember what makes for good teaching and focus on technology tools that enhance these aspects.