“We seem trapped in a language of schooling that stresses economics, accountability and compliance. These are important issues, to be sure, but they are not the stuff of personal dreams and democratic aspiration, not a language that inspires.”
“A good education helps us make sense of the world and find our way in it.”
– Mike Rose, Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us
I have been engaged in the educational technology landscape for over a decade. From the very beginning of the advent of “Web 2.0,” I was caught up in the potential for technology to empower young people and help their voice be heard. Starting back in 2009, my students were blogging, learning how to do effective internet searches, analyzing sources, creating animations, digital storybooks, Google Slides presentations, coding in Scratch, programming robots, and leveraging as many technology tools as possible. It felt magical–like a door had been opened and myself, and the other educators who were on this same journey had stepped into the next iteration of what teaching and learning could (and eventually would) look like.
Over the years, I continued to put new technologies into my students’ hands, to advocate for equitable access to these technologies, and to learn alongside my students. I slowly realized, however, that young people had been thrown into the deep end of this landscape with very little guidance, that I had not fully understood the broader impact technology like social media and other media had on my students, their understanding of the world, and their well being, I began to address these concerns and issues head on in my classroom. Online privacy, media literacy, screen time, online discourse, cyberbullying, and many other issues all became front and center and added an extra layer of consideration for me as a teacher. I also saw an increasing gap in access to new technologies that mirrored every other metric of school funding as it related to resources in schools. (Fun fact: I have, in almost 20 years working in Philadelphia schools spanning grades K-12, out of the 5 schools I have worked in, only one school has had a functioning library and a full time librarian– an independent school.)
Over the years, the dream of tech’s potential to empower and uplift students’ voices depended highly on how one defined “education” in the first place. As more tech entered classrooms, it was clear that some kids were creating with these new technologies, others were simply consuming what it gave them, and others were doomed to digital flashcards and adaptive reading and math programs aimed at raising test scores. It was also very unclear what impact, if any, most of these tools actually had on the academic growth or whether they actually led to deeper learning, higher quality products or processes when students were using them to create projects. (Thankfully, Digital Promise has begun the work on this front.)
Almost 15 years later, I am still engaged in many conversations around edtech. I am still exploring new technologies–specifically now the huge bucket of what we are now calling “web3” technologies. I still see their potential in the classroom. However, my lens has shifted.
A few things have become clear over the last few years. Edtech isn’t really a thing anymore. What used to feel new and shiny is just, well, teaching. John Spencer‘s book Pencil Me In inspired the #pencilchat hashtag many years ago as a kind of critique that we don’t dedicate special titles to lessons taught with pencils or textbooks–we don’t have “pencil integration.”
We have hit a point where using technology in the classroom has become like having pencils and paper or textbooks or any other staple of teaching and learning tools. I thought we might be moving into a space where learning truly leads to technology integration rather than teachers changing their instruction in order to incorporate some shiny new toy.
Now every other article, post, opinion, shill, etc… on my social media feeds are about how “AI Will Revolutionize Education” (I dare you to google this phrase…whew)
The problem is—we still don’t agree on how we define education in the first place.
If we have learned nothing from taking schools online and pushing devices into every kid’s hand, we have learned that more technology is not the answer to our problems. No, I’m sorry. AI is NOT going to revolutionize education.
Across the country and the world we were and are still dealing with the traumas of the pandemic. It forced us to think about our values, our goals, our hopes, our dreams, and our place in the world like never before.
So, of course, we decided that the best thing to do was to retreat to the safety of what we know in the hopes that familiarity would soothe our wounded psyches and our broken hearts.
And here we are.
To revisit the words of Mike Rose– we are trapped. Trapped in the language of “college and career readiness,” of “job readiness,” of CTE and “future-ready,” and preparing kids for the “jobs of the future.” Skills matter, don’t get me wrong, and there is some powerful stuff going on in schools that provide skills training and pathways directly into well-paying jobs. However, the world is different. We are different. The future is murky and AI has thrown a wrench in what future careers even look like. The enduring question has always been: “How do we prepare students for careers that don’t yet exist?”
The simple answer to that question is this: We prepare them to be resilient, to be able to work hand in hand with others, to be able to do hard things, to understand themselves and what motivates them, to see themselves as part of a community, both locally and globally, and to provide them with experiences that give them a window into the adult world they will be entering and eventually shape and inherit. Young people can gain valuable skills through traditional CTE and work-based learning opportunities and industry partnerships, but there is a dire need to help young people make sense of the world and find their way in it that goes beyond an internship or job training.
As adults, our influence is sunsetting. As I tell my students, my time is done. The world that I will grow old in is theirs to decide. The fear of a robot takeover, the existential threat that AI seems to have laid over the entire world will be faced and managed by the young people in our classrooms today. Simply teaching them how to use technology for a career or make cool stuff or use fancy hardware will not help address the many existential challenges that will face their generation. It will not help them be thoughtful, humane, ethical and kind people as adults. If we have learned anything, it is that these are qualities that only humans can bring to the table.
We don’t need more tech in our classrooms, we need more humanity. Less catching up on “learning loss” and more refocusing on what the purpose of school and education actually is (also education ≓ school) We need to help both adults and young people “reset” and have space to explore their values, goals, hopes, dreams and their place in the world–especially as we all are still reeling from the effects of a global pandemic, facing political turmoil, gun violence and a changing climate–to name a few. Making sense of the world and finding our way in it is the foundation from where we learn and the context for what we learn and why. Maybe I’ve become more of a curmudgeon mixed with eternal optimist as I get older, but I truly believe that if we can’t come to an understanding about what we believe is the purpose of education, then statements that claim that one new technology can revolutionize something we can’t even clearly define are just hot air. Yet, I still believe that it’s not too late pause and consider our values and goals as educators in the classroom and engage our students in what school is and could be for them.
I have been mulling over writing this post for weeks, maybe months, in my mind. Writing it has been a cathartic experience processing my jumbled thoughts. Over the last year or so I have been steeped in the work of building Walkabout Philadelphia based off of Walkabout, the school I attended in New York as a high school senior. This work has taken me back to that year, to my experiences as a student there that shaped me in so many ways and helped me become the person I am today. I have also been steeped in revisiting the concept of liberatory education often credited to the work of Paulo Freire, and its relevance today–especially as we see a wave of book bans and legislation across our country that impact what teachers can teach in their classrooms and what materials students can access.
Often, we look at skills-based or work-based learning like CTE or internships or other career-related experiences as a layer on top of or outside of the traditional curriculum. But, what if “post-secondary readiness,” or being “future ready” or prepared for the “jobs of the future” WAS the curriculum? What if school could help you gain skills AND help you make sense of the world and find your place in it? What if the work you did outside the classroom was integrated into your projects and curriculum inside the classroom and vice versa? What if the walls between your academic classes and the adult world were permeable?
After 15 years of working in edtech, evangelizing edtech, supporting teachers integrating technology into their classrooms, and staying on top of edtech trends, the shininess has dulled for me.
Until we can agree on what constitutes a “good education,” or at least be clear about our own values and priorities when it comes to educating young people, then I’m not sure if we have come that far from seeing tech as a shiny new toy that does cool stuff. As I move forward on my own journey as an educator, I am focusing more on the values, goals, hopes, and dreams of my students and how my classroom can embody Walkabout’s 5 Key Assumptions to help my students make sense of the world and their place in it:
- You can do more than you think you can.
- No one has more power in your life than you.
- Disappointment is an opportunity to grow and learn.
- Attitude is critical to success.
- Our greatest potential comes alive in community.
Just like, back in 2010, when we thought that if we just had everyone sign up for a Twitter account and had them follow a few folks then everyone would see the magic of the “PLN” and transform their teaching practices (hint: they mostly didn’t), we are in a place where teaching young people how to be “prompt engineers” and doubling down on “workforce readiness” is a distraction from the work of preparing this generation to guide us through this next phase, to meet challenges head-on, to collaborate, and to problem solve and to explore and find their place in the world. In the end, we should be asking: “What is school for?” and “What does it mean to be educated?” If tech can help support our answers to these questions, then, by all means we should be putting it in our classrooms and in the hands of our students.
I highly suggest checking out Mike Rose’s incredible book of essays: Why School?