Fellow ZDNet blogger, Sam Diaz, wrote an interesting piece yesterday highlighting a vital message from Intel Chairman, Craig Barrett, during his keynote at the Intel Developers' Forum. Quoting both Barrett and Sam's paraphrasing,
“Nations are as strong as their educational systems,” he said, noting that in his travels to emerging countries around the globe, technology and education seem to go hand-in-hand. There are countries, he said, that are just coming out of the dark ages but recognize that a quality education and the influence of technology are the keys to building a solid future. There’s only one country on the globe that doesn’t think that way, he said. And it’s the United States.
Bingo. This isn't to say that you can't do a really fine job of educating kids in the absence of technology. Former ZDNet blogger George Ou will be happy to tell you how much he learned in his first few years of school in a mud hut in China. My old Japanese teacher from high school would rail on the American educational system as he described the shack in which he attended school, keeping his bento box warm on the single woodstove.
However, and this is a really huge however, entire educational systems are embracing technology as a means of enhancing, extending, remediating, and otherwise improving education, regardless of how rigorous their fundamental curricula might be. The United States, on the other hand, continues to rely on standardized testing and focus on getting all students to reach a "lowest common denominator" educationally.
Sure, plenty of schools in the States are throwing tech at kids, although the disparity between the tech haves and have nots is quite striking. The problem, though, is that educational models aren't shifting to fully leverage the technology. Even in my average district, the powers that be finally acknowledged that a few classes on Office and web design do not make a technologically-enhanced curriculum. That's why they hired me.
We can buy all of the Intel Classmates we want, but if we don't use them to drive students to achieve, learn, and reach way beyond those "common denominators", we're wasting our money. If we don't use them to find the kids who need help and challenge the kids who are just spinning their wheels, we might as well be huddled around a woodstove. At least my Japanese teacher knew his times tables.
As Barrett points out, it's time for a shift away from teaching to the test and a shift towards challenging kids and seriously raising the bar. In classrooms where we must accommodate a very heterogeneous group of kids, there is nothing better than a computer and some interesting science equipment to let the high-flyers, well, fly high. There aren't actually many better tools than some well-thought-out software and hands-on tools to reach the kids who are struggling. Computers should be much more than Wikipedia access points and word processors. Talk back below about some innovative programs with which you have been involved.