Battle Royale: Sports vs. Tech - who should win?

The athletic director for our local school district recently took some heat for the sad state of our high school's track. It was, in fact, some well-justified heat.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

The athletic director for our local school district recently took some heat for the sad state of our high school's track. It was, in fact, some well-justified heat. While you could never tell it from my ever-widening profile (not my Facebook profile or my digital reach, but my physical profile), I ran track in high school and remember the groans that a worn cinder track like this one would elicit from my teammates as our bus pulled up to meets at schools that didn't enjoy our well-funded suburban athletic facilities. Heck, even our practice track was rubber, if a bit worn in the turns and starting lines. The constant spray of cinders from your opponents' shoes could make 800 meters seem far longer.

Replacing the track in our little town, though, would be a nearly million dollar effort. For a million dollars, our schools could fund 1:1 initiatives, roll out powerful analytics, subscribe to state-of-the-art cloud services, and outfit science labs with the best tools available. A million dollars is a lot of money.

A million dollars could create a media center to rival those of the prep schools that surround us. It would fund RTI software for every struggling reader. It would start a gifted education program. It would save a lot of teachers' jobs and pay for professional development in any number of subject areas for those teachers.

In reality, for our little district, there is no million dollars, even if we wanted to upgrade the track, save teacher jobs, or give every student a tablet and train every teacher to take advantage of them. These questions are purely hypothetical and actually verge on rhetorical since such a sum of money is so far out of the realm of possibility. These questions, though, point to a much larger issue. How do you allocate atrociously scarce resources?

There are those who would argue that sports (and even the arts) don't prepare students for the job market, giving technology a technical knockout (so to speak). Others would argue (correctly, I believe) that the teamwork, motivation, and drive inherent in sports represent the real 21st Century Skills we should be teaching. So, it would seem, we are at an impasse.

I send one of my sons to a tech-free, private elementary school. The kids play outside every day, rain or shine, snow or sleet. They learn music and yoga and European history. They take swimming lessons and put on plays and learn for the sake of learning. It would be trivial to layer technology on their approach to project-based and exploratory learning, but it isn't necessary. Yet this approach certainly wouldn't fly in high school when the need to develop both hard and soft skills as well as take learning to far more advanced levels becomes paramount. Even in high school, though, I want him (and my current high school-aged children) to dive deep into subjects and apply their learning in thoughtful, meaningful projects and work in groups to hone communication and collaboration skills.

My point is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution and there certainly isn't a solution that ignores tech or the arts or team activities (including sports) for the sake of any other approach. Learning is an holistic endeavor and it can't be sports or tech (or music or art or literature or whatever) that "wins". When resources are scarce (and when are they not?), then we do the best we can on all fronts to ensure that learning happens in a way that resonates with every student.

The track stays cinder, but students perfect their relay handoffs until their palms are red and sore and from the repeated thwack of the baton. The media center stays a library but students are rewarded for reading and spend time in deep discussion with teachers and peers about their readings. Schools do their best to subsidize 1:1 and allow students to bring their own devices so that the vast educational resources of the web can be at their fingertips. And teachers learn whatever they can, either independently or through each other to bring all of these elements together for their students.

The real battle needs to be ensuring the best possible outcomes for our students, not the verbal battles over which projects to cut that so often dominate school committee meetings.

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