Computers and Learning

Do computers help children learn? Should schools invest in technology, or spend the same money on other things–like smaller class size or higher teacher salaries? For several decades, in the U.S. and most other countries, the answer to these questions seemed obvious: Of course we absolutely must have computers in schools. Why? Because everyone knows we’re in the age of computers, the age of the Internet, and we’d be irresponsible not to prepare our children to be tech savvy.

But there have always been contrarians, like education expert and Stanford professor Larry Cuban in his famous 2003 book Oversold and Underused. And in the last couple of months, I’ve seen three different high-profile cover articles in the New York Times that cast doubts about computers in schools (all of them by reporter Matt Richtel).

The first was by Matt Richtel on 3 September, 2011, titled “In classroom of future, stagnant scores.” Richtel visited schools in the Kyrene School District in Chandler, Arizona, a district that bought big into technology. All classrooms have plenty of laptops, big interactive screens, and educational software for every subject. Since 2005, the district has spent $33 million on this initiative. The goal aligns with the best learning sciences research: To transform the classroom itself, away from an older model of the teacher delivering information to students with a lecture–“the sage on the stage” to a newer, research-based model where the teacher guides students as they learn at their own pace–“the guide on the side.”

Teachers and parents love it. The National School Boards Association trumpets Kyrene as a model to follow. But there’s a problem: Richtel reports that test scores in reading and math haven’t gone up at all. Does this mean they just wasted $33 million? And this year they’re going back to the voters for an additional $46.3 million over the next seven years. Richtel interviewed Stanford professor Larry Cuban, who told him “There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period.” But Richtel also describes large studies showing a technology benefit, and points out that the Kyrene test scores were already pretty high so they couldn’t really go much higher (researchers call that a “ceiling effect”).

The second, published by Richtel with co-author Trip Gabriel on 8 October, criticized one of the best selling software applications to emerge from university education research: Carnegie Tutors. The article cites a variety of studies, some showing that their “math tutor” improves outcomes, others showing that it works no better than old-fashioned teachers with blackboards.

The third, published 22 October, describes an exclusive private Waldorf school in Lost Altos, California, a neighborhood known for its tech millionaires. Students include the children of eBay’s CTO, and children of people at Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard. Yet the school doesn’t have any computers in any classrooms. And furthermore, it doesn’t even allow computers in the school (and advises its students not to use them at home, either). Richtel interviews these high tech titans, who say things like “My kid can pick up computers in a couple of days when they’re teenagers. Now they need to learn more important stuff.”

So, we know where Matt Richtel stands: with Larry Cuban and the techno skeptics. I agree we should all be skeptical. But the issue isn’t computers or no computers; the issue is, how can we design learning environments that foster the deep learning, the creative potential, required in the 21st century? The new sciences of learning are just now beginning provide the answer: the best learning environment is responsive, moment to moment, to each student’s pace of development. The best learning environment helps students articulate their developing understandings, and to externally represent that understanding. The best learning environment provides immediate and substantive feedback. And unfortunately, many of these things are impossible for even the most talented teacher to provide in a class of 30 students (or even 15, or 10, students).

My take on the current situation is that we don’t yet have the right educational software, software that’s grounded in this science of learning. Software that brings learners together through networks, guiding their communications for example, so that they learn better how to engage in academic discourse and productive argumentation. Software that allows students to develop sophisticated scientific visualizations of fairly complex concepts, even with only a middle schooler’s abilities.

To get there from here, it will take a while. Yes, computers and software cost money. And yes, as Richtel points out in these articles, there are for-profit businesses out there who are spinning the studies to sell as much product as they can. My colleagues in the learning sciences have to be aware of this broader picture…why should a school spend more money and yet get the same results? We need a national effort to connect research on learning with these big policy and economic issues.

I admire Waldorf schools; I’m a big fan. But like Montessori schools, there is a sort of cultish element that tends to prevent them from changing. Because Maria Montessori didn’t advocate the use of computers, Montessori schools don’t use them. Of course, Montessori died before personal computers existed, but that seems not to matter: Montessori schools still use the same manipulatives that Montessori herself developed well over 50 years ago. We’ve learned a lot about how children learn since then; I always wonder why Montessori methods, or Waldorf methods, never change in spite of contemporary research.

And I admire schools like Kyrene. The administrators there have true vision. Vision, as the old quotation has it, is “Shooting at the target no one else can see–and hitting it.” So maybe at first, you shoot at it and miss. But with each shot you’ll get closer. If you don’t even try, you’ll never hit the target.

1. Richtel, “In classrooms of future, stagnant scores.” New York Times Sep 3, 2011.

2. Gabriel and Richtel, “Inflating the software report card” New York Times Oct 8, 2011.

3. Richtel, “A Silicon Valley school that doesn’t compute” New York Times Oct 23, 2011.

5 thoughts on “Computers and Learning

  1. Keith –

    It’s not actually true that Montessori schools uniformly don’t use computers. Our kids go to a Montessori school, and they have a computer in every classroom, which our kids regularly use for a variety of things. It is true that they use computers much less than many other schools, because they don’t use computers just for the sake of using computers (as many schools do, in order to show they are being “modern”). The Montessori method also emphasizes the tactile precisely because, according to the theory, being able to represent things in physical space helps kids understand before they are capable of getting the concept. Maybe software could be developed that approximates that, or that does it better for certain things. But it doesn’t exist yet.

    1. That’s interesting! I wonder how “doctrinaire” your school is and how it is accredited. My son has been in two different Montessori schools, the more doctrinaire one didn’t have computers.

      Montessori’s focus on concrete objects aligns with Piagetian theory and with a lot of contemporary education research. Do you know Angeline Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius? It’s a good book, but when I reviewed it (in PsycCritiques, June 2006) I pointed out that all of the research she cited supports a broad range of early childhood programs, but not Montessori’s activities specifically.

      1. Our school is a full member of the AMA, so it takes being a Montessori school very seriously. You’re probably right that there’s a lot of variation here in terms of how doctrinaire Montessori schools are, but even among some that take the approach very seriously, they do use technology (even if less than other places). I wasn’t suggesting that Montessori is the only approach that is consistent with research, just that that is what explains the fixation on the concrete objects. I do think it differentiates Montessori schools from what happens in most conventional schools as they exist right now, but that’s not the same thing.

  2. Mark: Thanks for chiming in and pointing out the variation in Montessori schools and your advocacy for Montessori. Where is your school located? Also, I think you had a typo, is your school AMS or AMI certified?

    Keith: It is a fair point that Montessori has not updated its materials or its methods in a half-century. But given that the Montessori approach, when well-executed. does all of the things you listed as part of the “the best learning environment” as increasingly proven by the new sciences of learning and is light years ahead of traditional schooling, I don’t understand how you can be so critical of Montessori (and Waldorf) for not evolving when they are far more advanced than most traditional schools.

    Why shouldn’t Montessori be held up as a model, great platform and foundation for 21st century learning?

    No matter how amazing computers and software get and how much they reflect the science of learning, don’t these still need to be situated in human contexts and wouldn’t the context of Montessori or Waldorf be far better than the context of schools and classrooms that continue to operate based upon a a design and ethos of the mid19-th century?

    Do we really expect computers to be so advanced in the next 25 years, if ever, be able to teach kids resiliency, grit, curiosity, empathy and a host of other skills that lead to a successful and fulfilling life?

    Shouldn’t we be more strongly supporting approaches that have proven that they can instill and develop these traits instead of labeling them as “cultish” and suggesting that they are antiquated?

    Can we really afford to wait for technology to catch up to the prescience of innovators like Dr. Maria Montessori?

    1. Absolutely, Maria Montessori was far ahead of her time, and the practices and methods she advocated have been supported by research. But the rest of the world has caught up to her ideas from long ago. (Now generally associated with Jean Piaget and constructivism.) Almost every preschool today supports “developmentally appropriate practice” or DAP and those practices are based in the same research that supports many of Montessori’s ideas. So yes, I think Montessori schools are wonderful. But I don’t think they are uniquely wonderful. Basically, any strong preschool with well-trained educators will be designed based in good research. There is no research showing that Montessori schools are superior to any good DAP preschool. They are just as good, to be sure, and certainly parents should consider all of the options to choose what is right for their child.

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