American students need a 21st-century education to thrive in our 21st-century world.
That’s the premise behind a slew of initiatives to incorporate more technology into classrooms.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week announced its $20 million Next Generation Learning Challenges to encourage the development of education technologies that will deepen student engagement.
“The kind of technological revolution that has transformed business, government, healthcare, and many other areas has not occurred in our schools,” Bill Gates wrote on his blog. “What’s needed now are creative, smart new solutions.”
Over at Slate, Amanda Ripley had an idea: If we want our kids to compete with students from the world’s top-performing countries, why not look to their best schools for inspiration?
The conventional wisdom might expect these high-achieving classrooms to look like futuristic learning centers brimming with laptops and interactive whiteboards.
Instead, Ripley discovered that classrooms in countries like South Korea and Finland look much like American classrooms have for the past 100 years: children sit behind rows of desks facing a teacher and a chalkboard.
“In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” said Andreas Schleicher, an education analyst for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “It does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”
South Korea consistently ranks among the top countries on international exams, and many Korean children use iPods and iPhones at home. The only computers they use at school are outdated PCs clustered in computer labs they visit once a week.
Still, Korea produces graduates who possess advanced math and science skills that are prized by today’s employers.
Ripley suggests Korea’s edge may be in its longer school days. Korean children attend school eight to nine hours each day, and then face parental pressure to study well into the night.
But in Finland, which ranked first in math and science among 30 OECD countries in 2006, kids have one less year of schooling than their American counterparts, do less homework, and rarely take standardized tests.
Perhaps the secret lies in teacher talent.
The recent McKinsey report found that teachers in countries like Singapore, Finland and Korea are recruited from the top third of their college classes. In the U.S., most teachers come from the middle tier or lower.
How do the best schools in the United States rank for technological advances?
Ripley visited several and found extraordinary teachers who coached their students to success using nothing more sophisticated than an overhead projector.
In the meatime, integrating technology into traditional classrooms is a growing trend in U.S. public schools.
Anthony G. Picciano, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York,estimated that 1 million elementary and high school students engaged in online coursework nationwide in 2007-08. That’s a 47 percent increase over the year before.
In New York City, where the Department of Education is spending nearly $7.2 million on technology-based learning programs for 13,000 students, teachers told The Wall Street Journalthat computers are helping them unlock the potential in students who were previously disengaged and difficult to reach.
Even the federal government is jumping on the technology bandwagon. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a speech last March:
“In the 21st century, schools can’t be throwbacks to the state of education 50, 20, or even 10 years ago… We must make the on-demand, personalized tech applications that are part of students’ daily lives a more strategic part of their academic lives.”
Is America’s focus on classroom technology a cure-all, or do we need to explore other avenues just as vigorously?