Saturday, October 18, 2014

Students Byte Teacher's Apple?

If you run a school system and you want to make a big splash, buy a lot of glizy, gleaming tech and offer it to the students. But according to Dr. Madhav Chavan, who runs the educational non-profit company Pratham in India, that purchase probably won't do much for students who aren't already going to succeed.

The reason, Dr. Chavan says, is because the tech is just a patch on a broken system, and because much of the modern communication and information system isn't linear. While the traditional education system, which sorts students into grades and categories based on age and shlurps them up at one end to dispense them at the other whether they are actually educated or not, is most definitely linear.

I won't argue with Dr. Chavan, whose company is the largest nongovernmental education supplier in India. He began it after teaching chemistry at the University of Houston and then the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. Pratham began as a way to provide low-cost preschool education among the poorest people of Mumbai, and its success earned him the WISE Prize in Education in 2012. He probably knows a lot more about the intersection of technology and education than I do, and I would have to agree about the limited effectiveness of a non-linear-oriented set of tools in somehow repairing or improving a linear system.

But I'd take it one step more, myself. To me, one of the largest reasons that technology alone can't "fix" broken education systems is that education of human beings requires, before anything else, invested and interested human beings. The best teachers I remember are ones who wanted me to know the stuff they taught because I would be better off knowing it. My least favorites either wanted me to think just like they did or didn't much care whether I came out of class knowing anything more than I did when I went in. The best could teach with chalk and a flat rock; the worst couldn't help me learn anything with a Cray XK7 at their disposal.

Of course, hiring teachers like that means you have to make some room for them by offloading the dead weight. And ditching a significant percentage of anybody employed by the school who has a two- or three-word title beginning with "assistant" or "deputy." And probably a couple of other things, but I doubt Dr. Chavan needs my advice on that.

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