Teachers vs computers

From a recent twitter conversation in which I played DA (devil’s advocate), I came up with an experiment to which any educator with any sense knows the outcome.  The discussion originated from a series of posts by many that I follow on the benefits of 1:1 computing.  I took a hardline stance that 1:1 computing does not make a difference in education, it is teachers that make a difference.

The argument I was making was that our valuable tax dollars are better spent creating better teachers rather than on machines to entertain kids.  Of course, I agree with most all of the arguments for 1:1 initiatives.  However, the dialogue surrounding tech integration too often shifts toward placing too much emphasis on the technology and not enough on what teachers do to engage students.

Anytime you find yourself or one of your colleagues slipping into “all we need is the right technology and everything will be ok” mode, try this thought experiment.  Imagine two schools.  In school A, randomly select 30 teachers from the population and provide them with unlimited technological resources.  In school B, find the best 30 teachers from around the world and only allow them to use “traditional” technologies (chalkboard, pencil, paper, etc).  What school would you place your children in?

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27 Responses to Teachers vs computers

  1. @blairteach says:

    Ideally, we want the best teachers to have the best tools. What a difference THAT would make! Unfortunately, some leaders see the tools of technology as a way to prop up mediocre (or, worse yet, lousy) teachers. I agree that a phenomenal teacher with no technology is better than a poor teacher with technology.

    I had a similar reaction recently while working with teachers about using graphic organizers. Too many teachers forget that is the thinking that goes into constructing a graphic organizer that gives it its power. Very often, teachers are using graphic organizers as note-taking guides and tell students what to write in each part of the graphic organizer–no thinking or constructing meaning involved. In that case, students are just taking notes in funny shapes and teachers are bypassing the power of graphic organizers.

    “[W]hat teachers do to engage students” absolutely is the key to quality instruction. Teaching and learning MUST come first. Any tools we choose to use must augment teaching and learning, not overwhelm it.


  2. mrsgannon says:

    Good point! Technology is a tool, a powerful tool yes, but a tool. The success of tools depends on the skill of the user. I cannot draw well – putting the best paintbrush in my hand will not make me Leonardo da Vinci.


  3. Megan Roelfs says:

    As you say, I think anyone with educational experience would choose school B, however, I think parents and the general population don’t understand how much technology can “get in the way” of authentic learning, therefore many people would choose school A.


  4. Without a moment’s hesitation, I would choose the school with the excellent teachers and traditional resources. I’m not a teacher, and no amount of technology would make me the kind of teacher I would want to be or students would need me to be.


  5. Al Gonzalez says:

    I want my child to go to, and I want to teach in, School C – 30 best educators and unlimited technology! Great educators have to come first through education, training, and plc/pln work plus other PD, but give me the tech as well!


  6. Russ Goerend says:

    Ask the public that question, Jerrid. I’d put a LOT of money that the vast majority of parents would put their kids in school A. Maybe that was part of your point, but I don’t think it was.

    We — the folks you were having the discussion with — know that teachers matter. We weren’t arguing from the same premise you were: random teachers w/ tech vs. good teachers only old tech. We consider ourselves good teachers, at least teachers of the mindset to be always-improving. That’s why we want 1:1 in our schools, because we’re ready to *add* it to what we already do.

    See this post on my thoughts regarding what happens we go into change tech-first: http://www.russgoerend.com/2010/02/force-is-strong-with-shiny-one.html

    The key line (in my opinion) is the last one (which only makes sense in the context of the post): My fear is that if we start our journey by attempting to walk through the Technology circle, the pull of that super-strong magnet won’t let us get to the center.


    • jerridkruse says:

      Russ, I remember reading that post and liking it very much. I would have to agree that those with whom I was discussing were not naively worshiping technology, but reacting to my irrational stance of anti-technology (to which i do not actually subscribe).

      My point is that our discourse around technology so easily slips into troubling views. You might say that it is only semantics, but i would say exactly. We need to carefully say what we mean.


  7. Ira Socol says:

    Your experiment has a serious flaw: Your question needs to look like this, (A) The school with the best technology v. (B) The best teachers but no technology – they meet students Socratic style, in a field – no papers, pencils, books, science lab equipment, etc. This is the question, and it goes back 2500+ years. It is why Socrates opposed literacy – the “tool” seemed too important to him.

    But your “Devils Advocacy” really looks like this: (A) Contemporary technology and random teachers v. (B) Best teachers and what you choose to define as “acceptable” technology (are you allowing blackboards but not whiteboards? Fountain pens but not ballpoints? Hard cover books but not paperbacks? Science Labs by not computers?), and that is a false dichotomy.

    The tools of our society expand the opportunities for students to learn. Very few could learn the Socratic way. You had to memorize all knowledge. You had to be an excellent public speaker. You had to be close enough to Socrates 24/7 to fully engage. Literacy was introduced into ancient Greece to help “democratize” education and knowledge. But oh, those foolish parents who would choose a school with 1:1 books over just having the best teachers…


    • jerridkruse says:

      ah, but even your experiment has a serious flaw. Language itself is but a technological advance. So the real question is education with the best teachers or no education at all. This may be the point, when kids do not get the best teachers, their education is not the same as those who do get the best teachers.

      Your finer points about my allowing only “acceptable” technology are not fruitful because they lie beyond my point. My point is not to be anti-technology, my point is to be pro-teachers.

      PS. I make sure my classroom is not 1:1 textbooks. I have a classroom set that we use as a resource, not as instruction. When we have “things” performing our instruction, we aren’t really teaching at all. Yet, if we teach students how to effectively use these things, we teach students to teach themselves.


  8. Ira Socol says:

    So learning only happens with teachers? That’s a pretty school-centric concept.

    Yes, language is a “technology” but, communication is not. Virtually all species communicate in one form or another. Communication is not a “human invention” or a “human skill.” My cat learned much from his mother. My dog learned much from hers. My dog learns from my cat. “Language” as you are limiting it, is but one way in which organisms transmit knowledge among each other.

    Let’s ask the question this way: Here’s the choice for your children: (A) A great teacher with no resources, or, (B) no formal teachers but access to the information resources and art and music of the world. That is, your child can sit and listen to one, or two, or three great teachers – as their entire source of learning (“Pro-teacher”) or they can wander Fifth Avenue in NYC between the NYPL and the MMA with an iPhone in their hand (“technology”).

    My point is not to de-value teachers, but to suggest that your focus on “teaching alone” is a shocking restriction of learning opportunities, and (according to my theory of “Transactional Disability”) you are creating disabilities en mass. Those who don’t have your attention span, those who lack your hearing capabilities or memory skills, those who can not walk to be in the presence of these “great educators.”

    Humans learned an awful lot through “technology alone” before formal education arrived. Through spoken language and drawn symbols and art and music and travel made possible by transportation technologies. Kids today learn at a far greater rate before they first meet a “teacher” than they ever do in even the best teachers’ presence.

    So, yes, I’ll take the technologies. Most of us will, because inherently, we know how kids learn.


    • jerridkruse says:

      ah, resorting to insults. If you don’t agree with someone it is easier for you to call them an “ist” isn’t it. Perhaps you could gain some perspective and realize I am making a point not making an argument against technology. If you think technology is the answer to equity you are missing that many technologies act as or become tools of oppression. It is so easy to jump on the techno-worshipping bandwagon. I am trying to get people to critically think about their technology use so that these strong oppressive forces can be called out and diminished. Clearly I have accomplished the goal of getting people to think critically about their tech use. Thank you for trying to maintain the status quo and making my point more needed.

      Also, you seem to have completely missed that the above “experiment” is only to raise awareness and increase thinking, not to say we should abandon all tech use. You and I both agree that access to tech and quality teachers would be the best, yet we have taken extreme positions against each other and look at the dialogue that has been generated! However, I do not want to continue as I feel we are both becoming too emotional over something we likely agree on, so any more insults would be counterproductive and unnecessary.

      Best wishes.


  9. Ira Socol says:

    I really don’t think I was being insulting, I’m sorry you feel that way. Our initial points-of-view might differ dramatically despite the fact that I think we agree on the essential issues and points. You (I’m guessing) are looking for “the best school design.” I am not, in general, in favour of schools – in my experience they do more harm than good for most children – so I’m looking for “the best educational experience.”

    So, yes, like Gramsci, I may appear to be a “status quo” educational conservative. Gramsci, and I, thought/think that the pre-industrial education system – flawed as it was – is still preferable to “The Prussian Model” – the Henry Barnard system of classrooms and teachers and time schedules used in the US since the Civil War (or, in Gramsci’s case, as introduced into Italy by Mussolini).

    I think it is powerful to raise awareness, but, in an experiment to look at the relative importance of “teachers” and “technology” you logically try each in isolation rather than trying both mixed with a bad version of the other. That, in scientific terms, is inherently corrupted evidence.


    • jerridkruse says:

      Seriously, you just gave me all sorts of new people to look up and read. Thanks! I’m sorry I took your remarks as offensive (I tend to do that and need to work on it). You have some interesting points about education and the idea of “schools being the problem” is certainly one worth investigating. I find myself as a member of the broken system wondering what I can do to change it from within. I have enjoyed the push/pull both on here an on twitter. And I highly recommend anyone reading these comments to follow @irasocol on twitter and to subscribe to his blog – lots of good challenging stuff.


  10. Ira Socol says:

    In most of my conversations, either on blogs and twitter, or as an instructor of new or soon-to-be teachers, I try (and should try harder) to point out our different roles. I am here to be a Utopian and a Provocation. I am not faced with the day-to-day facts of surviving in a classroom and working against a broken system. So I have a different level of freedom and – I think – a different level of responsibility.

    You need to protect your kids, hang onto your job, and fight to fix a system. I get to question the system’s existence, and push people to doubt “everything” so that they are able to look from new angles.

    Also, I was a total failure in school. Almost every day was a nightmare. That creates a very different set of eyes. Surely not unbiased eyes.


  11. Michael Doyle says:

    What an amazing sequence of comments!


  12. Jane Ross says:

    I would be interested in how you would go about developing these ‘fantastic teachers’ who have no technology skills. Just because you’re a fantastic teacher doesn’t necessarily make you able to infuse technology in your teaching. Likewise to have teachers who don’t use technology at all – well – I’m sorry – they aren’t ‘fantastic’ at all. The way my school approaches the issue of 21st Century education is to employ expert teachers who are open to technology and include some technology Integrators on staff to help bridge the gap. If you think that 1:1 doesn’t make a difference – well you haven’t seen it working with the total solution. That being hardware, software, connectivity, tech support and pedagogical support. Take away one of those and it falls apart. When I try to explain the role of technology in education to teachers I say that it is threefold – technology furthers the learning, personalizes the learning and it documents the learning. So many educators fall into the trap of using technology for ‘cool stuff’ but forget about the desired outcomes of the learning – which must drive the curriculum.


  13. Jane Ross says:

    In today’s world? – I couldn’t disagree more :-)


    • jerridkruse says:

      I hope the smiley face means you were being sarcastic. The best teacher is experience not a screen. I don’t have kids research online about rocks, I have them observe rocks. Digital technologies are farther along the concrete to abstract continuum. If kids never go manipulate real objects, we are doing them a disservice. Of course I use digital technology in my classroom, but if I ever think a computer is better for teaching about rocks than an actual rock, I have drunk too much Kool-aid.


  14. JK says:

    Wow, amazing discussions! While as a parent and teacher I would absolutely choose the “fantastic” teacher with no digital resources over an average educator armed to the eyeballs with the latest and greatest technology, I also feel any teacher would be hard pressed (I hesitate to use the word “impossible” but…) to be fantastic, to be the best teacher he/she could be, without utilizing digital resources.


  15. jerridkruse says:

    I’m not supporting that teachers give up digital resources. I am arguing that we keep our tools in appropriate perspective.


  16. Jane Ross says:

    Well that’s a relief to hear. actually I was not being sarcastic at all. I thought you were suggesting teachers give up technology. I am a PYP teacher (IB) so of course hands on is an essential part of learning. I have already mentioned that technology furthers the learning (accessing what you can’t already do directly – like the time my class worked with an author from Holland who had grown up in the Dutch East Indies – we emailed her and ichatted with her to ask about her website that she wrote about based on her experiences http://www.dutch-east-indies.com) of course being based in Indonesia we had already visited museums and talked to war heroes directly but it is very hard to find any Dutch people who experienced that era – who are still here.
    I also mentioned that using technology personalizes the learning in that students can create movies/multimedia presentations about the subject area showing their knowledge gained from various sources – direct and indirect (digital) to be shared online and offline and finally using technology documents the learning as we use digital mind mapping for brainstorming or video for recording direct experiences such as interviews or live experiments so that the film can be watched again to encourage reflection which is such an important part of learning.
    Personally I get quite frustrated when people assume that using technology means that direct experiences are replaced – they are most certainly not! For me technology comes first in the planning of a unit of work so that it can be used appropriately – just in time – and not just tacked on for the sake of it. Thanks for the conversation. If you are interested you can check out my blog http://www.1to1inpractice.blogspot.com


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