Tag Archives: Technology in Education

The Question Concerning Technology

In one of those teacher’s lounge conversations, a colleague expressed his frustration with students who have cell phones. He took the stand that they were a distraction in the classroom. His idea was to have the students hand in their electronics every morning and pick them up at the end of the day.

I thought this was a horrible idea. First, it would be near impossible to get all of the electronics from students in the morning. They can just hide them in a recess of their book bag and claim they do not have anything. Second, even if you have metal detectors that can find the electronics, taking them, holding them and giving them back every day is a tremendous drain on school resources. How many people and how much time is going to be spent doing such a thing? There would be a line of students a mile long coming in and out of school. Finally, do you really want to leave the school on the hook for students’ electronics? What if they get lost or damaged while in the care of the school? I can imagine some sort of class-action suit filed by parents against the DOE for thousands of dollars of damaged electronics.

Even if such a practice was not the logistical nightmare it promises to be, it is still bad practice. Making students hand in their electronics gives these electronics more power. If the school is going out of its way to take these devices, then they must be dangerous (which is the same thing as “good” in the minds of many teens). It would shroud cell phones and IPods in an undeserved mystique of a forbidden fruit. Students would then redouble their efforts to get them into the school building, or at least redouble their efforts to use them once school is out.

Schools have always had irrational policies for electronics. In New York City, Bloomberg placed a ban on all cell phones. It is an impossible ban to enforce. The policy is designed merely to take schools off the hook for any responsibility for lost or stolen electronics. Other school systems have similar bans and go out of their way to enforce them.

Then there are schools that go to the other extreme and give themselves over to technology. They put smartboards, internet and other nifty gadgets in every classroom. They push these things onto students in the feverish, crusading spirit of preparing kids for the 21st century.

Neither of these approaches are constructive in my view. They both end up giving too much power to technology.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote an essay towards the end of his life entitled The Question Concerning Technology. Turgidly, it is an explanation of the idea that technology brings its own philosophy. It is not something neutral that humans can use for either good or ill. Technology brings with it its own value system and organizes life in its own way.

Instead of sacrificing our children to the Moloch of modern technology, either by banning it or by pushing it onto them, we should cultivate within students a stance of independence towards technology. In the age of standardized testing there is no room for such things, one of the reasons why the corporate reformers want testing in the first place. While students bury their noses in little bubble-in exams that test their knowledge of isolated factoids, the technological world marches on without much examination or notice.

Technology’s role in organizing our lives should be thoughtfully examined. Rather than be tethered to our cell phones and computers 24 hours a day (yes, I recognize the irony of writing this on the internet), we should learn why we are so tethered. Rather than giving ourselves over to the din of beeps, ring tones and alerts that draw us back to our technology, we should examine the role these things play in our lives. This is why, in my opinion, one of the single greatest things schools could ever do (and one that is almost never done) is to cultivate an appreciation for quiet reflection.

Heidegger wrote his essay as a person who was witnessing his agrarian world slip away. It was a reactionary response to the advent of modern technology, to be sure, but it was also an important caution of what we stood to lose by the onward march of the computer age. It was the quiet, the independence, the peace of mind that comes with some time for isolated thought. It was an era when human beings did not yet see technology as a need.

And that is the question we should examine. Why has technology become a need rather than a tool? What accounts for our addiction to it? Why is it tough to imagine our lives without it?

This, I think, is a proper field for schools to explore. I know it is not a realistic expectation in this day and age. Schools will continue to invest technology with power, either through unreasonable bans or through unthinking worship. The proper way lies somewhere in the middle. We need to have a technology policy in which technology itself plays no role. Our technology policy should be one that starts in the mind of the student.

It is not realistic, I know. But a man needs his fantasies in order to live.

Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy

Click to play your quality education.


Let me just lay it on the line for all of the proponents of the Khan Academy.

First, I believe Salman Khan is a good man. He believes in what he does and certainly has a grand vision. Moreover, anybody who can attain several degrees from MIT and build a non-profit empire is nobody’s fool. There is a reason why so many people admire him.

And this is precisely the reason why his academy needs its critics. The fact that it is so difficult to find people willing to say one negative thing about Khan makes criticism that much more urgent. The popularity of an idea or a person to me is a tremendous argument against it. I do not fall in line so easily.

But that is just the start.

People have taken issue with the sarcastic tone in my previous posts (here and here) about the Khan Academy. What they do not seem to grasp is that my sarcasm is a reaction to the insufferable arrogance of many of Khan’s proponents. There is a tremendous haughtiness in claiming that something is the “future”.  Not only is it impossible to foresee all of the variables that might shape the future, it is an abdication of your individual responsibility in making conscious choices about the future. Just because something looks like it might bring a paradigm shift does not mean it has to be unquestionably embraced. I am still of the quaint school of thought that the future is what we make of it.

As an educator, I am used to people swooping in with their magic bullets, making all types of wild claims about this or that being the savior of education in America. All of them, every single one, now lie on the trash heap where they belong. I am not saying this will necessarily be Khan’s fate, only that I have good reason to be skeptical.

The arrogance goes even further than that.

The assumption that many of Khan’s supporters make is that brick and mortar schools are failing. Having spent 25 of my 33 years on this planet in brick and mortar classrooms, I beg to differ. Schools are an outgrowth of society. Children in the inner cities who drop out of school do so because of conditions in that society, not because their schools have failed them. There are children who are born to parents in gangs. There are neighborhoods where the only strong male role models are drug dealers and criminals. There are households where the television is on 24 hours a day. In short, there are children, millions of them, who are born into a world where there are no expectations for them outside of the streets, jail and an early grave. If schools are failing, it is because society is failing. If there is an academic “achievement gap”, it is because children are born into a world where a socioeconomic achievement gap is already well entrenched.

This is not excuse-making or scapegoating. This is reality. The actual scapegoaters are the people who blame schools for this inequality. Doing so allows them to continue to put their fingers in their ears so they can go on pretending poverty and horrid inequalities are not real problems in need of solutions, let alone discussion.

And because most of the critics of brick and mortar classrooms are so far removed from those classrooms, they can approach the issue in no other way than to look at standardized test scores. Never mind the fact that the research on the efficacy of judging children and schools by test scores is murky at best. Never mind the fact that countries with the best school systems, like Finland, eschew testing. Never mind that Finland gives their teachers autonomy over the profession so that outsiders cannot just waltz in and offer their half-digested opinions on what teachers should be doing. None of this matters to Khan Academy advocates, because their advocacy is based on supreme arrogance.

Somehow, the Khan supporters who have made their way to this website have accused me of misunderstanding Khan’s vision. Yet, they leave it at that and do not show me where the misunderstanding lies. Again, after years of seeing magic bullets in education, I can spot when the emperor has no clothes.

To assume that Khan is doing anything new outside of making videos is just nonsense. It is just plain insulting to have people assume that Khan does things that teachers in brick and mortar classrooms are not doing. You do not think teachers are building lessons inductively? You do not think teachers are bending over backwards to use technology in their lessons? You do not think teachers provide a wide range of activities, differentiated (as the current jargon goes), for varied learning levels and styles? You do not think teachers monitor what their students do, without the need for fancy graphs to show them which of their students did what in how much time? You do not think teachers give out awards, accolades, praise and encouragement, just like Khan awards badges to students for being experts? I shudder to think what you actually think teachers are actually doing.

Yes, I realize that Sal Khan’s ideal classroom is one where students build robots and solve problems for most of the day. How much robot building do you think will go on in classrooms in Harlem, whether that classroom has a flesh-and-blood teacher or one made of pixels? Are you willing to provide the resources (through your taxes) to shower schools with the materials needed for students to engage in such activities? Do you think Sal Khan is the first person with the bright idea of project-based, hands-on learning?  The arrogance is astounding.

I have an arrogant question of my own: what innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?

But the saving grace of the Khan acolyte is the idea that Khan’s is a worldwide vision. We can put a few Khan videos in our pockets, go to Africa and bring education to the kids over there. I have no doubt that Khan and his supporters are genuine in this belief. I also have no doubt this represents more of the same arrogance.

Sure, we could send an army of educational missionaries to the underdeveloped world. It would be an efficient way to educate masses of people on the cheap. What the heck, right? This is the educational wave of the future.

Instead of asking if we could, maybe we should first ask if we should. Does this really represent the best that we can do at the moment for the schooling of children worldwide, including our own children? After generations of sucking the third world dry of its resources, dropping bombs on their homes and meddling in their politics, are we really so easily duped as to think Khan videos can even begin to uplift the education of their children? It is typical, well-fed western arrogance. It is the same belief that leads us to think that designer jeans, rock music and movies make people in other countries better off. These are signs of what we think “civilization” is. The Khan Academy is the Levi’s of schools.

The greatest gift we can give to the children of the entire world is the gift of providing a quality education to our children first. The greatest way we can be a beacon of hope to everyone else is if the children of America’s inner cities are provided with the same education currently reserved for the children of America’s elite. It is amazing how Bill Gates can tout the Khan Academy as the panacea for everyone else’s children. While the Bloombergs, Broads and Obamas of the world send their children to brick and mortar schools with small class sizes and all the enrichment activities one could ask for, everyone else’s children are given the url to the Khan Academy.

It is the absolute pinnacle of arrogance to assume we can uplift the people of other countries without uplifting our own. We have not learned what a true investment in America’s education would mean, yet we think we can bring that lesson to every corner of the earth. We have a duty to the rest of the world to be honest with ourselves first. Until that time, we are merely being disingenuous.

Educating is about providing role models. America has a duty to be a role model to the rest of the world. While Khan and his admirers are genuine in their vision, it is not a vision that will make us the role models that our children, and the children of the world, need us to be.

Finally, More Criticism of the Khan Academy


My last criticism of Salman Khan’s Khan Academy was met with much criticism of its own. Many people are firmly convinced that Khan’s videos are the future of education. The comments section was just a small taste of how fervently people have embraced Salman Khan. Since then, cogent criticisms of the Khan Academy have been tough to come by.

That is why I appreciate the detailed essay posted on the Mathalicious website about the Khan Academy’s videos. Whenever someone writes one bad word about the genial Salman Khan, you can be sure a line of psychophants will line up to educate that person about how they are just too dumb to realize that Sal represents the future of schooling.

Read the post and then the comments and you will see this scenario play out like clockwork. This is just more evidence that we need more criticisms of the Khan Academy on the internet.

New Year’s Resolutions for Education Reformers (2012)

We want 2012 to be the year where the United States finally builds a world-class school system. Great civilizations are built on great education. Here is a list of things we will do to ensure that happens.

– Standardized exams for each subject and each grade. No civilization has reached greatness without mastering the skill of bubbling in circles with a pencil. (No. 2 only!)

– Eliminate every subject that can’t be tested. This means art, music, physical education, woodshop and every other non-essential subject. After all, no advanced civilization has ever valued abstract thought, physical health or skilled labor.

– Close all public schools and make them charters. The free market just works better. And what market is freer than one that gives gobs of taxpayer money to large corporations to build schools that nobody in the community asked for on shoestring budgets so the CEOs of those private entities can pocket the difference? The private sector just makes sense, even in a government-funded institution.

– Technology! We envision a future where all jobs will be computer-based, so we need to prepare public school students for them now! They will need to spend their 13 years of school staring at computer screens in order to train them to have the proper Pavlovian reactions to the different alerts and notifications of these computers.

– Technology, Again! Once graduates speak proper computer, they can occupy one of the many high-tech jobs that we promise to provide in the future. Of course, the higher paying jobs will be taken by our own children who will still be educated in actual classrooms by actual teachers. But tech-savvy graduates will be ready to use computers to record what size soft drink or French fries were ordered. We need public schools to train students for tomorrow’s low-wage jobs.

– No more teachers! I am sick and tired of teachers with their tenure, pensions, salaries, benefits and vacations. By the end of 2012, every public school child will be taught by holograms. We can’t have workers around who think it is ok to join unions. It sets a bad example to all the future low-wage employees we hope to produce. Holograms are better role models. They have no salary, tenure or benefits and they work as long as we want them to without complaint. If only our future public school graduates would be more like holograms, the world would be a better place (for us).

– No more excuses! We can’t let people whine about poverty anymore. “Boohoo! My family lives in a homeless shelter.” Big deal. When I was a kid we only had TWO floors in our home, not including the basement, porch and swimming pool. I know what it is like to struggle, to be down to your last maid, to have to drive a Bens because the Rolls Royce was just a little too pricey. I had to fight through it to become the self-made billionaire you see today. All poor students have to do is not make excuses and all of their hunger, apathy, asthma and gang violence will go away.  Just think positive and be happy!

Hopefully, by the end of 2012, all of our students will be well underway to becoming the type of people that can stay within the bubble and properly communicate with computers. Instead of abstract thought, they will learn following orders and scripted responses. This will make them pliable workers, willing to toil long hours for no money without questioning it. In other words, we want them to be like computers. We want them to graduate from public schools already programmed so all we need to do when we hire them is install them in a low-wage job.