The Greatest Ed-Tech Goof of All Time

I admit it. I only read one year-end top-100 list–Audrey Watters’ “100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade.” And it got me thinking: What have been the top ed-tech goofs of all time? The top choice from my current research is pretty clear, c. 1804.

Reading sticks sketch

What was the biggest ed-tech goof of all time? Not these “reading sticks”…

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about Joseph Lancaster. And I’m sorry. But his plan was such a perfect mix of tech-naïveté and Zuckerberg-level hubris that I can’t stop marveling over the 21st-century feel of Lancaster’s tech-obsessed school system.

NYC manual 1820 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

…not this either.

If you’re just joining us, Lancaster was a young man who opened a school for poor kids in London in 1798. He tried some new tricks, including banishing corporal punishment and using students as teachers. He really believed technology could solve all the problems of education and therefore of society.

For example, he dreamed of new systems of “reading telegraphs,” “alphabet wheels,” and benches with holes for hats. His assumption—like that of so many of his peers—was that the right machine could eliminate traditional problems with school organization.

None of those failed ed machines, however, gets my pick as the top ed-tech goof of 1804. No, by a landslide, that (dis)honor goes to Lancaster’s “basket.”1810 punishment the basket

The basket was a device that Lancaster used to discipline unruly boys (it was only used for boys) without resorting to lashes. If demerits failed, and other efforts didn’t work, boys would be suspended above the schoolroom in a basket. The other kids were encouraged to mock the “birds in a cage.”

A truly “terrible” way to humiliate a child, to be sure. But did it work? According to one enthusiastic Lancasterian, the “cradle” worked like a charm. As he wrote to Lancaster in 1812,

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

There was a cost, however. For understandable reasons, students did not like the cradle/basket/birdcage. They eventually stopped coming to Lancaster’s schools and their parents didn’t force them. Why? As one outraged African-American parent from New York wrote in 1827, their children should not be subjected to cruel teachers who only harped on the students’ “dulness and stupidity” all day.

Perhaps as a result of such gripes, Lancaster got rid of the basket. Though it plays a prominent role in early editions of his manual, by 1817 he had excised it. Like so many of the other ed-tech goofs we see in our decade, this technology came in with a blast of trumpets, only to exit with a whimper.

What Technology Do We Need in Schools?

More is more.  That is the mantra of many public-school technophiles these days.  It rests on an often-implicit notion that any problems with schools can be cured with just the right dose of technological innovation.

It is a mantra that Andrew J. Ellison takes to task this morning in the pages of the Front Porch Republic.  Real education, Ellison argues, must be based on mastering language, the most fundamental technology of all.  Bypassing such authentic learning with a series of flashy touch-screens and web apps will only impede learning, he insists.

Of course, one does not have to be culturally conservative to have qualms about the overheated rush to technologize America’s schools.  The recent massive flop of LA’s expensive IPad gamble can turn any taxpayer’s stomach.  And as Stanford’s Larry Cuban has argued compellingly, every American generation has had naïve dreams about the promises of new technology.

Ellison worries specifically about a new program sponsored by President Obama.  Obama asks America’s schoolchildren to submit videos in which they prove that technology improves education.

Ellison notes that the language of this question skews any discussion of the merits of classroom technology.  As he puts it,

the assumption is clear: if you are critical of the faddish and unreflective technologization of our schools, your view is not part of the mainstream.  If you are skeptical of the outlandish educational promises being made by the peddlers of the current classroom iPad fad (maybe because you remember the non-fulfillment of the outlandish promises made in the 1970s about videocassette-based education, or the outlandish promises made about Apple II-based education in the 1980s), your views are unwelcome.  If you are even just a teeny weeny bit inclined to think that the perennial human problem of cultivating intellectual and moral excellence cannot be solved by ANY electronic technology, and that the pursuit of technological solutions to these problems is as inappropriate as the pursuit of a moral and spiritual solution to landing a man on the moon, then you might be discouraged from entering the contest.

In addition to the blithe assumptions of technology’s spotless promise, Ellison lambastes the needlessly and gratingly childish language that the White House uses to promote its program.  Like many clueless adults, the White House tries to wrap its outreach in language that young people will presumably embrace.  Instead of speaking intelligently to young people about real issues involving technology, the White House takes a depressing Hannah-Montana tone:

Yeah, having your schoolwork posted on the fridge at home is cool. But having a video you made posted on the White House website and screened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? We think that’s pretty cool, too. That’s why we’re super-excited to announce the first-ever White House Student Film Festival.

As Ellison points out, this language assumes that young people are somehow unable to handle real language or real questions about technology and culture.  “The condescension of consciously  informal English,” Ellison argues,

is exactly the opposite of real teachers worthy of the name speak to the children entrusted to their classrooms, the opposite of the way we ought to talk to young people if we want to uplift, ennoble, inspire, exhort, challenge—in a word, educate—them.  If we want to make young people better, we have to pull them up towards something better—and while that certainly doesn’t mean that we should talk at uncomprehending 3rd graders in the most difficult and complex literary English we can muster, it does mean that when we speak to children, when we write for them, and when we assign things to them to read, we should be aiming ahead of them, as if we were training a wide receiver to run faster and strain harder to catch the football.

Only if educators focus their efforts at teaching young people to master the real beauty and promise of language will education really happen, Ellison concludes.  Indeed, this sort of training will provide young people with a real mastery of the only educational technology that really matters.  After all, Ellison insists, language is

the first and most human of all technologies, the one upon which all social life depends, the one absolutely indispensable technology, without command of which we become completely unfit for life as free citizens, productive workers, and human beings in the 21st century, at the mercy of others and subject to forces beyond our control and even recognition.