Why Don’t We Have More Tech Education Programs in Schools?

BY Business Desk  March 22, 2010 at 4:46 PM EDT

Question: As a nation of technology, why do public schools continue to eliminate technology education programs? Doesn’t this curriculum (see iteaconnect.org for standards) lead to more high-knowledge-high-skills jobs?

Paul Solman: I don’t know the answer, so I asked my longtime NewsHour colleague, the estimable education expert John Merrow, to comment. He writes that it’s an issue he addresses in his new book, Below C Level: Why It Pays to be Average in Public Education (and what WE can do about it). He also maintains a blog, which you can access from his Learning Matters site. Here’s his take on your question, Mr. Naas:

JOHN MERROW: For me, the issue is not so much technology education per se, but the embrace of modern technology’s possibilities. Today too many students have to ‘power down’ when they get to school, because public education is stuck in a rut. Schools should be using the various technologies to break down the physical walls of school to connect students around the country and the world; instead they use technology to control.

Here’s an example:

Every high school and middle school that’s close to a major river like the Ohio or the Sacramento ought to be participating in a science project wherein students go to the river, take and analyze water samples, measure the speed of the current, and capture detritus during specified time periods. The students could then share the data and then independently develop hypotheses as to why, for instance, the water is more alkaline at one point. Their findings might lead to class investigations to discover the sources of the differences, which could lead to identification of the sources of pollutants. Other students could be using video technology to record these activities and then producing short documentary reports, which could be posted on YouTube for widespread viewing.

But if one looks deeper, it’s not simply schools’ failure to embrace modern technology’s potential; it’s also the institutional failure to embrace project-based learning (and challenge-based learning). We adults work together because it’s effective and efficient and far more rewarding. That’s called collaboration. In schools, however, collaboration is called cheating!

In a sense, one can also trace this unfortunate situation to one word, noun and adjective: rigor and rigorous. Good education is challenging — it invites and dares and challenges kids — but much of what goes on in school is instead designed to be ‘rigorous.’ Look that word up! ‘Harsh and unyielding’ are central to the definition, as in rigor mortis. Why on earth should learning be construed so negatively?

I do believe that children need education in what’s called ‘media literacy’ and adults need ways to grow comfortable with the power and potential of technology. But adults need an attitude shift. Today’s kids — those with economic advantages anyway — swim in a sea of technology. Most kids today are inclined to be collaborative and to be risk-takers. For them, technology is play, and we ought to take full advantage of that.