Tech School

Larry Magid was a teacher before becoming a technology columnist. His latest column over at CNet illuminates a scary fact and poses an interesting question.

The scary fact is that based on a survey, 35% of kids with cell phones at school admit to using them for cheating. Over half of the kids have used the Internet to cheat. And perhaps most alarming, about a quarter of them don’t really consider it cheating.

Magid doesn’t remotely defend this cheating, but does offer that technology makes school a different place than it used to be. On that we agree. In it’s simplest form, cheating is breaking the rules. If the rules say you can’t use a calculator, then using one is cheating. But I think every teen struggles with doing what is right and doing what they won’t get caught at. I suspect most of this group of unapologetic cheaters have simply not matured yet to being able to do what’s right even when it’s not in their own selfish interest. Which is not at all to suggest the cheating should be overlooked. If it is, they’ll never develop that delightfully guilty conscience that usefully plagues (most) adults.

The more interesting question is how does technology change the school experience. Magid is right in that most of us live in a world now with a stupid amount of information at our fingertips. The skill is not so much about how much you know anymore, but about what you can locate and how you can process it. Should school change to be more focused on leveraging the technology and information available?

On the one hand, yes. Tools are an extension of self. In the same way that shop class teaches you to effectively use modern woodworking tools, social studies class should teach you to take advantage of modern information tools. Teaching woodworking by having students learn to craft stone axes and fell trees would be silly. In the same way, teaching history by forcing students to memorize dates and facts from books is equally outdated. If I want to know when the Civil war started and ended I can find that fact in a matter of seconds from my desk or even my pocket.

Yet on the other hand, information without the ability to validate, rationalize, and synthesize the information is more than a little dangerous. And while the Internet is full of lots of great data, it’s also full of a lot of crap, and many things that are just plain wrong. Here is where I think some of the old school training is still valuable. Some level of basic knowledge and skill is required.

I don’t know exactly when the Civil War started and ended. I do know it was in the 1860’s somewhere. Should I find an online reference citing a start date of 1861, I’d probably second source it anyway, but I’d be inclined to accept it. If something came back with a date 1837 it would set off a red flag. I’d be suspicious and do more research before accepting such as answer. But without at least some basic understanding of history, I wouldn’t be able to make that judgment.

In a similar vein, I needed to solve an equation the other week which I knew required the quadratic equation. I couldn’t recall the specific formula, but it was easy to look up, and I still had the math skill to use it once I found it. But again, without that basic training, I’d still be sitting here starting at those squared variables wondering what to do next.

In the end, while I do support that kids need to learn to exploit technology and information in ways most of my generation were never schooled in, I do not believe this is useful unless kids are still schooled in the fundamentals. There needs to be a balance. Wisdom and knowledge cannot usefully exist in the absence of one another.

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