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Guest Thinkers

Overblown alarmism and empty rhetoric

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

[Law students learn to argue both sides of any issue because as attorneys

they may be hired for either side of a case. Knowledge of the other side’s

arguments also allows attorneys to counter those arguments and thus strengthen

their own side. So with that in mind, here’s a little contrarian perspective on

School 2.0. As technology advocates, we must be able to offer real solutions,

not just empty rhetoric.


Dear School 2.0 advocates,

We’ve heard it all before. The sky is falling.

America is in danger of losing its role as lead actor on the global stage. What

else is new?

National commissions? Esteemed task forces? Corporate leaders as education

critics? We’ll see your Bill Gates and raise you a Sputnik.

We heard it in the 1950s:

We are engaged in a grim duel. We are beginning to recognize the threat

to American technical supremacy which could materialize if Russia succeeds in

her ambitious program of achieving world scientific and engineering supremacy by

turning out vast numbers of well-trained scientists and engineers. . . We have

let our educational problem grow much too big for comfort and safety. We are

beginning to see now that we must solve it without delay.

– Admiral Hyman

Rickover, 1959

We heard it in the 1980s:

The risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently

than Americans and have government subsidies for development and export. It is

not just that the South Koreans recently built the world’s most efficient steel

mill, or that American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being

displaced by German products. It is also that these developments signify a

redistribution of trained capability throughout the globe. . . If only to keep

and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we

must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit

of all–old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning

is the indispensable investment required for success in the “information age” we

are entering.


Nation at Risk, 1983

We heard it in the 1990s:

America’s education system is broken.IBM

CEO Louis Gerstner, 1994

And we’re hearing it again today:

Whereas for most of the 20th century the United States could take pride

in having the best-educated workforce in the world, that is no longer true. Over

the past 30 years, one country after another has surpassed us. . . . While our

international counterparts are increasingly getting more education, their young

people are getting a better education as well. . . . Our relative position in

the world’s education league tables [continues] its long slow decline.

The New Commission on the

Skills of the American Workforce, 2006

America’s high schools are obsolete.Microsoft CEO Bill Gates,


And yet, somehow, despite our educational system’s long history of alleged

mediocrity, our country and our economy keep chugging along quite nicely. Our standard

of living

is the envy of most of the world. Our gross

domestic product per capita

literally dwarfs those of China or India, the

latest international competition du jour. Despite our country’s

creativity-stifling schools, our citizens and workers continue, quite

astonishingly, to build upon our nation’s well recognized and long-standing

traditions of innovation and excellence to create new products, new systems, and

new markets.

We’ve heard it all before. Creative thinking.

Problem solving. Independent, self-directed learning. Daniel Pink, Richard

Florida, John Seely Brown…

Ho hum. Ever heard of progressive education? The turn of the LAST century?

Summerhill? John Dewey? Neil Postman? The 1960s? Been there, done that. Why is

THIS time any different? Why is it that THIS time we should replace the entire


Yes, we get it. Most kids think schools are boring. Big surprise. John


told us that long ago. As if we needed ANYONE to tell us that. Isn’t

that just the way school is?

Fine. School 2.0 is the “right” thing to do. Technology has the potential to

transform education. Our educational institutions could be doing so much more.

Educators should feel more of a moral imperative to do things differently. Blah

blah blah… Let’s be honest: isn’t this true for ANY bureaucratic government

entity? Do we really expect our public schools to be any different?

We’ve heard it all before. The status quo is

inadequate. Too many kids drop out, our assessment systems are all wrong, and

we’re squandering our children’s future. The problem is that you offer no

concrete, tangible, publicly- and politically-viable alternatives.

It’s easy to throw stones at glass houses. It’s much harder to replace a

venerable system that’s served us well for a century with something else. The

old saw, “Never make a complaint without offering potential solutions” applies

here in spades. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say that we “tore down the

walls” tomorrow. What would education look like instead? How would we ever get

there from where we are now? How are you going to persuade educators, and

politicians, and your local community members that this is worth moving toward?

That it’s not just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking?

What’s your plan? We mean a real plan. Not just “kids learning

independently on matters of personal interest, taking advantage of the power of

digital technology to help them do so.

” What will the structures look like?

Policies? Laws? Funding streams? How will we know if kids have learned anything

important? How will we handle parents’ very real needs for someone to take their

kids while they go to work?

Quit offering us wishes. Quit offering us dreams. Quit preaching to us about

what is morally right and educationally appropriate. Help us realize, in terms

we can understand, what this new thing might actually look like AT SCALE and how

we might reasonably get here. Even if we agree with you that this is important,

without a vision AND a plan we’re just as stuck as you are.

We’ve heard it all before. What else you got?


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