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Computers overdone in school

Feb 20, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

My career as a professional educator began on a hot summer morning in early August 1980 as a Lusk assistant football coach. The Tigers began practice at 6 a.m. on the opening day of the season in those days.

Most of the players and their fathers worked on local ranches. Their choice of footwear was more practical than stylish. The lifted heel of a cowboy boot created a problem when they put on football cleats each fall. Tendinitis was rampant on the team as Achilles tendons were stretched for the first time since the previous October for many of the players.

Add a quarterback missing the index finger on his throwing hand suffered in a rodeo accident, along with several other players coming in with rope burns and limping from mishaps with bulls and untamed horses, and you have a vastly different picture from the pampered, computer and video game playing students of today.

The principal difference between now and then was that the kids in 1980 worked in the summer. They were all raised in families that used their hands, minds or, most often. both, to earn a living. The values were reflected on the field as well.

A comment made by someone while I was waiting in line last week brought this all back. We were discussing the changes in education, and the woman commented that now teachers had to battle computer and video games.

I thought of the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who said "it is only a battle if you choose to fight it on someone else's terms."

This may sound like the ravings of some technological Luddite but the role of the computer in education has far outlived its usefulness as a teaching tool.

In the hands of a skilled, knowledgeable, motivated teacher, a computer lab with high-speed Internet access can be the most valuable teaching tool ever imagined. But, the reality is vastly different.

Computers have become the panacea of poor pedagogy. Too many teachers just plop the kids down in front of a Mac or PC and expect some magical transference of knowledge to take place. Sure, someone in the tech department has prevented students from accessing pornography, gang-related content and rap music, but the teacher in charge is too often clueless in how to use the technology effectively.

I've been accused of "old thinking," and of "living in the past," but once the proponents engage in a bit of technological banter with me, they usually retreat.

Yes, technology pays the bills for many of us (I work in tech support for a school district), but the waste it has created in the academic lives of children borders on the criminal.

Federal and state grants abound for ever-more technology, but there is never enough money to find capable adults to actually sit down with children and teach them to read, write and calculate. Once again, the magical keyboard with the high resolution, 64 million color screen provides a mythical path to educational excellence.

It never works as the salesmen promise it will.

The best teachers get the job done with or without technology.

Over the last decade I've observed many classrooms across the state devolve into an adult at the front of a room staring at a screen while a room full of students does the same thing. Very little interaction, no indication of the knowledge or skill level of the teacher in evidence, just a group of children or young adults quietly clicking away on a keyboard while their (facilitator, mentor, leader, educator... fill in the blank with the latest fad terminology) does the same.

My friend Chico is one of the best history teachers I've ever had the pleasure to watch in action. He can get more across to a group of high school kids drawing with a stick in the sand than an average or mediocre teacher could do with every gadget imagined by Apple or Microsoft.

The man is a teacher. It is partially a gift, partially a love of the subject, and partially something intangible.

The intangible will never be matched by any electronic device. A gift of teaching is something divine, and the love of the subject matter is something that must be cultivated through hard academic work into a useable tool.

Somewhere in the educational fads of the early 1990s the idea of a teacher being an expert on the subject matter fell out of favor. "The Sage on the Stage" was reviled by innovators across the country.

Incidentally, most of these "innovators" had lucrative contracts with textbook companies that recently spent millions integrating software into their curricula and were now eager to market it. A knowledgeable teacher often got in the way.

A lack of content knowledge, a trait a community would never accept in an athletic coach, was praised in classroom teachers. Learning alongside the kids instead of teaching paved the way for the crutch of digital education.

Problems in the classroom have been with us since the days of Aristotle. Surrendering to the fads will never deliver the skills that children desperately need to compete. Doing the hard work of one-on-one teaching, along with demanding personal standards will.

Good teaching is hard; if it was easy, then everyone would do it.

Until the culture changes, academic "tendinitis" will remain the rule of the day, and no one will prevail.

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