by Brian D. Sadie / Tuesday, 23 April 2013
Many educators and school administrators could learn a valuable lesson from former CIA Director Stansfield Turner and the intelligence world. In 1979, Mr. Turner authorized the elimination of more than 800 operational positions but increased technical and signal intelligence. He, and those who demanded the action, regretted it immediately. Mr. Turner and the world’s intelligence agencies learned then and still admit that enough people, and a variety of them, are necessary for things to work well, even to benefit from increased or improved technology. It’s no surprise that relying too heavily on tech-heavy systems and automation fails: It has been found that people interacting with others and using the tools at hand work best, after all, as much for espionage, analysis, and assessment as for helping and inspiring children and teenagers on their way to intellectual and personal independence. Despite this awareness, both communities still share ardent support for more technology and dependence on it at the expense of key personnel. In the education arena, enough policy-makers and administrators continue to favor extreme Ed Tech evangelism and calls for less teacher-directed formal instruction that educational policy and practice are sorely compromised: with reference to those inchoate notions they even sometimes justify repeated and drastic cuts in public school funding, such as the three-year, forty-five percent suffered in Philadelphia.
The way I see Wendy Kopp’s piece in CNN (Computers can’t replace real teachers, Monday, April 8, 2013 (http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/08/opinion/kopp-kids-real-teachers/index.html?hpt=op_bn7), she feels the human touch is essential for real education. She responded to Sugata Mitra’s notions that self-directed learning, without teachers but lots of computers, works best with children. Ms. Kopp included a Steve Jobs’ remark that computers can’t solve society’s problems: only people can by attacking the source of the problems. Despite Mr. Jobs’ awareness and statement, many still promote the idea that technical development and gadgetry are more important and capable of ending social inequality, injustice, and strife than sympathetic, better-educated people. Ms. Kopp emphasizes something that I also believe and have long insisted: that technological development is cool and helpful but a great teacher makes for great teaching, for engaging students, for awakening in others a sense of wonder and empowerment at pivotal times so that they may better prepare for life with or without new tools or toys.
The goal of education is to attain understanding and, ideally, hone one’s ability to cope and succeed in life. Basic instruction provides what might be called a technically proficient or merely satisfactory level of learning. As the Oxford dictionary indicates, one learns with awareness and memorization. Learning means that knowledge or skill increases through study, experience, or from being taught.
For example, how important, or influential, as some might prefer, in shaping our world was Henry VIII’s formal separation from the Catholic Church? Learning about his decision is one thing: generally speaking, remembering the blip and relevant dates is often enough to pass and off you go, but understanding that history, or at least appreciating it, requires emotional consideration and intellectual thought, a reflection indicative of fuller cognitive activity that is a significant part of what makes us human. Critical reading and thought are necessary, and articulate discussion certainly helps. Innate intellectual ability notwithstanding, understanding something, the comprehension of thought and things, abstract or not, even the ability to recognize that something remains to be asked and formulate the next question, comes with learning and the inspiration found in quality education.
An holistic approach to learning, one requiring broad and deep knowledge of intellectual and technical fields and methods – for example, fine arts and social sciences as well as mathematics and natural sciences – benefits everyone. Knowing to focus intently on one single thing, knowing why, how, and when to do so, and how to use the question, equation, and answer for an even greater understanding is better than not recognizing or caring that there is more to the question, the problem, or the answer. An inability or unwillingness to demonstrate care, concern, or understanding of underlying issues, overarching principles, and the effects of simplistic, rote decisions and actions by anyone whose role affects others is destructive and unethical. Technical proficiency alone is not enough for the advancement of knowledge or social betterment. When technological innovation occurs as rapidly as it now typically does, greater care and understanding are necessary for appropriate cultural and political integration. Different people, their limitations, strengths, and inclinations, and a variety of approaches to inquiry and work mean that respect and collaboration are called for and, simply put, improve our world. Understanding, being also subject to personal judgment and sympathy, is what ultimately shows our humanity most fully, and it is better served by inspirational, well-rounded people teaching with whatever resources they have to illuminate our shared histories and possible futures.