Big Tech Should Stay Out of Public Education



A New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof a few months ago bemoaned that America’s children test lower academically and children of other wealthy countries. This utterly unoriginal observation elicited an extremely common response: that the solution is more technology:

“Even out here in Silicon Valley, public schools are oblivious to the needs of the new economy.  And this is not a ‘lack of money’ issue. It’s a deeper malaise – a comfort in the status quo and lack of drive to innovate the curriculum as needs change. The tech industry stays vibrant by importing workers that come from much poorer countries who are hungry to learn and succeed. Lately, some companies are starting apprenticeships to train local workers and that is commendable. But the public education sector is still not up to the task.” — NorCal geek

That letter to the editor–and the all-too-common sentiment behind it–is cosmically ironic because Silicon Valley is responsible for the three of dumbest educational concepts of all time:

1. Open Plan Classrooms

Silicon Valley pioneered the notion that people would be more innovative if crammed in one big room. There was and is no evidence that this is the case; quite the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence from peer-reviewed studies that open plan offices massively decrease productivity.

Nevertheless, the high-tech industry’s idée fixe on the value of the open plan designs got translated into the school system as the so-called “open plan classroom” were multiple groups work together in “learning pods” usually in “barn-sized” structures.

As any classroom teacher can tell you, this is madness. It is difficult enough to control a classroom with just 20 students; trying to educate kids in cafeteria-like environment is impossible. And of course the research proves that, but as with the open plan office, naysayers are accused of being backward-thinking.

2. Remote learning as a replacement for classroom instruction.

Silicon Valley has promoted the idea of online learning for decades, not because it works particularly well, but because it drives the sale of more devices and more software. Well, we certainly tried remote learning out over the past year!

How’s that workin’ out for ya?

Remote learning has been an unmitigated disaster and is responsible for what many or characterizing has a lost year of education. The problem wasn’t Covid specifically, the problem was remote learning.

For example, when the UK government surveyed parents on the effectiveness of remote learning during the Covid pandemic they expressed widespread complaints, including:

  • My child’s focus on studying (40%)
  • Lack of contact with classmates (38%)
  • My child’s motivation to engage (36%)
  • Lack of contact with teachers (35%)
  • Supervision when learning remotely (31%)

It’s one thing for an adult to work remotely (and that has some challenges) but it’s quite another thing to expect a child to sit in front of a screen and zoom all day. It’s a ludicrous idea and it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic and millions of deaths to drive that point home.

3. PowerPoint

As I’ve explained previously, the entire premise of PowerPoint–that showing words screen while you’re talking increases retention–is egregious bullsh*t.  Everyone knows that PowerPoint presentations are horrible and boring and huge waste of time.

Nevertheless, PowerPoint has firmly ensconced itself as a “teaching tool,” in imitation of the torture chamber that is the modern business meeting. Imagine yourself at, say, sixteen, sitting in a meeting room while your colleagues gives his monthly presentation on the latest sales campaign. How many seconds would it take before you completely zoned out?

This scenario hit home to me personally when my son (now 16) told me that he was interested in getting into psychology. This was good news, because he’s very good with people and very perceptive, and of course I would like him to find a professional career.

Unfortunately, the first psychology class he took in high school was presented by a PowerPoint jockey, who managed to make one of the most interesting subjects in the world into something so boring that my son could barely stand going to class. So much for THAT career path.

When it comes to public education, high tech needs to stop techsplaining to public school teachers how they should be doing their jobs and stop trying to bamboozle school administrators and boards with bonehead technological bells and whistles.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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