For the past several years I have become increasingly concerned about growing inequities I am witnessing between our country’s most vulnerable students, and almost all others. I actually originally became aware of major differences in how we treat struggling urban students versus suburban students when I spent some time in Detroit Public Schools back in 2001. I was working with Detroit Public Television on a project for their Enrichment Channel. In our first visit to some DPS elementary schools I was immediately struck by the regimentation I saw. Students were in uniforms, and seemed to be treated like privates in the army, with the teacher acting as the drill sergeant. The schools had adopted Open Court reading program, and the principal was circulating throughout the building making sure the teachers were on the correct assignment and page number at the specific time of day that was set for the goal. The teachers had a script that was provided that administrators insisted be followed verbatim. The students all looked like compliant little robots, and the teachers I talked with seemed both frustrated and resigned to the lifeless experience their job had become. The joy, curiosity, and creativity that has always surrounded my most memorable learning experiences was completely missing.
Even though this all felt wrong to me, I didn’t want to dismiss what the schools were doing without having a better understanding of their challenges, and the results they were seeing from the implementation of the program. What I found, however, was that the students were not performing substantially better than their peers in other programs. What was more concerning to me, however, was revealed once we began our program in these schools.
The program we were there to implement and record was called Welcome to Youville. We had put together a project-based learning unit to address some of the k-8 standards and benchmarks around the concepts of community, region, and Michigan history. The main goal of the project was to have students in Detroit, and in two suburban districts create their own communities. The theory was that if students began by defining the elements of their own community, and discussed with peers what people need to have in their community to live a healthy and happy life, and then actually created a 3 dimensional representation of their dream community, they would have a much deeper understanding of the concepts than if they were to read the chapter in the textbook and fill out a worksheet.
We began by having students identify unique characteristics of their own family culture, and to bring in artifacts of their parents’ or grandparents’ that were important to their family history. The next step was to group students, and have them draw their neighborhood, and discuss the things they have in their community, and the things that may be missing. In the final steps, students were given prompts and asked to discuss the specific needs that human beings have, and the things we need in our communities in order to be healthy and happy.
What we witnesses was shocking to me at the time. The students in the suburban schools jumped right in to the activities and discussions, and seemed to be having a great time exploring the concepts. Innovative ideas emerged, and the groups discussed the need for, and feasibility of each idea. It was going exactly as we had hoped, until we began in Detroit. The students in DPS reacted completely differently to the assignment. Basically what was so shocking to me is that when the students were presented with the open-ended pieces of the project they just sat there silent. When we tried to engage them in an initial conversation about their family artifacts and traditions we were met with the same silence. We thought it might just be nervousness, but we found the same thing when we grouped them to begin discussing their neighborhoods and designing what they would want in their dream community. Students seemed to be waiting for someone to tell them specifically what to do, or for their teachers to tell them what to say, or maybe even worse, what to think. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to make them believe we really wanted to hear their ideas, that their ideas were important, and that they weren’t going to get into any type of trouble for sharing them. An outgoing student actually shared with us that he wasn’t sure what to do because nobody had ever asked him to share his ideas before.
By the end of the project we were able to establish a trusting relationship with most of the students, and they produced exemplary work. This instructional unit may have actually been important in a number of ways. The students definitely will not forget this project, and came away with an excellent understanding of the content. I believe, however, the more important result was that all of the students had in-depth discussions about what a community actually needs in order for its people to be healthy and happy. Unfortunately, many of the communities they live in are missing important components of a healthy community, such as a grocery store. Once they began trusting us, and started to discuss their thoughts, students not only created wonderfully imaginative communities, but seemed to be interested in becoming community activists.
I use this story to demonstrate phenomena that I am seeing now in urban schools across the country. I was hoping with all of the investment in innovation, and the creation of charters and other options for urban students that things would have improved over the past 15 years. If anything, I think the situation has actually become worse. The strategy that policy makers and education leaders have taken (i.e., higher standards, more accountability, doubling the time in content areas, reconstituting the staff and administration of failing schools, numerous charter school option, etc.) have all failed to achieve their goal, and I believe in many cases has made the problem worse. I just read an ASCD article that illustrates my point.
The way I am seeing technology being implemented in many urban settings is another example of this failed instructional approach. I call this the “New Digital Divide.” Education technology is being adopted at faster and faster rates, and we believe that 1:1 programs have increased by at least 10 fold since the arrival of the iPad. The price point of Chromebooks has accelerated the adoption even more. Most schools, regardless of their location, have adopted a fair amount of technology. There is a stark contrast, however, between the ways technology is being used in some urban schools versus their suburban counterparts. The Rocketship model is pointed to as one extreme example, but I have seen lots of classrooms in urban public schools where students are expected to sit in front of a computer for most of their day working in a skill and drill remediation program. I have seen too many urban classrooms where technology becomes a digital prison of sorts, with students being forced into compliance. The lack of engagement is obvious, and the results I believe are disingenuous in the short-term, and potentially disastrous long-term. I have watched students navigate a couple of the popular software remediation solutions as they “game” the system in order to pass out of a section. The lack of foundational knowledge, pared with a lack of ability to think critically that may stem from a reliance on these sorts of programs will ensure that these students are ultimately left behind.
In stark contrast are the innovative and affluent suburban public schools where students are engaged in meaningful dialog, are building understand through investigation, and are using technology as a dynamic tool for creation and collaboration. In many of these environments administrators have not pushed for a complete digital conversion for fear of rocking the boat. Students continue to achieve at the high levels they always have, but are budget busting if they do not take advantage of potential cost savings and reallocate these dollars to paying for the new paradigm.
I believe that the success lies somewhere in between. Content standards divide into two main categories: skills and concepts. Skill development takes practice. Common wisdom states that we need to practice something for 10,000 hours to master it. We see the importance of practice to learning in lots of ways, from learning to dribble a basketball and accurately shoot, to having facility with math equations or foreign languages. Technology can be quite good at providing opportunities to develop skills in engaging ways though gamification. Some software programs are also getting pretty good at identifying deficits in a student’s foundational understanding, and adjusts the content to meet the individual student’s needs. This use of technology, in SAMR terms, is not transformational, but is more of a substitution with enhancements, but is nevertheless important to the complete learning process.
The transformational uses of technology may be more suited to the conceptual side of the content standards. In order for students to develop a meaningful understanding of a concept they need to ask questions, share their thoughts, investigate possibilities, and experiment with their ideas. Technology holds many advantages over traditional means by allowing students to communicate, collaborate and create their way to a deeper understanding of the concepts.
I think our legislators, and even many educators keep looking for a silver bullet. Well, it seems obvious to me that the path we have taken for the past 30 years is not working. I can tell you unequivocally, that technology on its own is also not the answer. I believe that understanding how human beings learn, and what motivates them to learn is the key. Once this understanding begins to guide our decisions about content, technology, and what instructional strategies will be most effect for the types of learning we want to occur, the better our outcomes will be, and the quicker we will improve our failing schools. Remember, if you treat a student like a criminal, he will act like a criminal. I believe if we start by building environments of mutual respect, and value the ideas and opinions of students in our urban schools, we could actually see a renaissance in learning beyond our wildest imagination. Let’s work together to unleash the potential of millions of American students, rather than locking them in a digital prison.
Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.