As I continue to work on things away from this blog (which is a collection of Free-Time/Casual Online Writing, Remarks, And Notes By ME Whelan) and continue to figure out what goes and what stays of my existing online-writing, the de-emphasizing of one or another continues as well....

Friday, June 3, 2011

Technology In Schools Today

There is no doubt that greater technology in elementary schools offers children some educational advantages, as well as the chance to have technology as much a part of their world as it is of the larger world. Whether or not greater technology is beneficial to the actual process of learning may be a separate consideration.

There's the external process involved with learning (someone shares information about something with someone else), and the internal process of learning (the activities of the brain and any formation of brain connections).

I think the basic, external, learning process is the same as always. Someone gives information to the child. I think technology has offered ways of reinforcing, building on, or supplementing that basic learning; but, in general, I think the foundation of basic learning remains the same. So, in this way, greater technology is beneficial.

On the other hand, I can't help but believe that there are probably different things going on in the brain as a result of technology's role in learning because it is clear that someone who began learning long after technology was in full swing does things differently. Whether this is good or not is not clear.

Consider math, for example. I learned the basics before computers were available to everyone. Calculators existed but would never be allowed in school. Today, if I'm in a work setting, doing some kind of math calculations, I'll do the work the way it is done in business these days, using technology.

If I'm working on personal finances, though, I do something kind of bizarre: I'll use the computer to do the math. I'll check it once by re-doing it. Then I'll check the computer's work by using a personal calculator, and check the calculator's work by doing it a second time. At this point, you'd think I'd be pretty comfortable, but I'm not.

I will then proceed to check the double-checked work of both the computer and the calculator by doing the math myself (complete with paper and pencil). I should at least skip the double-checking of the computer and calculator, but no matter how often I do this I keep thinking that double-checking will be enough. Its as if I discover each time that I cannot reach a level of confidence in the results until I check one more time. In my head I trust the computer the first or second time, depending on room for human error. Every time I have a big calculating job to do I think the computer will suffice. Every time I keep discovering I can't feel confident in it or the calculator. Its only after I do my own calculations that I can have "mental peace".

If I'm in work setting I do it "the work way". I figure if the machines make an error it isn't my doing because in the work setting today people choose to "take the risk".

A young person raised since computers have been in homes and schools doesn't have this "issue". They take for granted the computer does a better job than a human, and they trust it. I'm comfortable with technology. In my head I certainly trust that it is more likely to do it's math correctly than I, a human, will. Still, I'm not able to overcome that feeling I learned from the time I first learned to do math - that feeling of seeing the process, knowing I have included the correct numbers, being the one to do the calculating, and seeing that all the numbers add up.

I can only assume that my brain learned some need to be involved with the process of the calculation in order to reach that sense of confidence and "mental peace" with the results. I don't have OCD in any area of my life, and decades ago there would have been no technology to cause me to wonder if I have it when it comes to doing my own calculations. I can only assume that because my generation was taught with this ongoing, ever-present, do-it-yourself, approach and drill, drill, drill; that's how my brain learned to be most comfortable.

I'm not sure if the way children today learn is a good thing or a bad thing. Its certainly a current thing. Children today are less likely to develop the issue I have that makes me appear to have OCD when it comes to doing calculations. (I was "so-not" ever a math wiz, so it isn't that I've built my confidence in my math ability. I was nicely above average in math ability, but math was never my favorite subject.)

When it comes to the internal part of the learning process I think children today must have something different going on. Whether people like me have such solid "manual" skills they tend to have more confidence in themselves, or whether people like me have our brains hopelessly wired in an obsolete way, I don't know.

There is little doubt that greater technology offers a world of learning experience to students of all ages. There is no doubt that with each new era comes the need for new types of skills. There was a time when people needed to know how to make their own soap. My great-grandmother's generation needed to be skilled at using a washboard. My mother knew to how to sterilize cloth diapers, while - for good or ill - I never dealt with a dirty cloth diaper in my life. My generation came along at a time when so many life skills, once required for day-to-day living, were no longer necessary. Will today's elementary-school student even need the math skills I needed to learn?

There is another side to this, though. The math skills that are so ingrained in me are a part of my day-to-day living. When I do my grocery shopping I keep a pretty accurate running total of what I'm spending in my head. If I get a ad from a bank, advertising a new type of account or a new credit card I have a fairly complete picture of the costs involved just by seeing the rates and requirements outlined in the large print. Whether shopping for car insurance, a mortgage, or a dental plan, the math skills I've used all my life offer me that immediate overview of costs without doing much calculating. If I decide to keep track of the calories or fat I eat, convert a recipe, or manage my time, that lifetime of using my own math skill makes life easier. More significantly, there is the possibility that a "use it or lose it" principle applies to matters of cognitive skill. There is also the question of whether use of one's own math skill results in secondary neurological goings-on that are beneficial in ways not presently understood.

There is no doubt that greater technology is beneficial in a number of ways. The question is whether it is also a double-edged sword. I'm certainly not of the one-room schoolhouse era, but my elementary school education involved an old school, books, paper, pencils, a blackboard, and, of course, My Weekly Reader. It was not a luxurious education, but it was a solid one. There was no elaborate technology to create the impression of a great education even when the education was only mediocre. Some would say that the lack of that elaborate technology was what made the education I got, in fact, mediocre.

Greater technology is clearly beneficial in it's own way. Whether that way is the most crucial way, in terms of developing human potential, is something we cannot yet know.

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