Monday, March 30, 2015

Teacher in a Strange Land

In “Teaching the Digital Native: Learning With Computers and the Internet Poses New Challenges,” Fawn Johnson, reporter for, writes about the changing landscape in the education industry, and the need for schools, teachers, and infrastructure to evolve with the times. Although she attempts to write from a pro-education standpoint, her premise is clear: the computer programs are good, and the way teachers have been teaching and schools have been running is bad.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

The picture above, included with the article, is captioned: “Digital classrooms are the wave of the future.” Notice the very homogenous classroom with their matching brown shirts. Is this how our students look? Is this the student body of the future? Who is the audience for this article, if their vision of the classroom is white kids in matching T-shirts? 

 It is important to note that National Journal, according to Wikipedia, receives “substantial financial support from the Gates Foundation ($240,000+) to provide coverage of education-related issues that are of interest to the Gates Foundation.” That may help to explain Johnson’s stance, and even her audience. She is not talking to educators or parents; she is preaching to the corporate company choir.

Johnson cites two recent “experiments” in which a school district implemented new technology. The first experiment, one she labels a success, was Kramer Middle School in Washington D.C. The principal, Kwame Simmons, installed state-of-the-art infrastructure into his newly remodeled building, instituted blended learning (half of the students’ time is spent on laptops, and the other half is teacher-led), and replaced “most of the teaching staff so he could hire technically savvy faculty.”

The second experiment, nationally deemed a failure, was the Los Angeles school district’s disastrous $1Billion iPad purchase without the necessary “comprehensive implementation plan.” According to Johnson, “schools paid full price for online curriculum that wasn't finished, students complained that they couldn't read on the iPad screen, while others figured out how to bypass the Internet controls and surf the Web for anything. The school district suspended the program."

Looking at the Kramer Middle School experiment, a school that “replaced” (a very pretty way to describe a systematically firing of the staff and a hiring of a brand new staff) most of their staff to hire “tech savvy faculty” (note that she didn’t say teachers), it is easy to take her word on this success story. And yet, Johnson doesn’t link to any articles throughout the Kramer paragraphs, although she links to articles everywhere else. In my own research, I have found that, although Simmons’ picture and profile are listed on the Kramer Middle School website, Delia Davis-Dykes is listed as interim principal at the District of Columbia Public Schools’ website. The Kramer Middle School Facebook page has not been updated since 2011; KMS is rated 2/10 on, 12th out of 13 ranked schools on, and is a Priority school based on 2013-2014 data. It is extremely odd that Johnson, in her article published September 15, 2014 deems Kramer Middle School as a success and Simmons as a visionary.

Putting aside the questionable journalism of this article, it does speak to the bizarre time we, as teachers, are currently in. The “digital native” language in and of itself is troublesome, as it is imbedded with so much emotional and social weight (and is no longer politically correct). But the concept that the teachers in the “successful” district had to be replaced in order to present this technology-rich success story is also disconcerting.  According to Johnson, “Only 8 percent of teachers say they feel proficient with technology, according to White House data,” although she does not link to this study or cite a source for this statistic.

Johnson fawns about a forum held by The Atlantic in 2014 that “featured some of the most prominent innovators in education technology, the people who design individualized learning platforms and free online courses and ways to take and share notes on online content. It's wonderful stuff as long as there are people and resources to make it work like it's supposed to,” she concludes. You will notice that she talks about “it” working. And the people and resources that need to be there in order for “it” to work. What is “it”? Well, I can tell you what it is not. It is not nurturing. It is not student-centric. It is not building relationships with students. It is not making personal connections with students’ lives and helping them see how to not only survive in this world, but to thrive, and maybe even to make it better. It is not a human connection. It is a computer program, built with algorithms, sold to districts, who then need to replace their content-expert and student-expert teachers with technology experts.

The statistic that “only 8 percent of teachers say they feel proficient with technology” tells us something very truthful about teachers, but it’s not what Johnson thinks. Her premise is that, if teachers say they aren’t proficient, then they must not be; therefore, they should be replaced with faculty who are proficient in technology. Whether or not this statistic is real (and there is no evidence in this article that the statistic IS real), teachers do say they don’t feel proficient. Why? Because teachers believe that they have to be experts in their field. In order to be an English teacher, I have to be an expert in English language and literature. Teachers are highly trained and highly proficient in their content area, and their content area is not technology, unless they happen to be a technology teacher.

But do teachers have to be experts in technology in order to remain relevant in teaching? In “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” Michael Godsey, longtime English educator, mourns that teachers won’t be relevant for much longer. He voices his fears that teachers are no longer allowed to be the experts in their subject area; instead, teachers have to be “expert facilitators.” They have to be able to manage multi-modal and blended-learning educational programming: in essence, pre-packed, canned curriculum. They are no longer teaching, but rather “facilitating,” while the computer programs do the teaching.

This goes against everything teachers have been trained to do...and against the driving philosophies that teachers idealistically believe in, when they go into education. They want to work with kids: to inspire, to challenge, to help, to teach. They don’t go into teaching to manage computer programs and hardware. Teachers do not deem themselves “proficient in technology” because, to be proficient, in educational terms, is to be at mastery. By very definition in the classroom,  a proficient teacher is a very good one. And we are charged to raise all of our students to proficiency in our content area. That means that all of our students are “at mastery” of the content. And teachers do not feel like they are “at mastery” in technology.

What teachers are proficient in, is teaching the individual human students in their classroom, with all of the baggage and hopes and struggles and dreams that students bring. And this is something that no computer algorithm can do, no matter how many “success stories” are written by the corporate mouthpieces.

"...she's all the unsung heroes who couldn't make it but never quit." 


“Auguste Rodin, ‘The Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone’ c.1880–1, cast 1950.” Tate, n.d. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2015. . Available:

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Penguin, 1987.

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