What do the best classrooms do, and who are they, anyway?

October 29, 2010

Here’s a news flash: go into the best classrooms in the world and you won’t see too many computers.

“In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

I think we all know how important high tech computer systems and 3-d holographic technology can be, not just for teaching, but also for hunting down rebel ships in Star Wars. Why don’t the best schools seem to invest in high tech?

Well, some of the best schools do, I’m sure, and you always have to be a little dubious when someone wants to tell you who has the best schools. But this makes sense too, if you have a decent understanding of how learning works. You can’t mechanize learning, and a technological advance isn’t going substantially affect kids’ intelligence, because that’s not the way learning works. Learning isn’t about stuffing more stuff into people’s heads; it’s a process they have to participate in, and even take the lead in.

So the push for technology in the classroom will, sadly, often resemble the expensive gift for the toddler: they just want to play with the box.

In my opinion, it’s much better to focus on the fundamentals of how learning happens. Two models for this are currently being discussed: Finland’s schools and South Korea’s schools. Roughly, Finland’s schools are characterized by more free time and a more relaxed attitude, while South Korea’s are obsessed with top marks, and pursue academic success at the expense of free time and play. Both cultures, tellingly, value education highly.

They’re very different models. Which is the better one for us?

One telling detail is that South Korea sees a major flaw in their system. Go to 2’30” into the video link for South Korea, and you’ll see the head of education voicing his concern that they’re producing little test-taking automatons. No such worry exists in Finland, though they did mention that they’d like to do better for the top of their classes.

Much of good teaching is about crafting an environment and an experience that promotes learning, and getting a kid to participate in it productively. The best teachers are the ones who get kids playing in a kind of focused way. This is a subtle skill, and one that I don’t think we’ll ever be able to standardize. It requires teachers to have a human relationships with their students, as opposed to bureaucratic ones, or worse (the industrial vision supposes the teacher just adds the knowledge, like leather seats in a car, or slices to a potato). It doesn’t require fancy equipment. It does require space and time.

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