The Sneaky Conservativism of Ed Tech

September 27, 2023

The Sneaky Conservatism of Ed Tech

By Alfie Kohn

Have you ever noticed that people in positions of power who earnestly exhort us to “think outside the box” are likely to resist any effort to change the box itself?

Take the folks in Silicon Valley. Their basic mission, as technology critic Evgeny Morozov argued recently, is to sell us products designed, at best, to make our miseries a little more bearable. Tech innovations hatched in the private sector, where profitability takes precedence over the public interest, have a way of helping each user adapt to difficulties rather than encouraging us to work together and address the root causes of those difficulties.

Morozov offers a typical example: an app released a few years ago to ease subway crowding. The idea wasn’t to figure out how to fund public transit adequately and thereby improve its service. Instead, the app rewarded commuters for changing their personal habits in order to avoid traveling at peak times. Tech folks are big on promoting “self-reliance and resilience,” Morozov observes, which has the effect of desensitizing us to systemic ills.

If this is true of tech in general, it seems to apply with particular force to ed tech. And maybe to other features of education as well.

For all the talk about “disrupting” the status quo, basic assumptions about teaching and learning — and the systemic reasons those assumptions persist — continue undisturbed when we’re distracted by digital bells and whistles. No wonder traditional schools so often embrace ed tech enthusiastically: blended this, flipped that, apps and devices galore. This allows them to proudly tout their “innovative” education even as they perpetuate conventional approaches to instruction and decision making.

Look at it this way: A solution to a problem offers an answer to a question, but it may also distract us from asking other questions. For example, the question implicit in a classroom app might be “How can knowledge be delivered to students more efficiently?” But that means the question isn’t “Does it make sense to conceive of learning as the receipt of information (rather than, say, the construction of meaning)?” or “Is efficiency really the appropriate criterion for evaluating education?”

Similarly, if we’re asking how to personalize learning — a question from which ed tech companies may ultimately stand to profit — then what we’re not asking is why a curriculum has been imposed on students and standardized to the point that it has to be personalized. If the learning were personal in the first place, if it emerged from students’ own questions about the world, there would be no need to add a separate step of harm mitigation. And no one would have to purchase software for that purpose — software that, incidentally, gives tech corporations access to information about our children.

Can teachers’ lectures be jazzed up with SmartBoards? What matters is why so many classrooms remain teacher-centered, not how to tweak the teacher-centered technique. (If you learned that kids were being fed doughnuts for breakfast every day, would your first question be whether we should add rainbow sprinkles?) By the same token, we ought to ask whether the goal is for students to understand ideas deeply, not whether memorizing facts and practicing skills can be made more palatable by causing the process to resemble a video game or enhancing it with ChatGPT. (The standard rejoinder to fears that A.I. tools will facilitate cheating is that they can be incorporated into the existing curriculum. But how valuable is that existing curriculum? And do students play a meaningful role in creating it?)

To be fair, the tendency to restrict questions to more peripheral, and less systemic, matters isn’t limited to the use of tech. Any number of people whose priority is to preserve the box love to talk about the responsibility of individuals to think outside it. Remember the loophole offered by Chief Justice John Roberts when he and the five other Republican-appointed members of the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in college admissions earlier this year? Race may be considered by colleges, they said, but only with regard to an applicant’s “experiences as an individual,” such as “courage and determination” in overcoming discrimination….on their own.

Sure, it can be useful to know how to cope with challenging and unjust environments, to develop personal characteristics such as resilience, persistence, self-regulation, mindfulness, or a growth mindset. But who benefits when those individual responses are emphasized more than what would be required to address the underlying situation?

In education, one such underlying situation involves discrimination on the basis of race or other criteria. But another involves what — and how — students are taught. Thus, someone in ed tech might ask, “How can we design a tool to help kids complete a fill-in-the-blank worksheet?” A conservative consultant, meanwhile, might ask, “How can students be trained to develop more grit, or to focus on effort rather than ability, so that they’ll eventually come to exclaim, ‘By golly, if I try hard enough, I’ll bet I can ace this worksheet!’?”

Either way, the question we’ve been discouraged from asking is “Why in the world are kids still being made to do worksheets?”

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