When Will They Ever Learn?

In the 1950s and early 1960s, my father was involved in exploring possibilities of programmed instruction and teaching machines.  In 1961, I remember rewards of a quarter as I participated as a subject in someone else’s experiments in learning with a big machine at Harvard, where my father was participating in some sort of summer institute.  Because he was a consultant for Field Enterprises (publisher, among other things, of World  Book Encyclopedia, which included his entry on teaching machines), all sorts of odd, experimental teaching aids could be found around the house, including something called ‘Cyclo-Teacher,’ which I loved, for it allowed me to quickly amass bodies of facts about a variety of subjects.

By the end of the 1960s, however, my father (and almost everyone he had worked with on programmed  instruction and teaching machines) had abandoned his projects in favor of renewed concentration on direct student/teacher interaction.  It was there, he and the others had found, where real learning takes place.

This is a story I’ve told many times, but I’m telling it again in response to a story in The New York Times about the impact (or lack of it) of technology on education.  It seems that there is a bit of surprise, today, that test scores do not necessarily go up under the influence of technology:

To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

What my father learned, what Fred Keller learned, is that technology can only serve as an adjunct to education.  And it continues to amaze me that others don’t seem to get it, even half a century later.  If students don’t desire to learn, no amount of gadgets will make them learn.  The desire to learn comes from what one has gained through the family, of course, but it can also arise through teachers, who have to do much more than simply act as facilitators if they are going to succeed.  The good teacher provides motivation–even for those students coming to school already enthusiastic.  Without it, no program, technologically based or now, will succeed.

Charles Blow makes this point, though without talking about technology, also in The New York Times:

She put her arm around me and pulled me close while she graded my paper with the other hand. I got a couple wrong, but most of them right.

I couldn’t remember a teacher ever smiling with approval, or putting their hand around me, or praising my performance in any way.

It was the first time that I felt a teacher cared about me, saw me or believed in me. It lit a fire in me. I never got a bad grade again.

For Blow, for all of us, it is the motivation that makes learning possible.  And teachers, not machines, are the motivators in our schools.

Without them, we never learn.