“We first have to ask what kind of world we want, then ask what kind of education system will create that world.” – Jordan Shapiro
Jordan Shapiro is a professor at Temple University’s Intellectual Heritage Department, who writes about edTech, game-based learning, parenting, and psychology. He contributes regularly to Forbes, as well as to MindShift KQED, The Huffington Post, and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.
Acclaim caught up with Jordan about his ideas on edTech and pedagogy in September 2014 and December 2014. The following interview is a set of questions aiming at a response to Jordan’s recent article, “Schools Need Redemption, Not Innovation,” (Forbes, 12/26/2014). In the article, Jordan expounds upon what innovation in education really refers to, and advocates that educational policy should be directed towards engendering students with the skills to build a better, more democratic society, rather than towards performing confined professional roles. Acclaim asked him about what, exactly, students are losing out on within the current system, and about how politicians and technologists can better come to understand the difference between speaking about change and actually implementing programs that motivate it.
Acclaim: Both you and Audrey Watters of Hack Education have criticized buzzwords like “personalized,” “blended,” and “digital innovation,” noting that these terms have become meaningless as they’ve become part of the standard rhetoric of tech companies and politicians. But the children who are experiencing these “disruptions” are still in the process of intellectual (and professional) development. How do we know that they’re already losing out? And what, specifically, are they losing out on?
Jordan: The kinds of things that children are losing out on are hard to reduce into a thing, into something determinate with clearly defined edges. But as educational success and “innovation” are increasingly measured by test scores that focus on determinate workplace skills, we risk forgetting the essential purpose of education. The only reason why we teach reading, writing, arithmetic, etc., is because they are common languages that enable us to create a better lived experience for humanity. It is about relationships and community.
But as educational success and “innovation” are increasingly measured by test scores that focus on determinate workplace skills, we risk forgetting the essential purpose of education.
Therefore, a part of the education system should always be geared towards producing individuals with equal opportunities, and towards enabling them to feel empowered to speak for themselves. But with testing, we seem to be creating a stratified society, in which each individual is tracked into a fixed role within an industrial economy. The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) report on “Measuring Innovation in Education,” ranks US schools seventeenth internationally. [Editor’s note: this report measured innovation in terms of the correlations between policies and practices that enhance test scores]. It seems that being seventeenth is what enables our economy to function. Our current high stakes testing paradigm perfectly tracks students so that self worth is stratified socioeconomically. Which, in turn, enables the kind of labor exploitation that sustains our current economy.
Things are working fine . . . if this is the kind of world we want.
Acclaim: How do you think that digital assessment could be more tied to producing critical thinkers and individualists?
Jordan: We can and should still test things that are determinate. But we need to do it with more efficient adaptive platforms that make little distinction between instruction, practice, and assessment. There are programs which teach early literacy skills super efficiently, and video games like the DragonBox that can teach 7th-8th grade algebra in a number of hours. And apps like Duolingo have already showed us how powerful and inexpensive interactive learning engines can be.
We can and should still test things that are determinate. But we need to do it with more efficient adaptive platforms that make little distinction between instruction, practice, and assessment.
Basically, we can look at simple cognitive proficiencies as the kinds of skills that can be taught by computers really quickly. These programs are more precisely personalized than a human educator. Then, teachers will have more time to spend on the indeterminate parts of an education that are best taught through face-to-face human interaction.
See, while our current high stakes testing culture is failing, we can’t just eliminate it. It’s necessary because it creates accountability. I mean that word literally. “Accountability” describes the ability to do accounting — to measure successes and failures. Administrators, educators, and government authorities need data and metrics for the same reason a corporation needs an accountant. Without them, there’s no way of tracking continuity.
Hopefully, new learning technologies will enable educators to collect assessment data as students cultivate the kind of empowered sense of self that makes critical thinking possible, rather than pushing specific skills only for the purpose of assessment. Video games and game-based learning are helping us move in this direction.
Acclaim: What kinds of human/emotional skills should we be teaching, and what are the best ways of engendering them? You’ve stressed that empathy is a skill that can be gained from game-based learning. Do you ever have to deal with objections from technologists or educative administrators who might say your ideals are utopian? Where do your goals align?
Jordan: I get very little resistance from developers. I think everyone gets that we should be moving toward an educational paradigm that values “social and emotional skills.” When we try to define them, however, I believe we’re doing an epistemological disservice to ourselves. We’re suddenly trying to make them into hard skills. They are caught up with uncertainty and ambivalence. Therefore, by definition, we can’t really articulate what they are.
When we try to define “social and emotional skills,” I believe we’re doing an epistemological disservice to ourselves.
Acclaim: You teach intellectual heritage at Temple. What kinds of outside materials (contemporary texts, video, resources) do you integrate with the course materials? How do you see students in your courses deal with ideas surrounding the distinction between the individual as defined by industrial society and the individual as discovered through self-reflection and critical thinking?
Jordan: My students overwhelmingly tell me that they have gained more practical skills from reading Heidegger with me than from any other class that they’ve enrolled in. I think that’s crazy. These are engineering and nursing and business school students. How can a course full of philosophical abstraction be more practical than classes that teach hard skills? I suspect it is because what they learn in my class is how to make these ideas connect to their lived, emotional experiences. Other subjects may have more utility, but they don’t help individuals make meaning out of their lived experience. See, the majority of today’s education is not teaching things in context, because it focuses on separating and specializing.
How can a course full of philosophical abstraction be more practical than classes that teach hard skills?
In terms of what I bring in, we did a lot with current events this past semester. We looked at Syria, the Ukraine, and Ferguson. We used blogs and YouTube videos. I use a lot of technology in my teaching, but not in the actual classroom. In the classroom we focus on things that can only happen in a face-to-face environment. Also, students are often getting a video of me when I travel.
Acclaim: In your Forbes article on the WISE Conference, you wrote “I pushed delegates to ask what kind of civilization we want to create and then asked how we might imagine innovative ways of using digital tools to make it a reality.” How did they respond?
Jordan: A lot of people didn’t answer the question. Again, the thing they seem to forget is that whatever education system we have will effectively create the world we live in. Therefore, we first have to ask what kind of world we want, then ask what kind of education system will create that world. Most people would say they want every kid to have an empowered voice. But we obviously don’t know how to structure a world like this yet. It’s hard to figure out how to make this a reality. It’s easier to just say “more tools more tablets more broadband more data.” Especially for industry and government — it’s easy to get elected talking about infrastructure because it’s safe and seemingly objective. Principles and morals, on the other hand, those divide people.
Acclaim: You teach college courses, yet your writing is mainly about K-12. Where do things align/differ on the role of technology in each sphere?
Jordan: In a college classroom, students mostly learn how to use technology as a productivity tool. College is their workplace and students learn how to use tech for workplace efficiency: registering for classes, turning in assignments, watching video lectures, analyzing statistical data, creating simulations, etc. In K-12, tech is mostly imagined as a fix-it tool. We imagine it can fill the instructional gaps with engaging interactive digital media.
We’re still in the formative years of digital information technology. Eventually, these technologies won’t be considered innovative.
But the truth is that new tech needs to be integrated more holistically into both spheres. We’re still in the formative years of digital information technology. Eventually, these technologies won’t be considered innovative. Like the pencil, or the student desk, or the blackboard. We forget now that these are technologies. They are integrated into our everyday being. One day this will happen with our current technologies. In the meantime, I imagine we’ll continue to make too much of a distinction between our tech lives and our non-tech lives.