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Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator

Published on: 
Mon, 06/25/2012
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When Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., recently renovated its classrooms, Vern Williams, who might be the best math teacher in the country, had to fight to keep his blackboard. The school was putting in new “interactive whiteboards” in every room, part of a broader effort to increase the use of technology in education. That might sound like a welcome change. But this effort, part of a nationwide trend, is undermining American education, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.

I went to see Williams because he was famous when I was in middle school 20 years ago, at a different school in the same county. Longfellow’s teams have been state champions for 24 of the last 29 years in MathCounts, a competition for middle schoolers. Williams was the only actual teacher on a 17-member National Mathematics Advisory Panel that reported to President Bush in 2008.

Computer technology, while great for many things, is just not much good for teaching, yet. Paradoxically, using technology can inhibit understanding how it works. If you learn how to multiply 37 by 41 using a calculator, you only understand the black box. You’ll never learn how to build a better calculator that way. Maybe one day software will be smart enough to be useful, but that day won’t be any time soon, for two reasons. The first is that education, especially of children, is as much an emotional process as an imparting of knowledge—there is no technological substitute for a teacher who cares. The second is that education is poorly structured. Technology is bad at dealing with poorly structured concepts. One question leads to another leads to another, and the rigid structure of computer software has no way of dealing with this. Software is especially bad for smart kids, who are held back by its inflexibility.

John Dewey, the father of American education reform, defined miseducative experiences as those that have “the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.” “Growth,” he wrote, “depends upon the presence of difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence.” The widespread use of computer technology is inimical to the exercise of intelligence. I fear this is no more than shouting into the wind, but resist it while you can, because once it gets locked in—as our food system is, to monocultures and antibiotics in factory farms—it will be even tougher to get away from.

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