Monday, September 28, 2009

Smart Boards and Smart Students
by David Gilfix

So, what is the toughest challenge facing today’s public school educators?  Is it to help kids acquire as much information as possible, or to teach them how to think deeply about a single topic?  Neither.  The toughest challenge is to keep kids focused on the lesson.  Without that, they might as well be home watching television.

Which brings us to Smart Boards.

Smart Boards are replacing the old fashioned blackboards in the classroom, and everybody’s happy about it (and there’s nothing you can do about it, even if you’re not).  In case you don’t have school-age children or haven’t stepped into a suburban classroom lately, Smart Boards are basically giant touch screen computers onto which you can either write directly or upload text and graphics via computer.

Here’s why everybody is happy:

First, the students:  They are happy about Smart Boards because they love staring at a screen.   On average, they spend three hours a day watching television. 68% of them have a television in their bedrooms, and 63% of them are in families that keep the television on even during dinner, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation research.   When they’re not watching television, they’re finding other exciting ways to stare at a screen, such as surfing the internet – with long stops on Facebook, the Wii, the Nintendo DS, and of course video games.   According to David Walsh, Ph.D., President of the National Institute on Media and the Family, 96% of American boys play video games for 13 hours per week, and 78% of girls play video games for 5 hours per week.  Staring at a screen is their favorite thing to do, so they’re happy.

Second, the teachers:  They are happy because Smart Boards greatly reduce their workload (more about that later) and because students love to stare at a screen and don’t want to look at teachers for more than a few minutes.   And it’s not the teachers’ fault; the kids have lots of practice staring at a screen for hours on end (perhaps I mentioned that already).  And kids have very little practice paying attention to a real live person.  Additionally, the Smart Board does make a wonderful interactive tool.  For example, if the class is about Van Gogh, you can show photographs of paintings about Van Gogh on a Smart Board, which might otherwise require students to open up a book.

Third, the administrators:  They are happy about Smart Boards because students are happy (because they get to stare at a screen), and because teachers are happy (because students are happy).  Also, Smart Boards are the way of the future, and administrators need to be in on technological innovations that advance the cause of education.

So everybody is gaga over the new Smart Boards, which cost somewhere between $2000 and $5000 for each classroom and will probably be replaced in a few years with new and improved Smart Boards that will also cost $2000 to $5000.  The total cost for a school to put Smart Boards into every classroom could pay for a few extra teachers, but nobody wants to even look at new teachers when there are Smart Boards.

And to be honest, Smart Boards aren’t really that bad. 

In defense of teachers, of which I am one, as well as administrators, whose job is way too stressful for me, there are important benefits to Smart Boards.  They are very easy to use and much clearer than old-fashioned overhead projectors. The Smart Board can utilize just about any good educational software on its large screen, providing students with interactive problem-solving games that give immediate feedback about their decisions.  A teacher or student can write directly on a Smart Board screen (using what else but a “magic crayon”) and then move the placement of their writing onto other parts of the screen; lists can be manipulated into different orders. Homework sheets, photographs, and book pages can be scanned and filed on Smart Boards with ease.  In fact, Smart Boards makes it possible to save entire lesson plans and file them for future years, greatly reducing teachers’ workload.  Smart Boards are so versatile that they practically render both the blackboard and the overhead projector obsolete.

If you still aren’t getting why the Smart Board is the greatest thing since sliced bread, here is the entire technological history of education in one breath.  Ready?  (Inhale):  From oral history to cave drawings to papyrus to wax tablets to parchment to paper to printing press to blackboards to overhead projectors to computers, videos, DVDs … to SMART BOARDS!

OK, back to the students:  In their defense, they have inherited a culture of television, computers, and gadgets that has encouraged unrestrained screen-viewing.  If students now learn differently because of their experiences in today’s culture, it is not their fault.

Indeed, the Smart Board is public education’s answer to three important needs: 1) for students to stare at a screen (perhaps I already mentioned that), 2) for teachers to own an easy all-in-one blackboard/video screen/computer-integrated system that simplifies their job, and 3) for schools to provide students with more; more information about more topics, with way more pizzazz more easily than ever.   The Smart Board provides instant access to videos, photographs, interactive charts, music, speeches, and more!

But does the Smart Board make students smarter?

In the national bestseller, The Dumbest Generation, Emory University English professor, Mark Bauerlein, provides a compelling research-based argument that, despite all its promise, technology has not produced noticeable gains in students’ reading or writing skills or in their general knowledge about civics, history, or American or world cultures.  The sciences, too, have not seen noticeable gains.  Bauerlein cites statistics from The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which show physics scores actually declining since 1996, while math scores among 12th graders not improving since 1978 even though three times as many students take calculus.  Bauerlein asserts “instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them.”  Bauerlein does not argue against the inclusion of technology into the curriculum, but rather in favor of examining the real overall impact of technology on learning.

As someone who is statistically middle-aged, I was of course taught on the old-fashioned stupid board, aka the blackboard, and I remember clearly a time when school libraries were filled with books rather than computers.  I also remember how everyone naively prognosticated that computers would solve our national educational challenges. 

Like many people, I can look back and remember one particular teacher who inspired life long curiosity and excitement about learning.  For me, it was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Daley, a man who genuinely loved the topics he taught.  When he discussed ancient Greece or ancient Rome, Mr. Daley presented vivid, stimulating images of these civilizations, not with movies or photographs but with words -- his words, based on his own research and understanding.   His classes used few visual aids and little pizzazz except the most important of all – his real live enthusiasm. This was before the days of computers, videos, or Smart Boards, and yet, to this day, I can still remember the talks and discussion we had in his class

Mr. Daley has been a model for me as a teacher.  He not only loved teaching and cared about his student, but he also loved learning, thinking, discussing, analyzing, differentiating, and provoking students to reexamine their assumptions.   He inspired students to learn because he loved learning.

If Mr. Daley were teaching today, I am sure that he would be using the Smart Board; he would understand the imperative of using today’s technology in today’s classroom (besides, why use an overhead projector if you have a better choice?).  I am sure he would still be a great teacher and that students would still learn a lot in his classes.

But they would not have learned as much from him as we did long ago.

Sometimes less really is more.  My guess is that Mr. Daley would have discovered, as Mark Bauerlein writes, that the overall influence of technology on learning might be negative.  Based on my experience as a passionate student and now passionate teacher, I have observed the following:
  • Rather than teaching students to remember more, by providing more information and more pictures, technology often suppresses students’ abilities to conjure up their own mental pictures based on the spoken words. 
  • Rather than encouraging students to analyze and think deeply, technology often encourages surface thinking, like a rock skimming over the water from one topic to another.
  • Rather than enhancing communication skills, technology sometimes disenables the development of the highest verbal and written communication by allowing students to rely on photographs and videos. 
  • Rather than stimulating students’ interests by providing information about many subjects, technology often overloads and overwhelms students with too much information, thereby killing their personal interests. 

A recent article in the New Haven Register written by Sarah Peck, which discusses the incorporation of Smart Boards into the New Haven public schools, includes the following schoolteacher quotes: 
•    “Think of it as Wii for the classroom”
•    “We’re in competition with video games, and it’s very difficult to compete.”
•     “Once you start teaching with it, you can’t go without it.”

And so it goes.  Everybody loves the Smart Board.  The challenge for us teachers will be to moderate its use (better than students moderate their use of screen viewing toys) so that we can still derive all the benefits for which it was designed without sacrificing the Mr. Daley approach to teaching.   Can we?

In my school, there are many excellent teachers, including a few who are probably in the same league as Mr. Daley.  They, like the administrators, want to foster an approach that best promotes learning among students of this day and culture, and the Smart Board is so exceptional that it’s hard not to get caught up in all the enthusiasm.   Music teachers always get everything last, but eventually I will receive one.  I am optimistic that it will enhance my teaching, reduce my workload, and maybe even help my students stay focused.

But will it make them smarter?


The Black Cat said...

A tool is only as good as the person wielding it.

That said, a really good teacher ought to get improved results when given a better tool. Or something.

solovaye said...

Hey, thanks for the insightful article. Glad I read it.

J. Farrington said...

I'll get back to you with some thoughts on this on. But just some nitty-gritty: given that I wear a lot of black and dark colors and the traditional boards where I teach are difficult to see if there is glare unless you use soft chalk, I get covered from head to toe in it, and the white boards never seem to erase properly. I am curious about using the new smart boards the university where I teach has just installed. Also, subjects and ages. My students spend so much time reading hard copy, orally presenting and drafting projects a screen is actually a welcome break in the classroom. IN THE CLASSROOM - I don't know how many hours they spend in front of a screen at home, my guess is a substantial amount.

Naomi said...

Interesting and well written article.
I believe the problem with education is that there is no longer an emphasis on teaching or allowing students to think for themselves. They may know how to use a computer but not how it works. And they are destroying language with the cutesy abbreviations and symbols.

John said...

Excellent article. You imply what I have been saying directly for years, if you want Americans to be better educated, focus on what children do outside of school. Parents should not be surprised if their children show little curiosity or poor behavior in school, when they spend most of their time at home staring at a television and computer.

Emily said...

Dear David,
I enjoyed your essay about the Smart Boards. Roughly 40 years ago I taught Ancient History and American History at the Fieldston School. At the time they did not have much in the way of the latest technology. When later I taught American History at Scarsdale High I had many machines at my disposal eg. overhead projectors etc. I could show movies including anything that had appeared on TV . If I gave a photos or pictures of any kind to the proper person I could have slides available for my class the next day. At first I thought it was wonderful, but soon learned that discussions generated by the teacher involved the students more effectively than even a good movie about American History. There is something about watching a screen that is passive and is less engaging than responding to a live person, the teacher, or fellow students. And then there are all those power point presentations.
Fond greetings

Eran said...

I am trying to keep my response connected to aspects of Jewish education. Modern Orthodoxy attempts to live halachic life and to integrate into modern (technological) life. It is a difficult and challenging task. Spinning it to your question; keeping good teaching practices of (old) while using the new technology is difficult and challenging. However it can be done.

SteveSil said...

Good article David. The key is to use to this technology to help students - and people in general - to become more mentally active and less passive. There should be an emphasis on utilizing such tools to facilitate active participation and expression of one's thoughts and creativity. Most technologies have their potential downside. Let's try to be aware of these pitfalls and avoid them.

display said...

I'd prefer stupid boards and smart students. Not entertained students and smart boards. There are no shortcuts to learning difficult subjects.

Beyond the first cost there is the cost of tech support, teacher training, lock in to proprietary software and as you mentioned, upgrades.

I think costs are closer to $5000 ea. For a school with 100 classrooms that is .5 million!

I'd like to see some well done, independent studies showing that these things contribute anything to learning in proportion to their costs.