Forget the iPad — Get Me a Livescribe Smart Pen

It’s hard to know any more how information gets packaged, but many of us still buying print were pleasantly surprised yesterday to find the New York Times magazine–opening the 3-pound Sunday Times is still a little like Christmas–devoted to education.

You can view it here, though the visual clutter on the screen is not the same as paging through ink-stained paper pages and carrying it around with you or tossing it on the armchair or shoving it into your back pocket to take on a bike ride to the park.

This issue of technology is the essential question of “The Education Issue.” What will the digital revolution do to–and for–our schools?  “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?” is my second-favorite story in an issue crammed with good reading (see below for first-favorite).  The cover story, ironically, “Learning by Playing: Can video games transform schooling?” is one of my least favorites in this issue, as it tries too hard to be a cover story by promising too much; rather, by tricking those of us who grew up believing that learning was work (and that work is exhilarating) to read on, if only to find out what new technological horror would be pampering our children into self-confident ignorance.  Well-written, but a substantive yawn.

This is, of course, more of a technology issue than an educational one, but the Times does here what the Times does best: it informs us about important subjects in a lively manner. “The Pen That Never Forgets,” “Wiring the Classroom,” “The Learning Machines”–it’s the kind of cutting edge (we used to call it “gee-whiz”) reporting that will renew ones faith in the future of journalism.  It’s compelling reading about significant subjects. “Is play the thing?  Will educational redemption come from a pen that listens? Or from an automated tutor programmed to maximize your self-esteem?”

Yes, there is much to hee-haw about (“should small children be taught to write code (or first, taught to whittle?”), but it is an issue that should be read. You will recognize friend and foe, including Arne Duncan, who grew up without a TV pushing computers in the classroom; a story about how exercise creates stronger brains; sage advice like  “computers are a tool, not a solution”;  and, yes, drumroll, please, the NYT suggesting that “rote memorization” may be a good idea.

(Though I’m not sure “Cooking with Dexter” belongs in this issue, it is hilarious.)

Bottom line here, it’s time to shelve the old Thomas Edison quote about movies changing education forever and forget about the wizards who thought the same about television as a way of pooh-poohing the wired classroom or the Internet in it – in fact, television probably has changed education forever, just not in the way that Edison’s progeny may have envisioned it.

Folks, the computer is here; in fact, it’s everywhere.  Todd Oppenheimer’s masterful book about technology in the classroom (The Flickering Mind) is still masterful; it’s just wrong about many of its conclusions (and fears).  But how could anyone have foreseen the revolution’s many upsets?  The smart pen is not science fiction; a veteran teacher says it has “transformed” his classroom.  Oppenheimer was researching his book (published in 2003) while I was carrying around a  thick tome called “Learning HTML in Seven Days” for our launch of Time Online.  (This was the mid-90s, when most people were still using “dial-up,” but once we–editors and reporters–figured out that we could cut-and-paste HTML, we ditched the 7-days book.)

If there is a lesson in the Times package, it is this: it’s time for educators to take charge of the computer revolution–to put the computer geeks back in their places–and use computers as the educational tools they should and can be.

The best example of what’s possible in this arena is the Internet education company Bill Bennett helped start more than a decade ago, K12, Inc.  (Disclosure: I’ve done consulting work for K12.)  K12 founder and CEO Ron Packard had his priorities straight from the beginning, designing the delivery process around the content.  In fact, one of Packard’s early recruits was John Holdren, who had helped design the curriculum guides for E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation.  (See how Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at K12, and Gerald Huff, director of the Technology Innovation Group at Intuit, envisioned the future in “Full Immersion 2025,” in Education Next, whose editor, Paul Peterson, provides needed historical context for this revolution in his Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Schools.)

Finally, my favorite, don’t miss Ben Greenman’s brilliant last page essay in the Times special issue (just after the “Luxury Property Showcase,” which you won’t find–easily–in the online edition).  Greenman explores the educational value of “productive frustration.”  He explains why he has stopped giving the answer to questions his children ask him–“Google and I, as it turns out, know everything,” he writes.

By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests.

Yes, I could supply links to all these stories, but I’m not going to. Productive frustration. Or, as Sister Elizabeth Maureen might have put it, “No pain, no gain.”

Now, everyone put down your iPads and Blackberries and go outside, take a walk, breathe the air.   Ask yourself a question.

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