Reflections on a debate of teacher-leaders: does more tech in schools => more learning?

In order to develop teacher-leaders who feel confident discussing the implications of implementing technology in schools, the Master of Teacher Leadership program at Elmhurst College with which I have been privileged to work this summer undertook a debate yesterday. As teacher-leaders, the candidates are going to have plenty of occasion to stand up and speak intelligently about the implementation of various new technologies in their schools among their colleagues, and in addition to that sort of public speaking practice, the debate project gave students a broad perspective on current arguments for and against greater tech in schools. 

The proposition of the debate expressed the status quo of current thinking in American schools, that “On the whole, more educational technology leads to more and/or better learning on the part of students.” One side argued that this claim was valid, the other that it was invalid.

Each side in the debate had three graduate students, each a proficient, working professional. Collaboratively over several days, the Pro and Con teams gathered the best, most current evidence available to advance their arguments for or against the proposition. They used Google Apps (specifically pages in our Knowledge Base site) as a 24/7, wiki-type platform to publish and share argument briefs.

We structured the debate itself loosely along the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, with constructive speeches, cross-examination, and rebuttal speeches, thus:

Time (minutes)
Affirmative Constructive
The Affirmative makes its case for a change to the status quo.
Cross Examination
The Negative asks the Affirmative questions.
NC (1NR)
Negative Constructive (and first negative Rebuttal)
The Negative (almost always) makes its case and (almost always) moves on to address the Affirmative’s case.
Cross Examination
The Affirmative asks the Negative questions.
First Affirmative Rebuttal
The Affirmative addresses both his/her opponent’s case and his/her own. This speech is considered by many debaters to be the most difficult.
NR (2NR)
The Negative Rebuttal
The Negative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.
The Second Affirmative Rebuttal
The Affirmative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.

One instance of generational or cultural drift (in my understanding) arose from my incorrect assumption that all of my (under 35 year-old) students would understand that in policy debate, speakers rise individually to speak, then sit down and confer with their partners.  The way all of the MTL students understood the assignment was that as a panel, or team, they would rise and make their presentation.  However, because I did not clearly articulate the procedure in advance to them, I saw no harm (and something admirably collegial) in each side coming up as a panel and speaking individually.

Un-used as they were to debate, the students all acquitted themselves admirably, doing things that all effective policy debators (and teacher-leaders) do, namely:

  • questioning the bias, timeliness, and validity of studies raised as support by their opponents
  • questioning the logic of claims made by opponents–in this debate, the critical “Correlation does not mean causation”
  • defining terms in the debate in order to fit a rhetorical purpose–in one case, defining “learning” as something that results from multiple inputs, not just technological ones; in another, defining it as “cognitive development.” “Technology” itself was narrowly defined to mean ICT (Information and Communications Technology) since otherwise the arguments would need to concern every last pencil, notebook, and dry-erase marker!
  • “hooking” the audience with provocative quotations, as the team arguing against the proposition did with Edison’s famous, Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.

These teacher-leaders are going to be formidable participants in whatever tech-implementation debates occur at their respective schools!

The side arguing against the proposition made the important distinction early in the debate that ICT may “enhance education,” but it cannot define it. They helpfully reminded thier audience that the proper role of technology is as an suplement, not a replacement, of the teacher’s work. Demonstrating their reason, the team  would not stake an absolutist anti-technology stance, but instead argued for the intelligent implementation of ICT. What teacher-leader would do otherwise?

They made the case that in a tech-heavy or “virtual” schooling situation, important building blocks of knowledge–those covered at the base of Bloom’s pyramid–can be neglected, with the result that the higher levels of thinking are never reached. Since meta-studies as yet find no conclusive evidence of the positive effect of technology implementation, caution should be urged, and the best strategy of incorporating tech in curriculum would be based on integrating various learning activities, rather than fixating on specific learning tools or modalities for those activities.

For their side, those arguing that on the whole more tech implementation in schools would lead to more learning carefully qualified their position, avoiding the overly positive, “kool-aid”-drunk stance of some ed tech enthusiasts. This side’s claim was not that cognitive growth could be guaranteed, or all academic skills could be enhanced through ICT, but merely that knowing how to use various ICT media, and its judicious use in certain areas, could be supported.  Some of the salient claims of the side in favor of the claim that more technology => more learning:

  • ICT in schools can increase enthusiasm and engagement
  • ICT in schools can augment the “wonder” of a student
  • ICT in schools can help students become “self-starters”

At the end of the debate, there appeared to be consensus–these teacher-leaders agreed that ICT has an important place in schools, but without a thoughtful, considered strategy for its implementation, time and money would be squandered. 

Observing such clear-eyed, rational young teacher-leaders gives me a sense of confidence that the forces of reason will yet prevail in our on-going, vociferous national debates on the schools.

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