Student Disengagement: The Fallacy of Technology in the Classroom

student with laptop in classroomThe Errant offers an insider’s view at what is often a real barrier to an engagement with learning in our classrooms: technology.  A brief Errant perspective: pencil, paper, text, teacher.  Done.

Our contributor Eric Sargent teaches English at a private high school in St. Louis.  

The marginalization of “true” education abounds once again under the guise of “school reform” in Wisconsin as those persons in charge continue to throw money at the nation’s educational systems in hopes it will transform the unmotivated, unappreciative, reticent middle-schooler with yep, you guessed it… more technology.  As with most educational trends, school boards and school districts exchange true, deep, intellectual examination of content for the latest and the greatest gadgets which will be either a) outdated within a few years; b) simply ineffective as a teaching tool; or c) what I call a “whistle-and-bell” instrumentation that deduces and masks true educational pursuits.

Their reasoning – to cut costs and keep students engaged:

WEAU – One Wisconsin school district is hoping iPads will help cut costs and keep students engaged.

Bangor Middle School teacher Rick Muellenberg says his students have never been excited about getting their textbooks on the first day of school, but today they couldn’t wait to start studying with their new iPads.

“Everything will be very timely versus a textbook,” Muellenberg said. “Once it’s published, there are no changes to it and so the updates we get are free updates, so the information stays relevant and pertinent to that moment without having to pay again for it.”

Bangor Middle and High School Principal Don Addington says the school district ordered about 140 iPads–one for each middle schooler–at about $450 a piece.

The district paid for the iPads with surplus school funds and a one-time refund from the school’s utility use.

 – Kevin Held, KSDK; St. Louis

In my experience as both student and educator, I’m outraged time and time again when “student engagement” is mentioned.  The term’s denotation has transformed, especially in the last decade as technologies sprout up like weeds.  Fifteen years ago, “student engagement” meant teachers produced an informative, erudite lesson that challenged student thinking.  “Student engagement” had more to do with the personality of a teacher and his/her ability to express new ideas while engaging students in conversation, discussion, probing, questioning, and the likes.  In more modern terms, “student engagement” is a phrase used to describe iPads, SmartBoards, laptops, etc. and how a teacher can manipulate those medium to fill-up class time.  Walk through the halls of any school and discover “games” being played on the SmartBoard, laptops utilized for writing papers (most of which are logged-in to Facebook), and other farcical methods that seemingly promote higher level thinking.

In an article by Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, titled “Too Dumb for Complex Texts?” (published in ASCD’s Educational Leadership) technologies are appropriately attacked as the main source for the “dumbing down” of the American school system.  Professor Bauerlein addresses most technologies as mere tools to facilitate “superficial readings.”  What does that mean for the average college freshman?  For those attending a four-year college, that means a 30% dropout rate due to insufficient reading and comprehension skills – a statistic so staggering that many collegiate institutions (including the illustrious Saint Louis University) now mandate a “college readiness” class for ALL incoming freshman (for no credit) as a supplement to their high school diploma.  In other words, high school education ain’t cutting it any longer.

Simply put, technologies accelerate “messages” rather than slow them down.  Twitter and Facebook allow instantaneous information with each status update, and text messaging allows youngsters to communicate in short, declarative bursts, most of which have little to no academic value.  Yet, this is how they communicate upwards of 200+ times a day.  And in their minds, this form of communication is the norm.  However, the true goal of education is to slow “messages” down so they might be deciphered, investigated, probed on deeper levels.  Thus, the “immediacy” of technologically charged messages does more to create distraction than to incorporate deep, intellectual thought.  In Bauerlein’s words: “the more students become habituated to [technological mediums], the more they will eschew a slow and deliberate pace; or, rather the more they will read quickly and fail to comprehend.”

In the case of the Wisconsin middle schools, obtaining iPads may seem state-of-the-art, flashy, new-wave, cost-efficient, and appropriate in this “jump on the bandwagon” generation of educational conformists; however, the basic core of education is once again overlooked.  Manipulating a technological device (especially in this day and age) requires little effort, seeing as how each device becomes more and more intuitive.  The real test of a student’s adeptness is whether or not (s)he can “willingly pause and probe [because] complex text reading requires few interruptions.”  In an article from The Trillium (Ontario Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2009) the title states it all: “Focus: The Forgotten 21st Century Skill” (PDF).  Dr

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. Douglas Reeves, author, states: “Focus, not technological manipulation, is the most important skill in the decades ahead.”  Fearing for future generations, he adamantly argues against multiple sources of stimuli (technology) in the classroom AND board room.  No iPad is going to transform the educational world – diligence and focus on key components (see Bloom’s Taxonomy) will always remain central to this theme.  In my opinion (with my own students), the iPad and laptops are more “distraction” than learning tool – keeping students “on task” becomes the theme of the hour (constantly RE-directing them back to the task at hand and AWAY from social-networking).  Wisconsin has much to learn, I guess.

Side Note: I’m further appalled by Mr. Rick Muellenberg’s comment in the previous article when he states: “students have never been excited about getting their textbooks on the first day of school.”  Perhaps the biggest failure of the Wisconsin school system is not the purchasing of 140 iPads after all; rather, it’s the employment of this disgraceful “professional” who lacks any bit of creativity or adroitness to make the first day the most memorable of each year (see Harry Wong’s The First Days of School if you’re SO desperate for originality or creativity).  Hell, if you want the students to be self-advocates, you have to advocate for yourself as a teacher, and be an inspirational leader in the classroom.  Dolt!


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  1. Douglas Storm September 9, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Great piece, Eric!

    The true work of teaching is not what is being promoted currently (ever?…since Reagan?).

    Teaching is about opening a mind to a consideration of being–of finding out about what it means to live in this world, at this time, in the place, in this language…

    Technology teaches technology. That’s it. Further it teaches the mechanisms of technology creation and progression. It teaches consumption and market production.

    In effect the more technology in the classroom, the less humanity, the less animal being, the less empathy and so on.

    We are in the middle of a market onslaught in the face of the very clear evidence of market/capital failure and malfeasance.

    You know what they say, the more preposterous the lie, the more folks will believe it. We have been living the biggest lie for over a century in this country and “importing” it to the rest of the world while exporting their resources into our grubby mindless hands.

  2. focus September 9, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Great article Eric. I appreciate your insight. Someday someone will be looking at a book in an antique store and commenting about how “quaint” it was that pages actually had to be turned by hand.
    Excited teachers lead to excited students. My daughter’s school has old worn out textbooks but the fact that they are new to her and contain facts she doesn’t yet know make them fascinating, despite their outward appearance.
    Kids are too enmeshed in technology as it is. We are removing handwriting from the curriculum. They learn spelling shorthand from text messages. They learn to form short sentences from the confines of twitter and facebook. Where but at school do the learn the art of conversation, dialogue and intelligent debate? Not there anymore if they are face down in an iPad, screwing around on some networking site. You mention the freshman year college “catch up” courses. What about the increase in 5th year college students? And the fact that they leave these fine institutions of higher learning still not able to make a cogent argument in a debate or perform critical thought processes–where do they find that skill? Not on an iPad.

  3. Eric M. Sargent September 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I agree! In the simplest terms, education is the business of making connections. As an English teacher, I facilitate understanding and comprehension so students might be able to connect knowledge/skills to their own personal lives. That’s it. Technology simply connects you to more and more information (or otherwise distractions), but instills no lesson on how to use it or what to do with it. As you put it: “students still can’t create a cogent argument or perform critical thought processes” because who’s going to argue with an iPad? It just did the work for you. No argument, no connectivity to deeper meaning, just connectivity. And what lesson has been learned? *See Lessons – B-Town Errant on Huck Finn.


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