Virtual School Meanderings

January 14, 2022

Our School Systems Think Students Are Computers. They’re Not.

An item from the folks at the Digital Learning Collaborative.

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Our School Systems Think Students Are Computers.
They’re Not.


The last post suggested that we might be a bit more straightforward and even critical about what we’re seeing in digital learning, and education more broadly, than we have been in the past.

A good starting point comes from a recent podcast titled “Our Workplaces Think We’re Computers. We’re Not.” The podcast conversation is between host Ezra Klein and guest Annie Murphy Paul, author of a new book, “The Extended Mind.” As the podcast title suggests, the conversation is mostly focused on work, not school. But the concepts apply to schools as much as to work—hence adapting the title to this blog post—and the conversation even touches on education.

Klein starts with this observation:

Something I’ve been wrestling with lately…is what I’ve come to think of as productivity paradoxes, these things that look and feel to us like work, like productivity, that the culture tells us are work and productivity but turn out to be the opposite.”

He is referring in part to communication tools like Slack, which he argues cause such disruptions in focus that they are productivity killers instead of productivity enhancers. But I was struck by the phrase “things that look and feel like work…” Change that phrase to “things that look and feel like school,” and make sure you’re viewing this concept through the lens of an average person who is at least 30 years old (because most parents of school-age students and policy influencers are). What do you get? You get a vision of education that is built on students showing up at 8am or earlier, remaining in the building for six or more hours, and listening quietly to lectures delivered by a teacher. In this vision, schools are funded based on those students showing up physically—even if they are not there mentally and emotionally. But none of this is more than tangentially related to actual learning.

That’s certainly not a new point, although it’s a concept that still needs to be stated loudly and often. But author Annie Murphy Paul goes much further, in discussing the world of work and productivity. For example, she delves into how workers (and students) are not computers, but we treat workers like they are:

“When fed a chunk of information, a computer processes it in the same way on each occasion, whether it’s been at work for five minutes or five hours, whether it is located in a fluorescent lit office or positioned next to a sunny window, whether it’s near other computers or is the only computer in the room. This is how computers operate.

But the same doesn’t hold for human beings. The way we’re able to think about information is dramatically affected by the state we’re in when we encounter it.” (emphasis added)

Educators (mostly) recognize this fact, as demonstrated by the increased focus on SEL. And yet, by and large the public education system is doing a poor job of allowing students and parents to maximize engagement and learning by ensuring that the student is in their best possible state to learn, as often as possible. Fixed calendars and bell schedules, start times far earlier than ideal for teenagers, and group lectures are all elements of a system that does not let students, parents, and teachers marry the best educational delivery with the best possible state of the student.

Online and hybrid schools—including district-run alternative schools and independent study programs that often don’t identify as hybrid—build on these concepts. For high school students, the attraction of scheduling flexibility is fairly intuitive, as is the idea that students are in a better “state” when they are linking, in their minds, their school with their non-school pursuits and interests. For elementary students, the benefits of such flexibility may manifest in slightly different ways. From Annie Murphy Paul:

“the attitude…that paying attention to the body is sort of silly and sort of foolish comes from a very old idea in Western culture that mind and body are separate and that mind is made of this sort of special spiritual stuff and the body is this grubby kind of animal creature that needs to be subdued and that is irrational and doesn’t have anything — certainly doesn’t have anything to contribute to intelligent decision making or intelligent thinking.”

The “body that needs to be subdued” calls to mind the young students who learn much better when they can play, explore, work with their interests and energies instead of against them. These are not new concepts in education! But even though most people would agree with these ideas, our system is not built with these ideas as a foundation.

The podcast is worth a listen (or a read of the transcript), as it is full of fascinating ideas that have stayed with me. I’ll finish with two final quotes:

From podcast host Klein:
this is a pretty radical book. It has radical implications not just for how we think about ourselves but for policy, for architecture, for our social lives, for schooling, for the economy…It has changed the way I structure a bunch of my days. I’m trying to work with my mind more and against it less.

From author Annie Murphy Paul:
“thinking better is not about working the brain ever harder. It’s about creating a space and a set of capacities wherein you have more and better resources from which to assemble your thought processes
“ if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reporting and researching psychology for 25 years is that we often don’t know what’s best for us, and so we cling very firmly to these practices that don’t serve us.” (emphasis added)

Too much of public education is clinging to practices that don’t serve students. Instead, we need to create more spaces, for more students, to learn in the ways they learn best.

The examples exist. The next post will delve into one of these.
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