Guest Post: Singapore 2012 - Teaching with Technology

CJ Westerberg, April 10, 2012 7:58 PM

(Editor's Note:  Educator Bill Jackson is sending The Daily Riff posts about his findings from
 the International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology 2012 in Singapore.  This is the first of the series but each can be read without following any particular order.  Jackson's previous posts in The Daily Riff have proven to be both thought-provoking and popular, especially those related to Singapore Math, his travel journals to both Japan and Singapore, as well as his viral Why Other Countries Do Better in Math, with further links below this post.  -C.J. Westerberg)


by Bill Jackson

For better or worse, technology has become commonplace in education. Increasingly
teachers use electronic interactive "smart" boards instead of chalkboards and iPads and
Tablet PC's instead of textbooks. Most children today have no idea what the Encyclopedia Britannica is although they use Wikipedia on a regular basis. The web has become the main tool for gathering, processing and disseminating information. But how much of what we call "technology" really improves learning? And what aspects of technology help, don't help, or even detract from learning? These are difficult questions that in my mind are not being addressed adequately in public debate on education.

I have always been interested in technology. I remember spending long nights at the Rutgers computer lab waiting in line to put piles of punch cards written in BASIC through a card reader into large mainframe computers only to find out that one piece of faulty code messed the whole thing up. Among my peers I was early to use computers, email, and the Internet. As a young teacher, I ran the school computer lab, taught evening parent-child "friendly computer"
classes using Apple II (the original Apple desktop) computers, led a computer-based after school newspaper club, and occasionally incorporated computers and technology into my classroom lessons. When "smart" boards came out, I learned how to use them effectively and help teachers do the same. Recently I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from young tech- savvy teachers and technology coordinators in high-end school districts like Scarsdale, NY, and Franklin Lakes, NJ.

However, technology in education has always taken a back seat to my true passion - the teaching and learning of mathematics. In 1999, after watching videotapes of Japanese mathematics lessons from TIMSS, I began a journey to find the best practices in the world
for teaching mathematics that would lead me to Japan, Singapore, and around the world.
I have worked with master Japanese and Singaporean teachers who with very little of what
we would normally call "technology," engage students with powerful problem-based lessons that encourage multiple solution methods, communication, analysis, and creative and critical thinking.

In 2010, I was astonished to hear a speech by the head of the education department at the National Institute of Education in Singapore - one of the premier teacher training institutions
in the world- that began with the statement, "There is no research evidence that technology improves the learning of mathematics." I subsequently researched this for myself and discovered that with the exception of a few mostly unscientific, isolated, and limited studies what she said is basically indisputable, at least for now. If that is the case, why are we spending so much money on technology in education?

I have worked with teachers in public, private and charter schools across the U.S. and have seen technology used in ways that in my opinion have enhanced learning significantly. But more often than not I've seen it used in ways that I believe have no discernible effect on learning or even detract from it. Let's take the use of interactive whiteboards (e.g. SMARTboards), which at $2000+ a pop (plus maintenance), representing a sizable investment for any school district. This technology has been heralded as a way of moving
away from the so-called "chalk-and-talk" method of teaching by lecture. In my experience, however, electronic whiteboards are mostly used as a teacher-centric tool either as an electronic chalkboard or a projection screen both of which can be done just as effectively
or cheaper with a chalkboard (or dry erase whiteboard) and a screen. So instead of
chalk-and-talk, it's now "electronic-pen-and-talk."

Used in this "dumb" way, the SMARTboard has absolutely no advantage over a regular chalkboard. In fact, there are even certain disadvantages compared with "chalk" technology; e.g. reduced board space for students to write multiple solution methods; washed out resolution making it difficult for kids to read due to ambient sunlight (teachers often have
to dim the lights and a dark classroom is definitely not conducive to learning); and frequent technology glitches. (For example, sometimes the board doesn't work properly, or the teacher has to stop the lesson to "reorient" the board, or restart the software. I have even seen cases where the teacher feels that he/she cannot go on with the lesson because the interactive
board isn't working.)

Don't get me wrong. I am a big believer in interactive whiteboards when used in the right
ways - ways that go beyond just a glorified chalkboard. But it makes no sense to spend thousands of dollars on such devices unless they actually transform teaching and learning
and not just electronically replicate the same tired methods that were ineffective before. This has led me to become somewhat skeptical about the way technology is used in schools, at least the way I have seen it used often in U.S. classrooms. And this is not a popular position for me to be in since school districts spend thousands of dollars on technology and of necessity need to justify these expenses to the public.

No doubt there are effective ways to use Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
to enhance learning. But the problem of achieving this in U.S. classrooms, at least on a widespread basis, is that it is more complicated than it may seem. Since school systems in
the U.S. are so diverse, some schools are at the forefront of technology and innovation while others are too busy dealing with basic needs like a safe environment, adequate facilities, and sufficient supplies. Some schools have money for technology. Some do not. And because of our property tax-based system of educational funding this is not as simple as rich vs. poor. Some highly tech-equipped schools are doing a very poor job while some poorly tech-equipped schools are doing a fine job. In fact, in our fractured system, there is really no way of knowing.

It is inarguable that the U.S. is at the forefront of Information and Communication Technology  (ICT). But in the U.S. there are 50 states each of which has its own education agenda; a U.S. Department of Education with limited control over what states can do, also with an agenda sometimes in agreement with, and sometimes at odds with states' agendas; counties, regions, school districts, and public, charter, and private schools, that all have different agendas still.
To make matters worse, there is minimal communication among the parties involved.

Whatever the benefits this entrepreneurial system may produce, it makes it difficult to set educational policy that will result in consistent and effective use of technology in education. Even in U.S. schools that are quite innovative such as Scarsdale, NY, the innovation rarely spreads beyond the school district, in spite of best efforts. This has led me to seek answers
to some difficult questions that many in education are avoiding in in the name of technology such as: How can technology be used successfully to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom? Can it (or should it) be used on a widespread basis and if so, how? (After all, I learned how to read just fine with Dick and Jane, no Kindle required.) Has technology
become the new sacred cow that will lead us on another race to nowhere, or does it really improve teaching and learning? And if technology is the unavoidable way of the future, how can we help children learn to use it productively and not destructively for themselves and others?

In order to answer these and other questions, I decided to go to a country that is world
renown for innovation in education - Singapore. Singapore consistently scores at or near
the top of the world in mathematics and science, and the last time I was there in 2010, I learned that there is a big push or "master plan" to effectively implement ICT in schools. Furthermore, since Singapore is a relatively small country with a highly centralized education system, looking at Singaporean schools offers us a lens into how technology can be used effectively, and how we can shape policy in the U.S. so investment in technology brings us
 a positive return. This last consideration is extremely important as we struggle through the current economic recession, especially given the fact that the U.S. has the highest per pupil expenditure in the world, a little more that $10,000, while top scorer Singapore spends a little over $5000 per pupil, about half of what we spend. In contrast, it looks like we are not getting much bang for the buck. To achieve my mission, I contacted my friends from Marshall Cavendish Education, the largest textbook publisher in Singapore and the publishers of Singapore Math textbooks in the U.S. They arranged for me to visit schools that are renown
for use of ICT in education, interview teachers, administrators, and officials, and visit with
tech industry executives. The timing of my visit also allowed me to attend the largest educational technology conference in the region, the International Conference on Teaching
and Learning with Technology (ICTLT), and the Ministry of Education (MOE) Excel Fest, a yearly event where schools showcase innovative teaching and learning.

Together these experiences will provide an unprecedented opportunity to hear from experts from Singapore and around the world about how technology can be and is being used in education, and hopefully answer some of my questions. So join me in the nearly 21-hour trip
 to Singapore via Hong Kong as we struggle through extreme jet lag and gain insights about how to further teaching and learning using ICT, especially but not exclusively in the field of mathematics, and help us as a nation to think about how to shape the future of our schools.

Tomorrow:  The education industry and policy in the US compared to Singapore

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