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

Written by John Watson

The recent post suggested that we might be more clear and critical about what we see in digital learning and education more broadly than we have been in the past.

A good starting point comes from a recent podcast called “Our Workplaces Think We’re Computers. It Wasn’t.” The podcast conversation took place between host Ezra Klein and guest Annie Murphy Paul, author of a new book called The Extended Mind. As the podcast’s title suggests, the conversation is mostly focused on work, not school. But the concepts apply to schools as much as they do to work – hence the adaptation of the title to this blog post – and indeed the conversation touches on education.

Klein begins with this observation:

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

He points in part to communication tools like Slack, which he says cause such disruptions to be emphasized as productivity killers rather than productivity boosters. But I was struck by the phrase “things that look like they work…” Change that phrase to “things that look like school”, and make sure you’re seeing this concept through the lens of the average person who’s at least 30 years old (because most parents of students are at least 30 years old) The school and influencers in politics are as well). What do you get? You can have a vision of education based on students showing up at 8 am or earlier, staying in the building for six hours or more, and listening quietly to the lectures given by the teacher. In this vision, schools are funded based on these students’ physical appearance – even if they are not there mentally and emotionally. But none of this is tangentially related to actual learning.

This is certainly not a new point, although it is a concept that still has to be stated out loud and often. But writer Annie Murphy Ball goes much further, in discussing the world of work and productivity. For example, you delve into how workers (and students) are not computers, but we treat workers as they are:

“When a piece of information is fed, a computer processes it in the same way on every occasion, whether it is at work for five minutes or five hours, whether it is in a fluorescent-lit office or by a sunny window, whether it is close to other computers or is the only computer in the Room This is how computers work.

But the same does not apply to humans. The way we can think about information is We are greatly affected by the situation we live in when we face it. (emphasis added)

Educators are (mostly) aware of this fact, as evidenced by the increased focus on SEL. However, to a large extent public education the system It does a poor job of allowing students and parents to increase participation and learning by ensuring that the student is in the best possible state of learning, as much as possible. Fixed calendars and bell schedules, start times much earlier than ideal for teens, and group lectures are all elements of a system that does not allow students, parents, and teachers to marry the best educational delivery with the best possible student condition.

Online and co-ed schools, including district-run alternative schools and independent study programs that are not often known as co-educational, are based on these concepts. For high school students, the appeal of scheduling flexibility is somewhat self-evident, as is the idea that students are in a better “state” when, in their minds, they associate their school with their non-school pursuits and interests. For elementary students, the benefits of this flexibility may manifest in slightly different ways. From Annie Murphy Paul:

“The situation… that paying attention to the body is kind of absurd and kind of foolish comes from a very old idea in Western culture that mind and body are separate and that mind is made of this kind of special spiritual thing and the body is this filthy kind of animal creature that must be subjugate it and that is illogical and he has nothing – he certainly has nothing to contribute to intelligent decision-making or intelligent thinking.”

The Body to Subdue calls for the attention of young students who learn best when they can play, explore, and work with their interests and energies rather than against them. These are not new concepts in education! But although most people agree with these ideas, our system was not built with these ideas as a foundation.

The podcast is worth listening (or reading the script), because it’s full of great ideas that have stayed with me. I’ll end with two final quotes:

From podcast host Klein:
This is a very radical book. It has radical implications not only for the way we think about ourselves but also for politics, architecture, our social lives, education, economics… It has changed the way I organize a set of my days. I try to work with my mind more and against it less.

From author Annie Murphy Paul:
“Thinking better does not mean that the brain is working harder than ever. It is about creating a space and a set of capabilities where you have more and better resources to put together your thought processes.”
(He told)
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reporting and research in psychology for 25 years is that we often don’t know what’s best for us, and so on. We cling tightly to these practices that do not serve us. ” (emphasis added)

Much public education clings to practices that do not serve the students. Instead, we need to create more spaces, for more students, to learn in the ways in which they learn best.

Examples exist. The next post will delve into one of those.

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