Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the presence of God and in the company of the education profession to lay to rest our dear brother, the Digital Immigrant.
To most, the Digital Immigrant was a hapless but earnest educator, who, though born before 1980, struggled mightily to assimilate into the culture of his students, the Digital Natives, while never losing his heavy digital accent or his exotic, pre-digital customs, such as linear thought, critical reasoning, and printing out a document in order to edit it.
To some, he was a symbol of everything wrong with education, the embodiment of all that is dated and dessicated about the practice of teaching. He was the Sage on the Stage, rather than the Guide on the Side. Crucial though his subject matter remains in preparing informed, participating citizens, he could not manage to make it relevant by podcasting, Wordling, blogging, tweeting or gaming. His classroom remained tragically unflipped and unhip.
To me, though, and I knew him well, the Digital Immigrant was the latest incarnation in a long line of ideas, mental models, and hypotheses about education that are proposed by visionaries, taken up by the apparatus of the profession, spread like the Gospel, used as a bludgeon to beat teachers and students, and then, ultimately debunked and abandoned.
When news of his untimely demise began making the rounds, I mourned for his tragically abbreviated life. But we come to bury him, not to praise him, and to ask, at long last, my dear brother and sister educators: Can we please stop doing this now?
I’m not interested in critiquing Marc Prensky’s original digital immigrant/digital native model. That has already been done here, here, and here (I’ve also done a bit of it here). And, in any case, my indictment is not against Prensky. He did exactly what we keep brilliant people around to do. He observed a new phenomenon, thought deeply about its meaning, and constructed a model to explain how it worked and to imagine the implications. We need more of this kind of thinking, not less. Our visionaries are not the problem, nor are our academics, whose research refines, extends and yes, sometimes debunks, the work of our visionaries.
The problem is our tendency, as a profession, to follow a depressingly predictable pattern whenever someone comes up with an interesting New Thing:
1. A smart visionary observes, thinks, and hypothesizes, then creates a fascinating model or metaphor to interpret what we see in schools, usually along with a proposal to revolutionize some aspect of education.
2. Influential opinion leaders accept the New Thing uncritically, often taking its metaphors literally.
3. We get excited about the New Thing–it really seems to explain a lot! It could really change everything!–and spread the meme with every tool at our disposal, including professional journals, PD days, conferences, books, websites, Twitter, and all manner of online and face-to-face forums.
4. We declare those who question or disagree with the New Thing the enemies of progress. (This is tricky, because those in our profession who reject every new idea out of hand actually are the enemies of progress. It just doesn’t follow that everyone who rejects a particular new idea is among their number).
5. We insist that teachers adjust curriculum and instruction according to the New Thing. Administrators evaluate teachers on their incorporation of the New Thing into their units and lessons. The district newsletter proudly informs the community that we are doing the New Thing.
6. Researchers examine the New Thing, find its flaws, and publish their findings in academic journals.
7. The popular news media “expose” the problems with the New Thing. (“Does your child’s school have the New Thing? Well, researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education now say that the New Thing is a lot of hooey! But how do taxpayers feel about it?”)
8. The education profession appears foolish. The public loses confidence in us.
9. Many within the profession become cynical and afraid of all new ideas, lest they fall victim to another New Thing.
10. Really good ideas that were not as sexy as the New Thing, including the unglamorous kernel of truth at the center of the New Thing, are neglected.
Opponents of public education want to convince the public that teachers are lazy, administrators helpless, and academic researchers out of touch with the realities of the classroom. They have already convinced a large swath of the public that our associations place the preferences of adults far above the needs of children, and that our profession as a whole is a self-serving waste of public money.
The solutions the education “reformers” propose, such as allocating public school funds to vouchers and for-profit charter schools, evaluating teachers solely on students’ standardized test scores, abolishing tenure, allowing Ivy League graduates to teach with a 5-week crash course and business executives to become administrators, just to name a few, are no more evidence-based than our shiny New Things. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan admitted as much in Education Week, when he said, speaking of the Race to the Top reforms,
“…the whole turnaround stuff is relatively new, but I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work and that’s the evidence that I’m looking at.”
Apparently, Duncan’s best defense of his administration’s signature education initiative is that although there is no proof that any of its components will work, there is proof that some of what schools are doing now doesn’t work. Give that man a $4.35 billion grant!
The education “reformers” have the support of the Gates Foundation, influential business leaders and politicians, and the federal Department of Education to give their evidence-free proposals the glow of credibility. Educators have little but our relationships with parents and students and the resulting moral authority to stand on now. (Oh, and Diane Ravitch–we’ve got her!)
We can make a strong case that the dogma of education reform lacks any basis in empirical fact, but we can’t make that argument if we’re not willing to subject our own ideas to the same standard. Let’s not squander the moral authority we still possess.
As for the Digital Immigrant, requiescat in pace. Amen.