Which innovations should the future president of the United States promote in schools across America?
I answered that question on camera for the Center for Education Reform, which had a booth at the ASU GSV Summit, an education technology conference in San Diego. I’m rather camera-shy and almost declined the opportunity, but I decided to go on the record because I had something important to say.
After making a gaffe—I instinctively started with “Mrs. President”—I regained my composure and articulated a sound bite suitable for the future commander in chief, whomever he or she might be.
Choosing just one innovation was hard.
The summit provided nonstop panel discussions and lectures about how technology is revolutionizing the job market, outpacing labor trends, and, scariest of all, exposing the ridiculously slow rate in which all levels of education in this country are adjusting to meet the digital demand.
A leading neuroscientist urged teachers to develop pedagogy with “the brain in mind.” Citing the latest research, the scientist debunked myths teachers believe about how kids learn. This session was somewhat shaming as the first on her list of myths was the notion that every child has a particular learning style that is visual, kinesthetic or auditory, which was the basis of one of my lesson plans earlier this month!
Education technology entrepreneurs also lined up to demonstrate their products at an exhibit called “Tomorrowland.” Large and small robots roamed the floors and walls, as virtual reality, mobile apps, video games and adaptive learning software were all at my fingertips.
Then I hopped on a yellow school bus and toured a flagship elementary and middle school in the Vista Unified School District. Thanks to partnerships with Qualcomm, Verizon and other large technology corporations, these schools have one-to-one iPads, laptops and science supplies to implement a robust blended learning model, which embeds personalized learning into the daily classroom routine.
Students there are tricked into learning the basics of engineering and computer science as they create scaled models of the Ironman superhero suit and solder connections onto a printed circuit board to power a speaker.
The Digital Kool-Aid
Yep, I drank the digital Kool-Aid, big time.
I found myself yearning for the opportunity to do my decade of teaching all over again. This time I’d use blended learning, and I’d set aside a regular “genius hour,” a time in which students can use their own critical thinking and ingenuity to make things that solve problems they care about.
And I’d find the funding to take my students on virtual reality field trips that would give them a 360-degree presence in an operating room or on a deep-ocean diving excursion without ever leaving the classroom.
The conference made me want to do all of that. But it also broke my heart.
Almost every panel about the future of the economy, higher education and technology was led by a cast of confident white men. African-Americans, Latinos and female attendees were largely educators in the K-12 space.
There was a ladies lunch that featured a panel on gender bias within technology. It was led by former CNN anchorwoman Campbell Brown, and I heard it was fantastic. Unfortunately, it was an invitation-only event and yours truly didn’t make the list.
The organizers even hosted an Innovators of Color reception, in which stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell performed a super-smart satirical set, “Ending Racism in About an Hour.” My favorite part was when, at Bell’s behest, a probably tipsy older white woman in the audience volunteered to lead her counterparts in the call-and-response chant: “Say it loud…I’m white and I’m proud!” Talk about an uncomfortable but hilarious truth-telling moment.
Which brings me back to the advice I have for the next president:
“In all this talk about about innovation, let’s not forget about the importance of the humanities, which is the baseline for all education,” I told him or her.
“And when we speak about bringing blended learning and computer coding into the classrooms, let’s make sure it’s offered to low-income, urban students of color. The more advanced the technology, the wider the digital divide.”