Michelangelo once noted that "every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." Freeing what the great Italian Renaissance artist called "the angel in the marble" is not unlike the work of the average schoolteacher, who each day stares out at a small quarry of rough-hewn youth and begins -- selectively, carefully, and with individual attention to detail -- to discover the unique adult within.
Today, we have an increasing number of tools that help develop and refine the masterpiece within every child. What the hammer and chisel were to the artists of sixteenth-century Florence, the myriad high tech devices of modern society are to the modern educator. They present limitless ways to engage students, empowering as they inspire and lead.
But, unfortunately, the easy integration of these tech tools into the curricula (as a support to, rather than a usurpation of, academic values) is not always easy. What is it about technology that makes some hearts pound with delight, while others boil with disgust and anger? It seems odd, in the waning days of 2008, more than a generation after the first PC was introduced, to have these debates over technology. Yet, we do.
What many seem to forget is that the polycarbonate plastic resin and wire that largely make up a PC or cell phone are benign. They are no more than a means to an end. It is only when the circuitry of the microprocessor connects to the circuitry of the head and heart that true changes result. It's not the computer that's important; it's what the computer can do.
High tech devices support many of the goals of modern education. Online resources and virtual-learning opportunities offer many ways to close the achievement gap. Similarly, online professional learning communities assist in the development of highly qualified teachers by providing quick access to smart people with enlightening ideas.
Tech in the classroom can make enormous differences in short order. Yet sometimes, in these days of endless educational budget cuts and NCLB leg irons, those tech investments can seem difficult to make. But they are essential. Consider: In September 2002, Maine governor Angus King insisted that the state provide a laptop computer to every seventh- and eighth-grade student in the state, regardless of location or family income. It was a controversial program, and King noted that emails to his office were ten-to-one against it.
Six years into the program, we know that it was both visionary and -- hold on -- cost effective. The price of a school PC in Maine, is only about $275 per student per year. The price of a history textbook -- a single book for a single class -- is about $150 per student. The former is an endless source of information and ideas. The latter is a finite containment of (we hope) the best we know about a subject at a particular moment in time. In addition, according to King, discipline referrals went down 75 percent. Attendance went up. (Read about it in this Edutopia.org article.)
Maine is not alone. More than one-fourth of the 2,500 largest U.S. school districts have at least one full grade of students with their own laptops -- a figure expected to rise 50 percent in three years. In Maine, 70 percent of teachers say the laptops help them meet curricular goals and achieve individualized instruction.
The centuries-old model of education -- the teacher as an expert who passes information along to the kids -- is now turned on its head. As King said, "We've gone from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. Let's face it: We're not going to beat the rest of the world on rote learning."
We're heading toward a society in which innovation, digital literacy, and tech savvy are of paramount importance. Too often, our educational problems are simply rooted in old systems and old ways of thinking. It's time to change our thinking about tech. It must be seen as an assistant, not an adversary. And, most certainly, as a way to help reveal the angel in the marble.
For the past four and a half years, I have had the great pleasure and honor to direct editorial operations for Edutopia. Now, that time is coming to an end as I move over to become editorial director of GreatSchools. The organizations share a similar goal -- improving our public schools: GreatSchools adds an emphasis on parental involvement in this mission, which is a personal passion. My time at The George Lucas Educational Foundation and Edutopia has been an invigorating and rewarding experience. I hope that, through the work I've done, I've helped improve the lives of your students. You, our readers and visitors, most certainly have.