A Visit From the Tech Consultant
by Kevin Killion
February 19, 1999
As a member of the Technology Committee at our local public school, I was invited to attend a teachers' in-service. (The school was closed for the day; instead of teaching the children, the "teachers" were paid to attend this required session.) The subject was "technology" and the well-paid speaker was Jamieson McKenzie, a California consultant who has created a business for himself in giving presentations to schools. These are my notes on that presentation.Update (2005): In more recent years, McKenzie is going by a nickname, Jamie McKenzie, and his business has focused on promoting the usual set of progressivist tinkerings with schools rather than just computerization, and on opposing accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Was this session about computers?
• I was left with the feeling that the arrival of the Internet was a godsend for some school districts who needed to come up with a rationale for all the computers they've been buying. With rare exception, the computer tools McKenzie mentioned were all Internet-based.
• It's very hard to see how any of McKenzie's examples wouldn't work at least as well, or more probably better, with paper and books rather than computers! I was especially puzzled that a room full of experienced teachers didn't ask, "What does all this have to do with computers?"
• Most of McKenzie's presentation was about pedagogy (teaching strategies and philosophy), not computers. Very little had much to do with computers, as the progressivist, fuzzy techniques he favors apply to non-computer projects and exercises as well. Virtually all of McKenzie's rhetoric was a rehash of progressivist mantras in general.
• The lack of interest in computers in a seminar on computers isn't very surprising given McKenzie's credentials: his own degrees are in fine arts and education. This makes him an expert on using computers???
• Having just recently visited the Bannockburn School in Bannockburn, which had the highest state science scores among Chicago's North Shore suburbs, I was struck by the contrast between how that exemplary school used computers and what McKenzie was suggesting. In Bannockburn's terrific science program, the science teacher there uses computers to (imagine this!) teach science, and envisions using computers to provide simulated experiments and science explorations in a compelling and time- efficient manner. In science class at Bannockburn, the emphasis is on using computers to learn specific science content!
• In his writings, McKenzie displays an unrelentingly disparaging, bitter, sarcastic opposition to knowledge. That may seem harsh, and yet that is exactly what he is doing. The anti- knowledge mindset of the progressivist movement is well-documented and overt. In the case of McKenzie, here are some verbatim quotes:
- "No more Trivial Pursuit" (not "less", but "no more")
- "questions requiring simple factual answers have fostered a "fast fact mentality expecting neatly packaged answers"
- "Schools should be much more about students making meaning rather than merely committing someone else's insights to memory." How breathtakingly pejorative! Actually learning content from the accumulated wisdom of human history is reduced to and disparaged as "merely committing someone else's insights to memory".
- Textbooks: McKenzie labels them as "Quicksand. Swamp. Bog. Mire."
- Knee-jerk progressivist buzzwords of disparagement: smokestack, ditto sheets
• No emphasis at all on how students can build their store of knowledge with the techniques he recommends.
• What does McKenzie have against kids being taught content? Silly question: it's progressivist, less-is-more dogma.
Total lack of evidence that McKenzie's recommendations would do anything useful
• Where are the outcomes?!?!? McKenzie gave few (if any) references to suggest that any of the techniques he espouses can be proved to do anything useful in terms of building either a knowledge base or analytical skills among students.
Uncritical, unrestrained endorsement of project assessment and "authentic" assessment
• The heavy emphasis on projects and "authentic" assessment desperately needed some direction on how to cope with the devastating problems of that approach!
• Very fundamentally, E. D. Hirsch says that "authentic assessments" have been shown to be "ineradicably subjective and arbitrary in grading . . . The consensus among psychometricians is that objective tests, rather than performance tests, are the fairest and most accurate achievement tests available."
• Other obvious problems with so-called "authentic" assessment include:
- hugely increased teacher workload
- heavy expenditure of precious classroom time
- lack of any demonstrated cost/benefit payoff to students.
• The highly incendiary issue of "authentic" assessment also rears up in the technology plans constructed by many public schools.
Hands-On Session #1
We broke into small groups for two "hands-on" sessions. Those progressivists do love to fill up time with feel-good, collaborative activities. Heavens knows, we wouldn't expect a highly paid, visiting consultant to just simply teach us anything, would we?
In one session McKenzie showed a turn-of-the-century photo, "The Coal Breaker Boys" (progressivists always seem to enjoy exposing children to the horrors of American history, in this case child labor) and asked which of the boys in the photo was the leader:
Our workgroup debated this issue of which of the boys in the picture was a leader, an enjoyable exercise although it was hard to imagine what the learning goal could possibly be. A number of members of our group offered thoughts about the positioning of the boys, their clothes, and their expressions.
But a dramatic and startling insight was provided by the district superintendent, Linda Murphy. Having grown up in a coal mining town, she told us how the relative size and design of the lunch buckets indicates their pecking order.
Unintentionally, Murphy thus vividly demonstrated that a fundamental tool for understanding and analyzing isn't adeptness at chatty new age parlor games, but a substantial wide-ranging base of prior factual knowledge!
So, what else did we "learn" from this?
Why anyone would think that McKenzie's suggestions were good uses for computers was totally elusive to me. McKenzie said, "You can do this without the computer, but the advantage here is that we have thousands of pictures". The example did not need thousands of pictures, we just needed one, and that would have been more easily used and more clearly presented to a class in the form of a slide, or in a printed page or book. Thus, the most striking insight from this exercise was that by using computers, it took just about a whole class period to accomplish what use of a simple projected slide could do better in ten minutes.
Hands-On Session #2
The second exercise consisted of a tortuous effort to access web pages spoon-fed to us, to compare statistics for two counties. We spent a long session doing little more than wrestling with computer issues (rearranging windows, resizing, finding the correct web pages) instead of dealing with the supposed subject at hand. It should be fairly evident to anyone with two brain cells that using printed books would be a far better for this exercise (as though there were any valid learning goal to this exercise in the first place).
McKenzie defines "skill fixation" in computer-aided teaching as "emphasis on the operation [for example] of a spreadsheet rather than applications of a spreadsheet." Nonetheless, the two hands-on examples led almost entirely to efforts to manage 1999-era technology (which will undoubtedly change) in order to a perform tasks much better addressed with books and paper. These exercises that McKenzie had us do taught us something, alright: they taught us how a fuzzy approach to applying computers can balloon a few spoonfuls of learning into long, tedious sessions without real educational value, while wasting valuable and perishable class time.
What are the limits?
• Most disturbingly of all, McKenzie gave no limits for how much the curriculum should be refashioned in this direction. Clearly, there is a very dangerous side to an anti-knowledge, fun and games approach to education. McKenzie says, "no more Trivial Pursuit", and many schools are right in line, actively pursuing "less-is-more" dumbed-down curricula.
This all demands an answer to this question: When do we stop?
• Change for its own sake: McKenzie says, "How do we raise a generation with a change ethic?" What a startling statement! We simply do not have a problem encouraging change in America. If anything, our society has a real challenge trying to discourage change for its own sake.
• McKenzie objects to web usage in which a child merely copies from a web page or other source and uses it uncritically and without considering the source. I'd like to point out that sloppy "scholarship" like that certainly describes Eric Jensen and his wacky book Teaching With The Brain In Mind, which is inexplicably popular with many in school administrations.
• McKenzie says, "free" Internet (the vast bulk of the Internet) does not support curriculum very well, with possible exception of science. He also says, "One of the ironies of the Internet is that much of the best stuff is written by people now dead because the copyrights have run out." Exactly! It should be fairly obvious that a well-managed and well-stocked library has plenty of printed books that supply exactly the kinds of materials needed by elementary students!
• McKenzie: "If we want kids to jump higher, [there are those who say] all we have to do is raise the bar and they'll jump higher. Wrong!" I can't believe he said this - perhaps he just spoke hastily on this one. Perhaps. It's fairly obvious that one can improve almost any skill by incrementally tackling bigger and bigger challenges. Kids do rise to a challenge!
• McKenzie says, "We need to teach prospecting skills...", and yet he bitterly disparages exercises in which a student practices finding facts in texts.
• One teacher asked about the role of intuition. I was very struck by this thought! Intuition might be considered the reflexive flashes of insight in a novel or puzzling situation, made possible by accumulated knowledge and experience. The notion of "intuition" sounds remarkably close to how computer experts describe the manner is which a neural network provides conclusions. Neural networks, designed with the human brain as a model, are fundamentally dependent on repeated exposure for their "training" and application.
• McKenzie wants kids to "create new ideas" rather than just "analyzing other people's ideas". Based on what? How do you create ideas in the absence of a store of knowledge?
We also see this kind of brain-dead logic in progressivist textbooks. For example, the pathetic Scott Foresman Addison Wesley "Math" series asks the 4th graders to guess why the Anasazi lived on cliffsides. Over and above the issue of why is this in a math book, the question essentially asks kids to make stuff up, in complete isolation of any factual base or curriculum context.
The whole progressivist notion of "higher-order thinking " and "critical thinking" demands a direct object: thinking about what. If any place, grade school should be about building a core base of knowledge, an absolute prerequisite to being a true "lifelong learner" with "higher-order" and "critical thinking" skills, and a productive and culturally literate member of society.