My second through fourth grades were in a two-room schoolhouse. (Yes, I am old.) There were four rows of desks, one for each grade 1-through-4. Today, education schools demean such a system because teachers can only give one-fourth of their attention to each grade of students. But as a student, I found the system had advantages.
Three-fourths of the time, my row was assigned to do our class work while the teacher was teaching another row. I remember listening ahead to the next grade up. I got a head start on reading and math that was more advanced. And classmates in my row who were having difficulty were able to listen in on the lower grade class; they got a refresher lesson.
By my fifth grade, Indiana schools consolidated and modernized. Six little one-room and two-room schools shut down and we all rode the bus to our new township school. Everyone in my room was in the fifth grade.
But the better students still played a role in helping the students who had difficulty. Although the class was all fifth-graders, there were still classmates who needed the help of the better students. When the teacher talked about job interviews, a classmate would lean over and whisper “What’s she mean?” And we would whisper back that it was like when we “chose up” teams to play ball during recess. A good teacher relies on good students to help other students learn.
Many years later, as an experienced teacher walking the streets of Hong Kong or mainland China, I often passed by an elementary school where I could hear 60 young pupils in a classroom reciting the multiplication tables in unison. This recitation style of teaching is derided by many education schools but in fact it is very effective. The teacher is using the momentum of the whole class to advance the learning of all students at a pace that some students would not achieve working alone.
The students who have difficulty are motivated to keep up with their peers. Despite the personal events of their life, they rise above it to stay with their group. For young students, belonging and performing with their group is a very effective motivation when they are too young to appreciate how important the mathematics or grammar will be to them.
I also clearly remember as a student back in that 2-room schoolhouse how it was important for me in row three (third grade) to be an example for the good students in row two and the struggling students in row four. It was not an elitist feeling—and any student who acted as a know-it-all would be rapidly put in their place—but just a recognition that we had a responsibility to help our classmates learn too. Because we could learn it, they realized they could learn it too.
As a public school teacher, I used this knowledge to pair good students with students who struggled. These were important lessons in empathy and caring and communication for the good students as well as much needed assistance for the students needing help.
So along comes this so-called “personalized education” of one-to-one computers in the classroom. While this allows a student to supposedly go at his/her own pace, it is supremely isolating. The abstract programmed learning is anything but “personal.” The communication involved is programmed and sterile. A student doesn’t care what a cold machine says. The laptop doesn’t “care.” Everyone proceeds at their own isolated pace. The group can no longer motivate its members.
But then, “personalized education” on a laptop or tablet really isn’t about learning. It is about tech companies selling expensive technology that will be obsolete in 3–4 years. It minimizes the role of the teacher to a technology manager. It is isolating. And it removes the lessons in helping and caring that students would learn when they study with their classmates together.
If you are a parent of a student who is now spending his or her day playing all day on a laptop or tablet, ask your school: “When are they going to get back to real teaching?”