Education reform and technology

Are today’s young people, immersed in social media and similar technology, qualitatively different from the young people of twenty years ago? Many education reformers argue that young people are indeed different, and that we must reform educational practice so that we can engage them effectively.

However, Joe sent me a link to an online peer-reviewed journal article in which Grinnell Smith of San Jose State University “questions the validity of the claim that technology has changed our children in ways relevant to the way we should structure education” (“A critical look at the role of technology as a transformative agent,” THEN [technology, humanities, education and narrative] Journal, issue no. 8, winter, 2011). Smith begins by challenging the notion that children have been fundamentally changed by technology:

A typical approach to supporting the premise that children have been transformed by technology is not to refer to empirical evidence but rather to drag out a few suitably stunning statistics about the pace of technological breakthroughs or to provide a few overwhelming anecdotes illustrating the comfort of adolescents and young adults with regard to technology in the hope that the reader will leap to the “obvious” conclusion that today’s youth is qualitatively different….

Smith then argues that despite the prevalence of such anecdotes, there is little real evidence that young people are learning differently:

In the large view, rather than the creation of something entirely new, what our latest explosion of technological advances has done for us, by and large, is to provide us with new ways to do the same old things we’ve been doing since we drifted out of the Olduvai Gorge across the Serengeti and fanned out into Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Therefore, Smith says we should be skeptical of claims that today’s young people are all that different from the young people of a generation ago — and we should be skeptical of claims that we need extensive educational reform because of social media and/or other technological innovations.