Thursday, August 30, 2012

Desks shown to harm student education

“So no matter what you been through, no matter what you into
No matter what you see when you look outside your window
Brown grass or green grass, picket fence or barbed wire
Never ever put them down, you just lift your arms higher
Raise 'em 'til your arms tired let 'em know you here
That you struggling, survivin', that you gon' persevere
Yeah, ain't nobody leavin', nobody goin' home
Even if they turn the lights out, the show is goin' on”  
- Lupe Fiasco 

It seems like there is no shortage of articles that talk about how technology doesn’t improve education.  The focus is usually around the impact of the technology on test scores.  The question these articles answer is this: does the use of technology in the classroom improve test scores?  The methodology they use to answer this question is simple.  They look at any school who has put “technology” into some of their classrooms, they wait a school year, and then they compare last year’s test scores with this year’s test scores.  They look at the scores and conclude that the use of “technology” doesn’t improve test scores, therefore the impact of the technology on education at best is flat.

For some reason I still really can’t understand, the New York Times used this simple erroneous methodology and argument in a bunch of education technology articles last year.  This surprised me.  As a long time subscriber (I’ve been getting the hard copy of the Sunday Times dropped on my doorstep since I can remember…I would shut off cable before I stopped my NYTs if I had to choose), I expect so much more from the nation’s standard of journalism.  I asked myself on more than one occasion, why would the New York Times simply ask the wrong questions? 

Everyone I regard in the education and the education technology space knows that technology doesn’t improve education outcomes.  They all recognize that great education improves education, not technology, or anything else for that matter.

Last year, the New York Times wrote no articles about how school lighting doesn’t improve test scores.  They wrote no articles on how the use of text books, a $8 billion dollar annual expenditure by the way, does not improve test scores.  Can you imagine the New York Times blaming the textbook industry for our nation’s appalling dropout rate?  Without even having to search, I am confident the New York Times did not write a single article on how the use of desks in the classroom do not improve student test scores.   Why is that?  It’s pretty simple actually.  It is clear all these things are just tools we use to enable education.  The use of a computer in a classroom is as powerless as a desk in improving test scores unless it is used in support of a great educational model. 

We don’t talk about desks the way we talk about computers.  We don’t go to desk conferences or develop desk implementation plans.  We don’t have desk professional development plans.  We don’t think about the question of equity when it comes to desks.  We would never say, “we only have budget for 90 desks but have 300 students.  We’re going to have to figure out which students stand all day.”  We don’t question the need of desks in the classroom and I would argue they are more detrimental to education than other tools we use.  For example, we now have enough evidence that shows sitting all day is bad for you.  This is why you are seeing an explosion of stand up desks in offices across the country.  Desks also create this individualized island, designed to fit in rows and face forward, which creates what I call “peer barriers” and limits collaboration with other students.  Finally, the way they are designed, they are perfectly made to fall asleep on.  Where’s the New York Times article on that story?

The reason why you don’t find articles about the impact of desks on test scores is because it’s a ridiculous correlation.  The use of laptops in the classroom, like the desks, have nothing to do with test scores.  Only great education directly effects test scores (let’s leave the argument as to why we shouldn’t even be talking about test scores for another post).  When used as an enabling tool, laptops, the web, smart boards, tablets, and anything else we call “technology” has an enormous impact on education. 

There is plenty of data that supports the use of technology as an enabling tool.  For example, In a study called, “Intertwining Digital Content and One-on-One Laptop Environment in Teaching and Learning: Lessons from the Time to Know Program” (I appreciate how they like to keep the names of these studies as short as possible), (2012 Journal of Research on Technology in Education), the correlation between good education and technology is clear.  The study looked at how one-to-one computing programs effected teaching and learning practices as well as student learning achievements.  The study found consistent and highly positive outcomes in student math and reading achievement.  They also found higher student attendance, and decreased disciplinary actions.

As in other studies, this one showed that a technology enabled learning environment can more effectively promote “social-constructivist educational goals, such as higher-order thinking skills, learning motivation, and teamwork.”  To me, the highlight of this study wasn’t the increase in scores or how the technology helped engage students.  To many of us, that just makes sense.  The highlight of this study is how they emphasized the following: “to achieve this change, a school system must go through major processes.  It requires setting new educational objectives, preparing new curricula, developing digital instructional material aligned with new learning standards, designing a new teaching and learning environment, training teachers, creating a school climate that is conducive to educational technology, and so on.”  In other words, it’s like we used to say in the consulting world I spent six year in, “whatever you do, don’t help your clients automate bad processes, you’re just helping make bad things happen faster.” 

The other key component you find in good education technology studies is the duration of the study.  Researchers are starting to recognize that the real benefits and any significant change start to appear over a length of time.  In other words, even when you fix everything in the education model, it takes a few years to start seeing dramatic shifts in improvement.  A six month study isn’t good enough.   

We shouldn’t be teaching technology, we should be using technology to teach.  If we are using technology correctly, it should be invisible.  When I talk about my work and the projects I’m involved in, I never talk about how I used my tools.  The tools are just there.  Just like it is for us, the technology should be part of the support structure.  The potential benefits are tremendous.   Lots of studies like the one quoted above show that technology is ideal in supporting and enabling a learner-centric environment.  In these environments, students feel critical things like autonomy, engagement, and purpose.  They feel ownership over what they learn and how they learn it.  This type of environment clearly leads to students who are involved in their learning and more importantly, are willing and able to learn.  With this autonomy, students learn at their pace and teachers serve as facilitators and not as knowledge towers.  Technology can help these environments by giving students the opportunity to work and learn collaboratively with other students to solve problems and create and share new ideas.   We can produce and implement new creative assessment tools that promote learning, making sure students are involved in constructing their own self and peer driven assessments. 

These are just some of the possibilities with using technology in education.   Until we stop seeing technology as a nice to have, or as the line item in the budget that gets cut because it is “outside of learning goals,” we will not be able to fully realize it’s potential value.  We would never dream of building a new school with air-conditioning on only two floors or electricity in only three of the four buildings.  Until we start seeing broadband as electricity, and computing capabilities as desks, we are a long way from that realization.


  1. [note: I posted this originally on Jaime's FB wall; figured it should have been posted here given its the original source]

    As someone who professionally straddles the worlds of school architecture / school design, emerging educational technology, experiential education, and simply being a classroom teacher (with two young kiddos at home), I appreciate the way you're nudging (nay: open-field tackling) the underlying issues / opportunities that are so often over-looked.

    There are 'desk conferences' (quite a few, actually -- and I go to many of them) where a wide range of multi-disciplinary professionals intensely explore both intuitive and research-based relationships between school furniture and learning (as well as the entire 'built' / 'natural' learning environment and the learner), but that's beside the point.

    Ultimately, we remain incredibly myopic re: the long-term value of the digital 'objects' (smart phones or apps, etc) we've suddnely fallen head-over heels in love with in just a few years / decade (while treating January 1st, 2000 as the 2nd coming of humanity's ultimate potential thanks to a flipped calendar page and a convenient 100-year framing semantic).

    Perhaps we'd be better served to remain unapologetically agnostic re: the 'tool' (whether a crayon, a Post-It Note, a box of Legos, a web app, a tablet, or an full Adobe suite of creative tools.

    What we need -- if tools are truly respected for what they can / should do -- is give all learners (and those who serve / partner with / inspire them) access to an entire spectrum of "just in time" tools...but put all of our legit energy into figuring out the ideal questions to ask, the ideal challenges to issue, the ideal environments to design, and the ideal mindsets to fuel.

    In other words: "Verbs + Attitudes: the ultimate scalable 'tools'."

  2. Hmmm... Dear student, Which would you prefer? A new desk? A new textbook? Or a new tablet? Each object is equivalent in its effect on your learning, zero. They will do nothing for your learning... by themselves. The only thing that will improve your learning is a good "teacher(s)" and "good instruction." How those two thing present themselves to you is the variable in the amount of your learning potential. (As a student, I know what my choice would be, but then again, I also see myself as the teacher and with direct influence over my learning potential.) Nice post Jamie.

  3. I wonder if modular furniture also has the same effect on office staff (or maybe even management) after prolonged use.