Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Breakthrough Leadership in The Digital Age

By Rick Hess — October 30, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

We’re bombarded these days with enthusiastic accounts of “digital learning.” The stuff is cool, but the excitement is a little disconcerting given that educational technology always seems be ripe with promise, yet has rarely delivered. (Go check out what smart people once said about movies...radio...TV...desktops...etc.) Educators have been exasperated by decades of hyped technology that disappoints. One only needs to look at LAUSD to know that more such disappointment isn’t just a theoretical possibility.

Now, some view this checkered history and conclude that technology just can’t help that much when it comes to schooling -- that Horace Mann’s schoolhouse was schooling as God intended. A lot more take a look at schooling, and then blithely figure they’ve finally cracked the code. I think both schools of thought are wrong. The truth is that today’s education technology does hold immense promise, but what matters far more than the tools are what skilled hands do with them. And that’s where I’m afraid we’ve consistently gotten things wrong, and need to do much, much better.

That brings us to a new book I’ve authored with Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at Kaplan and one of the truly brilliant guys in the ed space (not a lot of edu-thinkers hold an MD from Harvard Med and a PhD in engineering from MIT). On Thursday, Corwin will release Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: How to Use Learning Science to Reboot Schooling. In it, Bror and I argue that today’s excitement will amount to just one more in a litany of tech-inspired disappointments unless we get a heck of a lot smarter about how we think about and use technology. The book will be launched at AEI on Thursday (for more information on the event, whether you care to attend or watch live, see here).

One way to understand our argument is that educators and would-be reformers have tended to think about technology through the wrong lens. They’ve tended to think of it as a way to “reform” or “fix” schools. Thus they’ve celebrated tablets, spent E-Rate funds to wire schools, virtual classes, and the rest, and schools and districts have reacted accordingly. The problem is, as I noted in Cage-Busting Leadership, that a “school-fixing” mindset tends to be deadening. Schools are big and complicated and hard to move, and these efforts have been correspondingly blunt and unfocused.

What’s the right lens to use? Bror and I argue that it’s the lens of “learning science.” It’s tapping the existing body of cognitive science, using it to identify where the Horace Mann schoolhouse falls short on providing deliberate practice, timely and copious feedback, extensive opportunities to build mastery of skills or knowledge -- and how new tools can help. The right question to ask is how new tools can help educators, students, or parents tackle particular learning problems more effectively.

On this score, there’s a wealth of promising ventures that solve particular learning challenges in potentially powerful ways: some of those we mention in the book include computer-assisted tutoring models, the Khan Academy, ClassDojo, New Classrooms, MasteryConnect, and LearnZillion. Of course, one challenge in tapping is that teacher prep, leadership training, and professional development have done an awfully poor job of teaching educators the learning science they need, so it’s kind of tough to blame them for not knowing it.

Indeed, one of the things we note is that when you talk to the leaders who are employing technology in this way, their focus is on what people do with technology and how they can use it to solve problems. In the book, recognized blended learning leaders like Mark Edwards, Dianne Tavenner, John Danner, and Rick Ogsten are dismissive of the popular fascination with their technology. They say what really matters is what their schools have done with it, yet that’s the piece that can be so easy to forget or overlook when in the throes of a tech frenzy.

One last thought: The maddening thing is something that most of the authorities on ed tech know. Pretty much everything Bror and I have to say tracks what ed tech thought leaders like Susan Patrick, John Bailey, Michael Horn, Tom Vander Ark, Anthony Kim, Alex Hernandez, and Chris Dede have written and said. But there’s just something so exciting about those mint condition tablets or that cool new demo... Our hope is that Breakthrough Leadership can help more school, system, and state leaders think about ed tech in fruitful ways.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.