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Buckets, fires and computers

First Posted: 12:50 am - June 17th, 2015

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“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” said the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

In South Carolina, we are spending far too much time trying to fill pails (often with holes in them) and not nearly enough time lighting fires. But the good news is that there is no better fire starter for young minds (or old ones for that matter) than a computer connected to the Internet.

And therein lies a great hope for our state — and there are real reasons to be encouraged.

First the pail, or the bucket as my folks in rural McCormick County would have called it. For too long we in South Carolina have focused on the bucket, partly because it’s fairly easy to look at the bucket and see how full it is; the modern term for this “educational testing.” We know how to measure students’ ability to mostly learn facts and traditional education has largely been about imparting facts to young minds.

But what happens to traditional education when most every student has every fact in the word in their pocket via a smartphone and access to the Internet? Why should a kid clutter his mind learning that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 when with a few quick thumb moves, he or she can get to Wikipedia (or thousands of other sources) and get a 5,000 word essay on the Battle of Hastings, know everyone who was there, learn what happened and why it was important?

So let’s take this one step further and consider how the whole concept of teaching is organized, and how it’s perfectly suited for the 18th century. The school calendar of starting in September and ending in May is based on the old agricultural calendar of needing the kids to help with the planting and harvesting; thus they go to school in the winter months when nothing much grew in the fields. How many kids today have ever even seen a cotton boll or a corn stalk in the field, much less know how to pick then – or ever have? So much for the school calendar.

And what about the way the classroom and school day is structured? For the last few hundred years it’s been a single teacher standing in front of a room of 20 to 40 kids all sitting in neat rows watching the teacher work the chalkboard — with kids acting up in the back of the room. Then things progressed to where kids actually had their own book — one for each subject or class.

And the school day is based on the classic Industrial Age model of division of learning (think division of labor) with learning (subjects) all divided up into neat segments, taught in 50-minute increments and when the bell sounded, the kids moved to another room, with another teacher, with another book and started the whole thing over again.

This is pretty much what traditional education looks like today in South Carolina, South Dakota and South Korea.

But (thankfully) that’s all changing — and changing fast — thanks to computers, smartphones, iPads and a myriad of other devices that kids all over the world are getting access to as a result of radically falling prices for increasingly powerful devices.

(If you are really curious as to why this escalating trend is going to lead to every kid in the world having his or her own learning device — and quicker than you think — Google “Moore’s Law.”)

Now, the good news about digital learning in South Carolina is that compared to other states, we are doing pretty well in getting digital learning tools to our kids and we are beginning to see some real difference in learning results…but beginning is the key word here. (It’s not near enough, but more on that later.)

For the last four years, an authoritative group called Digital Learning Now has been evaluating all 50 states on a wide variety of criteria that go into making up each state’s overall scores for “digital learning.” When the first report was issued in 2011, South Carolina had a score of 74 percent with a letter grade of C, but we ranked ninth in the country… and ninth is very good.

Since then, our score has risen and the recently released study for 2014 has us up to 81 percent with a B- grade — but we are still ranked ninth of the 50 states.

The good news is that South Carolina being in the top 10 is great; there are few other good education metrics where we rank anywhere near this high. The bad news is that the results vary widely by different parts of the state and many of our kids are stuck in abysmal schools with more rats than computers.

And other states are getting better more quickly than we are; we are still stuck at ninth place — the same place we were in 2011. (For complete data with breakdowns in many categories for all 50 states, go to DigitalLearningNow.com)

All of this is actually pretty exciting, as it offers S.C. students and schools a chance to leapfrog over our abysmally neglected education system of the past.

Now, no one should believe that simply giving every kid a computer or other learning device is some magic bullet that will solve all of the educational problems in our state overnight, but I know of nothing that will (or has) made a bigger difference faster in our state schools.

Folks, ninth is good, but with the right leadership and commitment, we could be No. 1. Think about that a minute. South Carolina could be number one in the nation in the all-important area of digital learning. Talk about changing the image of our state.

With technology, we can truly light a fire for all of our children — and not just continue to try and fill a leaky bucket.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at phil@scnewdemocrats.org.

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