Worksheets and Flash Cards

The first time I used a computer was in 1981. I think it was an Apple IIe, but it might have been a Radio Shack TRS-80. My middle school had both located in a “math lab.” I don’t remember why I was there. There were only a few kids in the room, and 3-4 computers. Maybe it was an optional indoor recess activity. It was definitely not a life-changing experience.

There were two things we could do with computers in my school. The first was to program in BASIC, but nobody in the school knew how to do that, or really what “computer programming” even entailed.

The second thing we could do — the thing that we did do — was practice math facts. The program used green text on a black screen. It would give you an arithmetic problem, and you would type the answer. If you got it wrong, it would tell you to try again. If you got 10 right, I think it played a little song or something. Sometimes, for variety, it would put the blank in the middle of the statement. So “8 x ? = 32,” and you’d have to type in “4”. I remember that the program made a big deal out of writing the equations both horizontally and vertically.

Clearly, technology was well on its way to revolutionizing education.

This was my first experience with “computer aided instruction,” in which a computer is used to help students develop basic knowledge and skills. Years later, I would have a summer job creating a similar application for training warehouse employees. Developing these programs was almost as mind-numbing as being forced to use them.

Photo credit: Chris Yarzab on Flickr.

I learned recently, thanks to Audrey Watters’ Teaching Machines, that this concept of programmed instruction has a long history, going back to the teaching machines of Pressey in the 1920s and much of Skinner’s work in the middle of the century. The idea that we can automate teaching is an old one. Though never really successful in the pre-computer age, the idea of breaking a concept down into very small, sequential bits, and then using a machine to deliver those bits to the learner has deep roots.

The 20th century reality was that programmed instruction was done much more efficiently without the machines. Worksheets and flash cards are cheap. Teaching machines — whether mechanical or digital — are not. And when the software for these devices is proprietary, the limited market makes them less attractive for publishers. Why spend time writing a program specific for a particular machine or computer, when it’s easier to just create a workbook that can be used by everyone? So when it came time for me to practice math facts and spelling words in school, it was mostly with flash cards and worksheets.

But we’ve never really given up on the idea. When I became a tech director 20 years ago, we were taking our elementary learners to a “computer lab” several times a week for automated reading and math instruction. The program was not aligned at all with what was happening in the classroom, or even with the standards-based curriculum that had been adopted. There was no automatic adaptation to the progress of the student. And the teachers had no knowledge — or interest — in what happened in those computer labs. It took more than a decade to get the schools to move away from that model.

Today, my job is mostly to make the technology work. I have a lot of opinions about how technology can be leveraged to improve learning, and I’m certainly not afraid to share them. But we have a lot of instructional leaders who actually make the decisions about which materials are going to be used. The beginning of the school year is especially difficult for me in this respect, because I get constant reminders of all of the digital worksheets and online flash cards that our teachers rely on. As the requests for rostering and accounts for all of the various applications start to pile up, I can’t help but think of how much money we would save if we traded our iPads for ditto machines.

Technology has two roles in learning. It can help individualize instruction to the needs of the student, and it can give students ways to create things that demonstrate their learning.

Individualization can include delivering and reinforcing content, hopefully in a way that adapts to the student automatically in real time. Technology can help engage students in authentic learning tasks, with the level of rigor appropriate to the student and subject. Sure, some students are learning content and skills. But others are taking that content, analyzing it, combining it with other ideas, critiquing, applying and building new understanding. This also gives the teacher more time to work with students individually and in small groups to better address their needs. Meanwhile, the students are engaged in collaborative efforts to create new work that shows how they have applied their learning to some sort of project or product. The technology helps them organize their ideas, work together on solutions, and communicate their learning to others both within and beyond their learning communities.

Technology has so much potential. But we have to focus on leveraging it to do things that we can’t do without it. And that’s not worksheets and flash cards.