Cringely on teaching, inspiration, and technology

This thought-provoking piece by the eclectic Robert X. Cringely caught my eye today. Here, Cringely quotes a friend who was an engineer but changed careers and became a high school math teacher:

“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in student success, which is the student’s attitude toward learning and motivation,” wrote my new friend the math teacher.  “The truth is that if students are motivated to learn, they will learn, pretty much regardless of the specific format or technology that is used in the lessons themselves.  Conversely, if a student is not interested in learning, the details of how lessons are presented, technology, etc. don’t matter very much…the student will find whatever way is available to avoid learning…they may socialize with their neighbors, or frequently ask to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, or simply try to tune out and take a nap during class.  Thus, while we focus on how teachers teach, I’m finding that the real key to student success is not so much how you teach but how you go about motivating students to want to learn, and how the systems you use in the classroom help support and encourage students to succeed even when they are not intrinsically motivated by the subject.”

Yes: inspiration comes first, as I have said before here, here, and here. Cringely goes on, however, to predict a mysterious technological solution to the problem. Cringely writes,

Motivated students succeed, but since every student is different and every student has a different way to learn best, unless we can design an individual curriculum for each kid, the system won’t be optimized. . . . The only solution I can see is one teacher per student. And the only way something close to that is going to happen is through technology.  And it’s coming.

Cringely is often on the edge, or over it, but always provocative. He’s right to focus on the problem of motivation, or inspiration, but I’m not persuaded that technology of any sort can somehow inspire every student. That takes a culture, a family, an environment, and contact with inspired and inspiring teachers.


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