A clear theme began to emerge Thursday at the National School Boards Association’s T+L² conference in Denver–school technology has come a long way, but it is time to take the next step.

Thursday’s agenda featured two speakers who hammered home this theme in a pair of inspiring lectures that raised key questions about the future of technology in schools.

Sir Ken Robinson, Senior Adviser to the President of the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, gave the day’s opening keynote speech. An expert in developing creativity and former education professor at Great Britain’s Warwick University, Robinson was knighted in 2003 for his service to the arts. He showed the T+L² why he deserved this honor, and why he was honored as Europe’s business speaker of the year, with a memorable 40-minute presentation that mixed first-rate stand-up comedy with deep insight.

Ian Jukes, speaking at the day’s Showcase Luncheon, also combined wit with a clear passion for learning. During his high-energy presentation, which lasted 65 minutes, Jukes directed forceful words at education leaders, all but pleading with them to re-evaluate the role of technology in their schools and ensure that individual student learning remained the focus, regardless of the high-tech equipment used.

It seemed more than a coincidence that Robinson and Jukes’ lectures built on a thread in Wednesday’s keynote speech by MIT professor Michael Hawley and in another presentation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Susan Patrick, who was in Denver to outline the national education technology plan. Both Hawley and Patrick urged their audiences to recognize that today’s world is fundamentally different from that of previous generations, and that the very nature of education must change with the times–keeping the focus on the learner and emphasizing real-world relevance in curriculum-related choices.

Robinson wasted no time making this same point. He began by discussing what he called a “hierarchy in schools”–in which languages and math are at the top of the pyramid, towering over science, the humanities and, lastly, the arts. Noting that no country teaches dance on a daily basis, he complained that schools are still only educating people from the neck up.

Questioning the lack of emphasis on arts and physical education, Robinson pointed out that many societies associate a subject’s relevance with its potential economic benefit. In mainstream Western culture, the arts are scorned, he said, because of the perception that there is no money in them for anyone but truly gifted people. As a result, the notion of creativity becomes separated from, and less valued than, the concept of intelligence–even though creativity is just as important and is often what drives the greatest human achievements.

Robinson pointed to a British study in which 1,600 children between the ages of 3 and 5 were tested for their level of “genius.” In this age group, 98 percent of the children qualified as geniuses. Three years later, in the same test, only 32 percent of the same group were still classified at the genius level. By high school, only 10 percent retained this status, and when 200,000 25-year-olds took the test, only 2 percent qualified. Robinson blamed this phenomenon on schools.

“We are inhibiting the capacity for original thinking in schools,” Robinson said. Our present education system was invented in the 19th century and designed for an industrial economy. But this is no longer an economy in which 80 percent of the workers are performing manual labor, and those with a college degree are no longer guaranteed a job.”

The phenomenon of “academic inflation” has become so great, Robinson said, that he recently talked to an employer who was only interested in hiring “somebody with a good Ph.D.”

“What’s next on this spiral?” Robinson asked. “Will you need to have a Nobel prize?”

In the next 100 years, however, Robinson noted that it will be crucial for Americans to educate young people for the post-Industrial Revolution, because the jobs for which students have long been trained–and which form the basis of most curricula–are moving to Asia.

Robinson concludes that it is therefore time for American educators to recognize that intelligence is diverse, and creativity should be encouraged, rather than stifled under the weight of outdated thinking. As for technology in schools, he sees a bright future. He urged education leaders to find and use high-tech tools that bring creativity out of their students, which inevitably would lead to breaking away from a limiting educational model.

“We must first do away with the hierarchy of subjects. And we must recognize that technology is not just some add-on to an existing curriculum. It is a means by which the future will be created.”

Robinson received a standing ovation for his remarks. Jukes was also well-received, although he went a step further in challenging his audience to finally deliver the “long-awaited technology revolution in education.” Jukes insisted that most schools have failed in their efforts to recognize the value of the technology on which they spend so much money.

“The value and place of technology is still being questioned,” Jukes said. “Why is that? Why is it that schools lag in the use of these tools?”

Jukes cited considerable research that backs up claims of technology’s power in school buildings, but he faulted school leaders for failing to understand bigger picture.

“The use of technology is still largely on the periphery. Technology is not transforming learning.”

Why are schools failing to maximize their technology investments? Jukes argues that our society continues to look for a cause-and-effect relationship between the presence of technology in schools and the improvement in test scores-a relationship that by itself does not exist. At the same time, he faulted educators who scorn technology for threatening traditional learning tools, including books.

“I respect their opinion, but they are wrong,” Jukes exclaimed. “Our living in a technology-rich society is a reality. … It is an undeniable fact that the world has changed.”

Jukes pointed to three levels of technology in education. The first level, known as the Literacy Level, focuses on technical skills such as keyboarding and mastering specific software packages. Jukes said most U.S. schools have never gone beyond this level.

The second level, known as the Integration Level, works technology into a traditional curriculum. At this level, a student might effectively use the internet to research a paper, or use a spreadsheet program to produce a report. While the Integration Level is a step in the right direction, it is not enough for Jukes.

“The question should be if I take the technology away, will the learning and teaching be the same?”

Jukes encouraged educators to strive for the highest level of technology in schools, the Transformation Level. In this framework, the focus is on targeting learning outcomes that can’t be achieved without the use of present-day technology. He gave one example of students instructed to recommend a travel destination for an upcoming weekend. These students would go to the internet and research the available options. They would then use the internet and spreadsheets software to predict and compare the weather in each city. Their ultimate achievement of the assigned task would come from a sequence of activities not even possible for previous generations.

The key would be learning by doing. Technology would be part of the experience of learning.

“Am I teaching technology in this situation?” Jukes asked. “Yes, I am. … And no, I am not.”

Jukes also called for professional development models that instruct teachers to learn with technology in similar fashion, because most teachers would only be able to instruct others in the way they were themselves instructed.

Through two days at the Colorado Convention Center, the speakers’ message was clear: Truly serving young people will require having the courage to acknowledge that because of technology, they live in a brave new world which requires brave new educational models.

T+L² news from the NSBA:

The NSBA, host of T+L², has used its annual conference to make a number of important announcements. Among these are the results of the NSBA Technology Survey conducted through the NSBA Technology Leadership Network. Nearly 1,000 superintendents, educational technology and curriculum directors, principals, teachers, and school board members were polled. Among other things, the survey found:

  • 80.4 percent of those surveyed said technology has made students more engaged in their own learning.

  • 47.2 percent listed funding as the biggest technology-related obstacle faced by their districts, while 45.7 percent saw the ability to adequately integrate that technology in the classroom as the biggest hurdle.

  • Only 63.3 percent of those surveyed thought their districts were doing at least a “good” job preparing students for the world they face. Only 13 percent felt their districts were doing an excellent job.

  • 67.4 percent thought the newest generation of teachers is more capable than their predecessors when it comes to integrating technology into curricula.

  • 37.1 percent said eRate funding was “very important” for meeting technology goals, while 27.2 percent said it was “somewhat important.” And 45 percent said they are already being affected by the eRate moratorium, with the majority saying they are unable to budget for the 2005-06 school year.

On Thursday, the NSBA and theCenter for Digital Education announced the culmination of a joint survey to examine how school boards are applying technology and the school boards that ranked in the top 10. Rankings are available at the following link:

http://www.nsba.org/site/doc.asp?TRACKID=&VID=2&CID=90&DID=34677

Board members from the top 10 boards explained why they made the leap to going digital. Among those responding was Nancy Roche of Forsyth County, Ga., whose school board finished sixth overall.

“When we had kindergartners giving PowerPoint presentations at a School Board meeting, we decided it was time to lead them by example, not the other way around, so we decided to move toward technology,” Roche said.”