Blog is not a bad word: A response to Diana Senechal’s essay “The most daring education reform of all”

Kids on a computer


Around 1436, a German goldsmith with the multi-syllabic name of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg came up with a crazy idea.  That crazy idea – movable type – was responsible for a revolution.

Almost immediately, people in powerful positions started looking for ways to control the spread of information.

They failed.

Five centuries later, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina developed Mosaic at the university of Illinois Urbana- Champaign.  Mosaic made the World Wide Web accessible for the first time to a general audience.

Shortly after that, the United States Congress attempted to regulate content on the Internet by passing the Communications Decency Act.

They failed.

Throughout the world, repressive regimes attempt to control the spread of information.  North Korea, named by the group Reporters Without Borders as “the world’s worst Internet black hole,” does not permit any access whatsoever to the internet for its general population.

Yet even in North Korea, people find ways to get information.  Cell phones are purchased in China and smuggled across the border, raising the possibility of increasing access to the web.

Advances in communication technology throughout history have been met by scorn, outright hostility, and attempts at censorship.  In the end, they’ve all failed.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t growing pains in the process.

And that’s one of several reasons why Diana Senechal’s article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All” in the spring 2010 edition of American Educator is so problematic.

In a well-meaning attempt to encourage thoughtful use of technology in education, Senechal picks on the most superficial aspects of online communication and the worst examples of curriculum design.  She then uses this stereotype to argue for a curriculum that “preserve(s) the best of traditional teaching [and] the best of traditional content.”   And while she pays lip service to the possibilities of technology, it’s clear her view of an excellent school is one that is largely offline.

Senechal’s call for a focus on content is laudable.  Her criticisms of the worst excesses of education reform is reasonable.  Her argument that technology should “serve rather than hinder us” (5) is sound.

However, the conclusion many of her readers will draw from her article is that use of technology is somehow incompatible with a renewed focus on a meaningful core curriculum.  Her overall argument rests on three flawed premises:

  • a dated conception of teachers as gatekeepers of knowledge rather than guides;
  • an assumption students will learn to effectively use technology without expert guidance;
  • a failure to acknowledge the rich possibilities for using technology to pursue the very curricular ends she proposes.

Put together, Senechal’s argument gives credence to those people who do not believe in the free and open exchange of ideas; the people who do not believe that students either have anything significant to say nor should have any right to say it; the people who want to turn back the clock on everything we’ve been able to achieve in education since the first school was connected to the web.

And in the end, they’ll lose.  But meanwhile, they can cause some serious damage.

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