An iPad or a Piano?

Much has been made recently of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s push to put an iPad in the hands of every student. The district has invested millions, the tablets have been easily hacked by students to access off-limits content, and the controversy may cost their superintendent his job. A recent editorial in the L. A. Times raises interesting questions about the value of investing huge sums of money in technology in classrooms at the expense of other kinds of learning, including arts education. Jeff Lantos, a long-time teacher, argues that what students need is not tons of technology thrown at them, but a really great teacher . . . with a piano:

 . . . if bureaucrats and billionaires really want to “disrupt” the traditional educational model, they should forget iPads and Androids. Instead, put a piano in every classroom and make piano lessons part of teacher training. Imagine an educational model in which music, dance and drama are part of every lesson. Imagine students singing about math properties, taking history from the page to the stage, dancing their way through the Constitutional Convention and the Lewis and Clark expedition, acting out scenes from novels, borrowing from Tom Lehrer and singing the periodic table of elements.

While I believe the writer may be a tad technophobic (there are many ways that technology can enhance student creativity instead of hindering it), I also believe he is right in his assertion that no interface with a screen can replace the human interaction between a good teacher and an eager learner, especially when they are engaged in the creative process of learning through dance, drama, art or music.

An excellent illustration of this can be found in this video clip from John Merrow’s Learning Matters blog.  Maria Eby teaches at a school in North Carolina that is part of the A+ program of the North Carolina Arts Council, an highly-successful, arts-based, whole-school reform effort. She is not an arts specialist, but she thoroughly believes in the power of learning through the arts, and uses it to great effect to get her students to practice higher-order thinking skills, and to understand the life of a plant.

Both an iPad and a great teacher can command a student’s full attention, but I argue that the zoned-out, bleary-eyed time-suck of an iPad can’t compete with the tuned-in, joy-filled magic spell a great teacher can cast on her students when she dons the bean stalk costume.

Lantos ends his editorial with a problem he posed to his young students:

I said to my students: “We’re facing drastic budget cuts. We have to get rid of either the 15 laptops or the piano. Which should it be?” I don’t think I have to tell you the response.

Pitting technology against the arts in schools creates a false dichotomy–it should not be an either/or situation.  We must teach children to use technology successfully to be competitive in the 21st century.  But I can’t help wondering what might happen in a school that took a fraction of the resources being spent to buy iPads and Androids and invested in a few pianos, or a kiln, or a new dance floor–and then invested some professional development money to train their teachers to use it?

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