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Success in School: There is No App for That

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I hear it all the time; there’s an app (application software) for that. People want that nearly impossible to find parking space in New York City: there’s an app for that. There is an app to know what kind of neighborhood you live in, where to get the best Mexican food, and the hottest cup of joe. There is seemingly an app for everything. I know kids and some adults think this to be the case but, while apps have their undeniable place in popular culture, they are no panacea, especially for accomplishing things that matter most.

There is no app for love, for happiness, for contentment, or for world peace, and there is most definitely no app for success in school. Yes, there are apps you can use in school, and even those that may enhance your understanding of the world, but nothing can be used to make you decipher the complexities of the causes of the Civil War like reading about it, seeing old documents, and learning about it in a classroom.

Let’s think about math. Fractions, mixed numbers, and decimals have tortured many students over the years. How about long division? Algebra? Trigonometry? Those words can make your skin crawl long after your high school years are over. There are so-called math apps out there, things that you can put on your phone that will take you part of the way there, but when it comes to sitting down and taking the test, there is no app for that, at least not yet.

Can you imagine having Socrates as a teacher? Many times in my life I have wondered what it would have been like. We educators talk about the Socratic method or Socratic questioning as if it is an ideal world; and in our times with the reality of state assessments, teacher evaluations linked to them, and the pressure to increase test scores, the laissez faire atmosphere of a Socratic classroom seems almost an impossibility.

What should concern all of us now is the app mentality that is so pervasive that it is subsuming the traditional path to acquiring knowledge. Kids do not feel that they need to do research anymore, let alone ever crack open an encyclopedia, dictionary, or thesaurus. They are more concerned with the ready availability of sources than caring about their reliability. This problem is found across the board from elementary school to college. The lure of the cut and paste answer is so powerful that plagiarism plagues all educators because the kids (and many times their parents) think there is nothing wrong with it.

I understand the powerful ways technology can enhance instruction, and I am not saying that we should go back to the dark ages of pigtails dipped in the ink well, but there should be a way to make clear to students that even though there seems to be an app for everything, there is no substitute for learning something on your own. Sure calculators make long division much easier, but if you cannot divide without electronic help then you don’t really know how to do it, even if your answers are always right.

I love SMART Boards, iPods, and Netflix just as much as the next guy, but there is something to be said for writing on a blackboard, listening to vinyl records, and seeing a movie in a theater. Kids used to the hush of the marker on whiteboard should also know the wonderful sound of chalk against slate. They should remove their ear buds and get acquainted with the needle getting into the groove, and nothing beats the smell of popcorn and the sacred dark of a theater to see a film. These are great experiences and there is no app that will get you there.

With many states adopting the new Common Core Standards, I am hoping that we are going to truly enhance the classroom experience with the expected rigor and relevance associated with them. If this gets kids to more deeply understand things, makes them think critically, and provides them with skills to discern reliable sources from the galaxy of electronic options at their fingertips, then we will be moving in the right direction.

As an educator and a parent I do not want my kids taking the easy way out. The app mentality is to get a degree as quickly as possible, but that has nothing to do with learning. I want my children to get through school and earn the right to step up each year. This way when they get to the top they will truly belong there.

Sometimes my daughter forgets to copy down her homework, and it’s great that we can look online because her teacher posts daily assignments on her class page. There is nothing wrong with this, but when my kids sit down and do their homework, it is without any electronic help. If my daughter has to research something, I let her know there is more than one way to look things up. If we do use online sources, we talk about reliability and citing sources. And, when it is all over, and she asks me to check her homework, happily there is no app for that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://www.lunch.com/JSMaresca-Reviews-1-1.html Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    My generation read books. Today, students do not read enough. They read from netbook computers, electronic games and iPods. What is needed is reading high quality literature with vocabulary that forces students to consult a dictionary (paper or electronic).

    High school principals have shied away from assigning complex books in favor of colloquial reading which emulates street language. That’s why so many students are in the twelfth grade and still memorizing from vocabulary lists to study for the SAT exam.

    High school students should read books like “The Last Man” by Mary Shelley. Here is an example of vocabulary on page 1 of “The Last Man”:
    o translucent
    o pellucid
    o promontories
    o celestial visitant

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/diana-hartman/ diana hartman

    Good read, Victor. There are distinct areas of life for which there simply is no app – parenting and teaching being among them. While you and I associate chalk and chalkboards with effective learning, I would submit the real association is with teacher and student. In some (important) ways, that relationship has been allowed to deteriorate.

    I’m personally glad to have dispensed with vinyl records. What a pain in the butt those things were. I was more like kids today: listening to individual songs rather than entire collections by bands or groups. I had way more 45s than albums because I rarely liked more than a few songs by anyone. I was most tickled when I was able to make my own tapes. Getting my own iPod was nothing short of grand.

    I agree, Dr. Maresca, students don’t read enough, but I disagree with you about why that is. If it doesn’t matter how one consults a dictionary (paper or electronic), it hardly matters how they came to look the word up in the first place. The paperback used to be seen as lowly, but now it’s the cornerstone of most college bookstores. In its earliest days the paperback was used for tawdry, cheap and intellectually benign fiction, but it eventually made the acquisition of quality literature more affordable. E-readers are not the paperback of this era. An entire library is but a few clicks away. It should come as no surprise that with the advent of e-readers, the availability (yes, the reading) of quality literature has grown exponentially. Perhaps your concern is the destruction of printed material; and while that is certainly something that should be addressed, it has nothing to do with getting kids to read. (It’s worth nothing that a kid who becomes well-read via e-reader is more likely to seek out a real book than are those whose love of reading was never fostered.)

    If a student (or anyone for that matter) prefers to read from an e-reader, shouldn’t we be glad s/he’s reading rather than bickering over and belittling the format? The love of or distaste for reading starts in the home and way before any teacher is involved in the child’s life. Teachers (and the curriculum forced upon them) certainly can foster or flatten a child’s love of reading, which is why it is as nonsensical to make them read text from a book rather than an e-reader as it is to make them read in an upright position at a desk rather than in the comfort of their bed under the covers.

  • http://www.lunch.com/JSMaresca-Reviews-1-1.html Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    It doesn’t matter what students read from whether or not it’s an Ebook or some other
    media. Schools simply are not assigning the more complex literature. Colloquial
    literature does not develop vocabulary as evidenced by low SAT scores.

    Students need to read more no matter what the medium. In addition, they need to
    read high quality literature with complex vocabulary to develop writing skills for
    college and the workplace. Either students will consult dictionaries or the publishers
    will put extensive glossaries in the back of the books to provide definitions of complex
    vocabulary utilized in the book.

    In the interest of whetting students’ appetites, schools have assigned the colloquial
    literature to get students interested in reading. The problem is that schools don’t
    ever seem to assign the more complex literature for a number of reasons. Perhaps,
    principals, administrators and teachers simply don’t want to take the heat for making
    students work harder. The result is that many students don’t have college ready skills
    and they are forced to enter remedial classes in the first years of college.