How pure subject-based teaching is a disservice to students, and how to use mobile technology to null its negative effect

Michael Niles

Niles Technology Group was founded in 2007 to develop software for emerging technologies and has developed a series of mobile computing applications dedicated to teaching superior writing and logical thinking skills. With its experience in the technology and content required to develop full-featured products for students, Niles Technology Group is already in the top 25 of all iPhone app publishers and the Achievers Writing Center and Essay Writing Wizard apps have sold successfully worldwide. The key to Niles Technology Group’s success is specificity. Each app is specific to the writing task at hand. Michael A. Niles, the founder, was formerly, for eight years, the President and CEO of The Right Education, Inc. (TRE), a web-based educational technology company that developed The Learning Accelerator. He looks forward to continuing to bring top-line education products to the mobile computing marketplace. Copyright (C) 2007-2010 Niles Technology Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Apple, the Apple logo, iPhone, iPod, and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.

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The education discussions, in the online space, are filled with efforts to find the appropriate role for technology in the classroom.  No longer are desktop and laptop computers the main focus; it is the new "kids" on the block, such as the iPhone, iPod and iPad, that have moved the discussion ahead at warp speed.  Mobile devices, no matter how excellent, are not an answer onto themselves -- they have to fit into the holistic concept of a teaching system.  In response, teachers are literally grappling with these new platforms vis a vis teaching and their integration into the classroom.

Teachers understand the need to have a coherent structure within which mobile technology is incorporated. Therefore, in addition to technology discussions, there are new theories and paradigms on how best to teach students.  Or, from the students' perspective, which teaching methods best align with how they actually (naturally) learn.  Unlike a computer diagnostic program, students cannot provide teachers with a printout of what works best. There is enough history, however, using real world data, to deduce what has worked and what has not worked.

The data is rather easy to come by as colleges and employers have it in terms of classroom performance and workplace skills assessments.  From the high school perspective, the results do not currently bode well because colleges report an ever-increasing percentage enrollment in remedial classes for freshman and sophomores.  Employers are no different in citing disappointment with the workforce readiness of college graduates. The bright spots appear few.  

It really does not matter how well schools and teachers think they are doing at teaching; the results tell a somewhat deficient story. There is a saying in the military that most battle plans do not survive contact in with the enemy. An education corollary could easily be that too many graduates, on the secondary and higher education levels, are not surviving contact with the collegiate and work environments.  We (parents, teachers, society) instinctively know this is unacceptable, but the question remains what are the issues and how do we correct them to increase the survival rate of students, with the ultimate goals being academic and professional success.

I do not pretend to even have an answer to many of the issues, but I can confidently say that I have an answer to at least one fundamental issue.  That is, for many of the teaching systems being used, the majority of students become too linear and subject-based in their thinking AND too rigid in how they employ their acquired knowledge.  I posit that subject-based, linear thinking is one of the central weaknesses that is inherent in most current teaching paradigms, and it needs to be addressed head-on and eradicated.  In addition, mobile technology can be beneficial in teaching students how to "flexibly" use ALL their knowledge.

Economist Henry Hazlitt wrote that any solution to a problem has two major sets of results that can be studied: visible results and the not-so-visible, i.e., invisible, results.  Unfortunately, money and effort are invariably spent assessing the visible, but rarely are the invisible results, which are often the most damaging, ever studied.  In this regard, the education system is a classic case study.

In an effort to ensure that students learn certain information, they are placed in classes that are essentially "information silos." They learn history in one silo, chemistry in a different silo and English language arts in yet another - and, nary the three shall meet. This vertical stratification, usually called a subject-based curriculum, continues with math, foreign language and government.  Students learn as if they were studying each subject at a different school; hence, the practical result of the rigid, subject-based system is students who never learn the virtues and efficacy of solving problems using more than one type of information at a time.  If students learn to think simplistically (within a singular information silo) when solving problems, then it should not be surprising that when they enter a truly multidisciplinary environment (where multiple types of information interact) that they have difficulty coping and often fail. This failure really should be expected as that is what they are being set up to do quite well.

The subject-based curriculum approach does have its merits in that students can be tested on each subject and a score for each attained -- the visible result, which can be seen immediately and assessed. Also, this approach can efficiently isolate skills weaknesses.  For the record, I support rigorous assessments of what students learn.  What I do not support is this same system also results in linear-thinking students who cannot effectively use information across disciplines to craft solutions  -- the invisible result, which is not currently measured in situ, but is assessed by high college dropout rates, remedial class enrollment increases and poor workplace skills.

Operative examples of the invisible result are: students who understand religion and science, but do not understand the historical role religion has played in the development of science; students who cannot ascertain that a solution they devised in economics will not work because they never incorporated what they learned in social psychology; that being, people have never behaved the way their economic model assumes; students who, under the laudable goal of environmental conservation (earth science), advocate to limit the size of cars to lower oil consumption, but who never thought to look at the actuarial tables (statistics) that show as car size decreases, death rate from traffic accidents increases disproportionately.  In general, the invisible result is students who only understand and use the information in one discipline, i.e., in one information silo at a time. Students need to be taught that the solution to a problem can lie outside the discipline within which the problem arose.

One solution, that I employ, is to teach students to look for both the visible and invisible results in every issue. And, more importantly, I teach not to wait to research the information because this "visible and invisible results" data is crucial to developing the best solutions. This is where mobile technology devices enter. Suppose when studying marine biology and the impact of this year's Gulf oil spill on marine life, someone proposes shutting down the oil rigs -- right there, as students are thinking about it, have them research (using the mobile devices) what the human impact of that shut down would be.  Ask them to find out how many people are dependent on the rigs for jobs and how much these jobs directly contribute to the Gulf economy.  The visible result of no more drilling is less oil rigs and, maybe, some more marine life; the invisible result is higher unemployment in the Gulf States, the subsequent distressed and displaced families and, eventually, more crime-ridden communities.  Through this "instant" information gathering, students learn that even good intentions, implemented poorly, have negative consequences.  Knowing this data could lead to finding a better approach to preserving marine life without disruption of Gulf State communities.  

I can go on with examples, but the operating premise is to use the mobile devices to immediately teach students how to look at multiple sides of any issue and to specifically teach how to look for information outside the discipline or subject that is being studying. Marine life and earth science may seem light years removed from the crime rate of the Gulf States; however, a little research shows that with increasing unemployment comes increased crime -- given this information, maybe shutting all oil rigs, at once, does not seem the prudent action to take.

Let me get closer to home and give a direct example from education. For some time now, the focus of writing curricula has been highly skewed toward grammar, sentence structure and paragraph development.  Basically, it is composition, and the five-paragraph essay is used to teach these skills.  The visible result is students are taught to write sentences and five paragraphs and are tested on such.  The invisible result of this heavy focus on writing mechanics is that students are not learning proper argument development and how to apply logic to their arguments.  The College Board, developers of the SAT, caught on to this and began testing essay writing skills in 2004 -- and, not surprisingly, it is consistently the lowest scoring section of the test with the grammar, vocabulary and reading sections scoring higher.  Why?  The SAT essay score is weighted more toward argument development and less on grammar.

Mobile technology can be of use here as well.  There are many mobile apps that help with essay writing and argument development. Encourage students to use these tools to think of writing not as a series of sentences, but as a series of ideas and arguments put together, in a coherent structure, with the goal of influencing others.  In short, students should understand that five paragraphs are often not enough to develop and fully support an argument.  If this cannot be done effectively using current curricula, then use mobile apps to fill the void.

In summary, it is time to stop teaching students to be one-track, one-subject thinkers and to help them become true multidisciplinary information integrators.  Mobile technology can be instrumental in this endeavor if students are taught to use it as a real-time information aggregator that can help them understand the complexities of developing optimal solutions. The visible result of the technology age is the mobile device; the invisible result of the technology age should be students who know how to take smarter decisions and how to develop constructive solutions.

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