We Can’t “Technology” Our Way Out Of Education Challenges

Summing up the spirit of skeptical inquiry, physicist Richard Feynman once said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” I believe we are in danger of such an unchallenged orthodoxy which threatens to diminish the debate on a vital question: how to improve education in Africa.A belief in the power of technology is becoming akin to an article of faith among education decision makers and commentators — along with preferences found in progressive pedagogy, like student-driven learning over teacher-driven curriculum, cross-cutting skills over traditional subjects, Google over memorization. But what if introducing more technology, and turning away from traditional ways of teaching, is actually making education in Africa worse?The desire for a change is entirely understandable. Education standards across Africa are dire. In the last international benchmark tests for both reading and science, the African countries assessed (among the continent’s most developed) finished bottom. In mathematics they were four of the worst six. Even a country with one of the best education systems on the continent, South Africa, trails far behind Georgia in mathematics and Thailand in science.For a hugely diverse continent, the education problem is uniform: over 70 percent of 9-year-olds across seven different African countries surveyed by the World Bank couldn’t read a full sentence or do basic addition. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance, an annual survey of continent-wide governance, summarized that “a worrying decline” in education was “not keeping up with population growth,” a pressure augmented by looming threats like artificial intelligence and automation of the workforce.Change is therefore essential. But does the answer lie in a greater use of technology and the abandonment of a traditional pedagogy? We should ask firstly: Do Africa’s education challenges lend themselves to technology solutions? Secondly, we must look to evidence, not ideology, to see what pedagogical approaches should guide technology tools and other reforms.Africa’s main education challenge is its countries’ poor performance in three areas evidence and experts see as core to education systems’ success: teacher quality, curriculum, and accountability.As a 2007 report by McKinsey & Company put it, “the quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Yet in much of the continent, teachers are typically low-skilled practitioners with weak subject knowledge and little to no training. Dylan William, the world’s foremost authority on formative assessment, emphasizes the international evidence that “curriculum matters.” Yet most African curricula combine high bureaucratic burden on teachers with low expectations of students. International comparison surveys show that strong accountability drives up results, yet many of Africa’s schools are so unaccountable that corruption is more certain to be present than the teachers.The countries which do best on international benchmarks, such as Singapore, tend to tackle these challenges through analog rather than digital methods (in-person teacher training or the use of knowledge rich textbooks). In recent years, education technology has been faltering in the developed world: Finland has slipped down international league tables after adopting a progressive, technology focused curriculum that studies found lowers student outcomes. France has banned mobile phones in schools and England discourages them. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, there is talk of a new digital divide in which rich children get human teaching and parenting while the poor rely on screens.Closer to home in Africa, a recent literature review conducted by Injini, an investor in education start-ups that I founded, revealed only one robust positive finding from a technology-based intervention in Africa while high-profile failures litter the education landscape. One Laptop Per Child, and other initiatives putting devices in schools, achieved few academic gains. Khan Academy, which aimed to flip classrooms and even have students teach themselves with online videos, had marginal impact when deployed in schools.These challenges don’t mean that we should entirely write off education technology. Its use may not be what distinguishes the world’s best schools or school systems, but innovations that reduce teachers’ admin burden and improve lessons, or help students practice and build knowledge, are core to successful modern schools.When applied correctly to a specific set of problems, technology has proven to be a useful tool that can have positive impact. But it must be accompanied by an honest discussion about what pedagogy actually works.The popular idea of “leapfrogging” by replacing teachers with technology can be discounted. A wealth of evidence shows us that students do not learn unaided. Retaining teachers but shifting to predominantly student or inquiry-driven learning has also been shown to be ineffective. When McKinsey & Company analyzed worldwide school performance data, they found that “the more inquiry-based learning, the lower the scores.”Furthermore, should we really be replacing a knowledge-rich curriculum with “21st-century skills” like creativity, communication, and critical thinking? Data and learning science suggest that, in fact, a greater knowledge base improves communication, creativity and critical thinking within that domain, while there is no evidence that explicitly teaching these skills improves general ability. The psychologist Daniel Willingham explains why: “Factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes take place.”The U.K. Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser Tim Leunig, in his TED talk about education, adds that: “world-changing creativity is based on knowledge.” Memorization, the bête noire of 21st-century educationalists, is seen by learning scientists as core to the successful use of modern technology, noting that “You can’t use a computer without using your memory first.”

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