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High Tech Hype (Ken De Rosa and Right Wing Prof)

Forget the wading boots for the educration hype about High Tech High. You need a hazmat suit and oxygen tanks, because there’s nothing here but organic fertilizer of the equine fecal variety.

The article from the Philadelphia Inquirer is nearly breathless in its enthusiasm for … what, exactly? Why, the technology!

Philadelphia’s $63 million “School of the Future” – built under the guidance of Microsoft Corp. and hailed as a first-of-its-kind model for technologically advanced schools worldwide – opened to its first 170 freshmen yesterday in West Philadelphia, as hundreds of parents, dignitaries, and local and national reporters looked on.

First announced three years ago, the new school and its technology left students in jaw-dropping awe: A laptop for every child. Lockers that open with the swipe of a smart card. A fully wireless building. Virtually no textbooks.

Not even an encyclopedia in the library.

“It’s going to be as close to a paperless school as we can manage,” said Ellen Savitz, the district’s chief development officer and manager of the project.

Plasma screens, ceiling projectors, interactive white boards, and laptops abound, and classroom furniture is on wheels to allow for group work in varying configurations.

So we have smart card lockers, a wifi building, plasma screens, laptops, projectors, and interactive white boards. What’s missing here is any explanation of how, exactly, this relates to education. And since we’re used to college campuses where every inch is covered by a wifi signal, rooms with projectors and technology, plug-ins in the desks for laptops, and all this cutting-edge stuff that’s ten years behind the times, we’re not impressed. So what? Right Wing Prof can teach the same content just as easily and effectively with a black board as he can an interactive white board — and he know sthis because he’s done both. The technology is nothing more than a tool, and it will not improve anything if there is no substantial content (plus, we’re not quite sure why anyone would be enthusiastic about a “paperless” school, where the library has no encyclopedia; paper and books are not obsolete, nor will they ever be). Then there’s the technology that has absolutely nothing even remotely to do with education, like the toilets that flush themselves (this is new technology? On what planet?) or the rainwater recycling, but there’s no reason to go there, except that it’s yet more crap to cost more money. God forbid little Suzie should have to flush her own toilet!

The principal’s statement from the Reuters article tells us that this “cutting-edge” high school is going to “teach” yet more substanceless crap:

Traditional education is obsolete and fails to teach students the skills of problem-solving, critical thinking and effective communication, which they need to succeed in the 21st century, principal Shirley Grover said in an interview.

“It’s not about memorizing certain algebraic equations and then regurgitating them in a test,” Grover said. “It’s about thinking how math might be used to solve a quality-of-water problem or how it might be used to determine whether or not we are safe in Philadelphia from the avian flu.”

The principal clarified that these “21st century skills” would not include separate courses in “calculus, English or biology”; instead students would “attend inquiry sessions, during which interdisciplinary instruction tackles real-life questions.”

It’s not the dubious “21st century skills” that concerns us as much as the early 20th century pedagogy popularized by the likes of John Dewey that High Tech High is foisting on their students. It’s ironic that such a high-tech school has settled upon such a low-tech pedagogy.

The problem with High Tech High’s “authentic learning” and “discovery learning” pedagogy is that not only doesn’t it work, it is toxic with the low-SES students who will be attending High Tech High.

As Ken pointed out in a recent post, there are three fundamental problems with the kind of discovery learning that will take place at High Tech High:

1. it is apt to lead to incorrect learning or no learning at all since it relies on the student being able to discover or construct the knowledge for himself.

2. it favors those with more background knowledge because the more one knows about a subject, the easier it is to learn more about it.

3. it is inefficient at best, and ineffective at worst. It takes much longer to discover a new concept unassisted than with step-by-step instructions.

Moreover, no one has yet to prove that discovery learning confers any benefit to the learner over more traditional forms of instruction. Certainly, increased student achievement has been elusive. No benefits coupled with significant drawbacks, especially for lower performing students, would lead the rational educator to abandon such a failed pedagogy. It would appear that the educators at High Tech High value their educational fads more than they value their students’ educations.

It’s not like cognitive scientists haven’t known for a long time that “authentic learning” is a load of bunk:

What is authentic is typically ill-defined but there seems to be a strong emphasis on having problems be like the problems students might encounter in everyday life. A focus on underlying cognitive process would suggest that this is a superficial requirement. Rather, we would argue as have others (e.g., Hiebert, Hearner, Carpenter, Fennema, Fuson, 1994) that the real goal should be to get students motivated and engaged in cognitive processes that will transfer. What is important is what cognitive processes a problem evokes and not what real-world trappings it might have.

So what cognitive processes transfer the best? Those that are directly taught and practiced to mastery. Yet direct teaching is being marginalized at High Tech High in favor of inefficient “inquiry sessions” in which a series of “authentic” problems are given to the students to work on over the course of days or weeks. In such classes, students typically begin by floundering around with little guidance for a while. As students begin to spin their wheels, the teacher is supposed to gradually offer suggestions and teach the material during the course of solving of the problem posed in the inquiry session. Once a particular inquiry session has been completed, the students are whisked off to the next “inquiry session” whereupon the process is repeated.

If this sounds inefficient, it’s because it is. Notice how the practice comes before or during the abstract instruction part of the lesson. While the kids are busy discovering the intended point, they are missing out on valuable practice time. To the extent they discover the right concept, the lack of practice ensures that the knowledge gained will be quickly lost to the ravages of forgetfulness. Also, the students quickly learn that that even though they do not understand the details of a particular inquiry session, the problem will soon disappear and be replaced by another that does not require application of skills and knowledge from the previous session. The design clearly reinforces students for not learning or for learning often vague and inappropriate associations of vocabulary with a particular topic.

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written extensively about the problem of students getting insufficient practice:

It is difficult to overstate the value of practice. For a new skill to become automatic or for new knowledge to become long-lasting, sustained practice, beyond the point of mastery, is necessary…

That students would benefit from practice might be deemed unsurprising. After all, doesn’t practice make perfect? The unexpected finding from cognitive science is that practice does not make perfect. Practice until you are perfect and you will be perfect only briefly. What’s necessary is sustained practice. By sustained practice I mean regular, ongoing review or use of the target material (e.g., regularly using new calculating skills to solve increasingly more complex math problems, reflecting on recently-learned historical material as one studies a subsequent history unit, taking regular quizzes or tests that draw on material learned earlier in the year). This kind of practice past the point of mastery is necessary to meet any of these three important goals of instruction: acquiring facts and knowledge, learning skills, or becoming an expert.

The takeaway from all this is that even if the “authentic learning” inquiry sessions of High Tech High are successful in transmitting conceptual knowledge to the students, the design and inherent inefficiencies of such a program virtually guarantee that students will not get sufficient practice to ensure mastery of the material.

So let’s now cruise over to Microsoft’s lesson plan site and check out a couple of their math lessons, to see just exactly how well Microsoft’s lessons will be in teaching the underlying knowledge in the first place in the bleeding-edge, paperless, bookless classes of High Tech High.

Prepare to be disappointed. Prepare yourself for the educational equivalent of Microsoft Bob.

First, we looked at the Lemonade Stand Problem. RWP covered it in more detail earlier, but here are the directions:

Teacher Overview

Students set up a virtual lemonade stand. Students start the game with $20. Each day, they must decide how many cups of lemonade to prepare, select the ingredients, and decide how much money to charge for each cup. Students base their decisions on production costs and the weather forecast, which sometimes are inaccurate. The game simulates customer behavior, and students record their decisions and outcomes in an Excel sheet. After 10 days, they find out if they have made a profit.

Classroom Resources: Student Directions (24.5 KB Microsoft Word file)

Save this document to your classroom computer. Adjust the directions as needed for your lesson. When presenting your lesson to other students, ask them to use the student directions sheet as a starting point for the WebByte.

Excel Data Collection Sheet (14 KB Microsoft Excel file)
Use this Excel data sheet in this lesson to record decisions and outcomes of the game.

The first thing — which RWP did not cover in his earlier critique — is that whoever put these lessons online knows nothing about the electronic delivery of class materials and content, as ironic as that may be. Why are there multiple links to multiple files? Why are directions in a Word document, instead of in a text box in the Excel file? Why is there an Excel file at all, since the “lesson” is playing with a Java application? And if there must be multiple files, why isn’t there a link to an archive file, so students only have to click once to download all the necessary materials? As far as electronic delivery goes, this is the proverbial bottom of the barrel.

But on to the crucial issue: the substance of this “math” assignment. After opening and reading through each of these files, I found that this is nothing more than a Java simulation. Students click on little buttons to specify how many lemons, how much sugar, and how much ice to buy, then click a little button that tells them how much money they made or lost. There is nothing mathematical in this problem. The math is hidden behind the simulation. Students see no math. Students do no math. So the two-part question, of course, is 1) what mathematical knowledge are students supposed to gain from this, given that there is no math of any kind at all anywhere in it, and 2) why is this called a “math” lesson? We’ve have seen a lot of manure that passes itself off as pedagogy, but this is about as worthless as it gets.

Now, we can see the use for an application like this for modeling. When introducing a new tool or skill, it’s perfectly reasonable to show the students the tool in action before you teach them how to use it. The problem with this, of course, is that the students never learn how to do it — they just click little buttons.

We wanted to be fair, however, so we then checked out another “math” lesson from the Microsoft site, titled “How Much Water Does Your Family Use?” First, we have the teacher overview:

The following lesson may fit well in an environmental education unit on Conservation. During this lesson, students will examine the amount of water their family uses on a typical Saturday, record the information in an Excel template, and analyze and compare their water usage to others in the class.

Our keywords here are “examine,” “record,” “analyze,” and “compare.” What those words mean isn’t clear until we look at the lesson in more detail. But it’s already starting to look like more nonsense:

Bring in a gallon of water (a gallon-sized milk carton will work). Show your students the gallon of water to help them visualize the volume in one gallon. Brainstorm all the things that families do that use water. Ask the students to estimate and write down how much water they think their family uses on a cold, rainy Saturday when everyone is at home. The students will follow the directions below to determine the total number of gallons.

Quick! How many gallons of water do you think you use when you shower? Yes, you may look at a gallon and “visualize” it if you like. And you have no idea, do you? Of course you don’t, and neither will the teacher or the students. So again, we have students pulling data out of thin air — and considering how much these fuzzy math proponents love talking about “real-world” problems, they seem not to care much for real-world data. Presumably it’s much more “creative” to make it up. (Then, this principal is the same idiot who said, “You are trying to teach kids how to make claims and support them with evidence. It’s a very sophisticated way of thinking,” she said. “It’s much closer to what scientists do than what goes on in conventional science classrooms,” so we probably shouldn’t expect anything but phony, made-up data from somebody who doesn’t know the difference between science and junk science.)

Oh, but wait, it looks like the “lesson” has students make up data for no reason at all, since the directions tell them to go to the USGS site and answer a questionnaire that will tell them how much water they use — which also turns out to be a pointless step, since that data is entered in the Excel worksheet. So what, then, is the “visualizing” and “estimating” and cruising to the USGS site for? I suspect it’s to make this “lesson” last a full fifty minutes, since without all this pointless activity, there isn’t enough substance in this “lesson” to make it last fifteen minutes.

I opened the Excel file, and unlike the one for the lemonade problem, there actually are formulas and functions in it. Here is a screendump (we set the options to show formulas so you can see what’s in the cells; students would not see the formulas as shown below). [Click on thumbnail to view image.]

In range E3:E12, we have simple multiplication, in cell B15, we have simple division, and in E13, we have a SUM() function. This is a vast improvement over the lemonade problem, where all the math is hidden, since there really is math here. The problem is that nothing in the “lesson” directs students to look at the math in the spreadsheet, much less asks them to put any into the spreadsheet. So in this problem, students again just plug in numbers, and see and do no math. As they type in the numbers, a cute little pie chart is created for them on the next worksheet.

So how about those keywords above (examine, record, analyze, compare)? Well, “examine” here means “Wow, we use 15 gallons!” “Record” means “Type 15 into the cell.” “Analyze” means “Look at the cute little pie chart!” and “compare” means “My pie chart is cuter than yours!” No doubt, there’s supposed to be some of that always undefined “critical thinking” in here, but it isn’t mentioned.

We want to be completely fair here, so let us quote from the very end of that “lesson” on the Microsoft site:


  • Have students use Excel to create a bar chart.
  • If you have a highly technical group of students, have them start with a blank Excel worksheet where they can create their own formulas and charts.
  • Have students make a water conservation brochure using Microsoft Publisher.

What they forgot to say here was, “If your students aren’t complete morons” at the beginning. What do you need to do to create a bar chart, since there’s already a cute little pie chart in the workbook? Right-click on the chart, click chart types, click bar and OK. Wow. Nothing there math-related. The second, of course, is math-related, and what a concept for a math lesson it is, too! Have your students actually do the math — and such highly complex math it is, with that simple multiplication, division, and a sum! But only if they’re “highly technical,” which in the topsy-turvy, insane world of today’s educrats (like the idiot Principal Ed School) means they’re not complete fuzzy-math morons. And the brochure, of course, is very cute and no doubt very creative, very sensitive to those imaginary “learning styles,” and possibly nurturing and matriarchal as well, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with mathematics.

These fuzzy math people are always going on about data analysis, but as somebody who actually analyzes data and teaches undergraduates to analyze data, RWP cannot keep from noticing that they don’t know what “data analysis” means (though they’re all education school grads, so there’s no reason they would know anything about analyzing data). Looking at a chart is not data analysis. Changing a pie chart to a bar chart is not data analysis. Creating a brochure in MS Publisher is not data analysis. Clicking on buttons in a Java app is not data analysis. Having a pointless classroom discussion about your substance-free lesson is not data analysis. Data analysis actually entails mathematics, all the things the “fuzzy math” people insist are low level, unimportant, icky, boring skills. Analyzing data is taking a body of data, cleaning it up, aggregating it, identifying patterns, and coming to some kind of conclusion, and all of that involves a great deal of math. Not math that a cute little Java app does for you — indeed, no technology does it for you, not even Excel or SPSS. In the real world, nobody gives you a cute little template with all that icky math already done; you have to create that Excel file yourself, and to do that, you have to know the math.

And all the technology? Well, apparently, the laptops will be used to click on Java app buttons, the plasma screens to look at Java apps running simulations (so nobody has to look at that icky, awful, low-level math), the projectors to project those Java apps so everybody can either look at it on their screen or the screen at the front of the room, and the wifi so students can get to the Microsoft site to download all these math-free math lessons and cruise over to other sites so the “lessons” will last the full fifty minutes (there being nothing of substance in the “lessons” to begin with). And the good news is that none of that technology will be used to actually learn anything that has anything to do with math, because as the principal said, “Traditional education is obsolete and fails to teach students the skills of problem-solving, critical thinking and effective communication, which they need to succeed in the 21st century.” So the High Tech High math curriculum will be just more of this, but with lots of really cool and expensive technology — technology that is going to waste because it is being put to no useful purpose, technology that could be used to actually teach students useful, analytical skills, but won’t be, never fear, not as long as Principal Ed School is running the show!

The only difference between High Tech High and your average high school is that it costs $63 million for your kids to learn nothing at High Tech High. But at least they don’t have to flush their own toilets!

Kenneth De Rosa blogs at D-Ed Reckoning.  Right Wing Prof, the blogger behind Right Wing Nation, has taught at one of the premier business schools in the United States, and also works in the private sector as a consultant.


  1. I’ve just started reading a book by Neil Postman called “The Death of Discourse” that seems to apply. In it, he argues that while educational programs like Sesame Street purport to teach kids, what they really do – what they can’t help but do – is teach kids how to watch television. Seems like HTH is much the same – it’s not designed for academic learning, it’s designed to teach you how to use computers. Which would be great if that’s what we were actually trying to accomplish.

  2. NYC Math Teacher says:

    A brief follow up on my previous post (written in haste):

    This godforsaken high school shows how technology is often foisted upon students as if it is an end in itself. The reasoning, of course, is: If it is high tech and snazzy it must be good. One of my rooms last year (I am a traveling teacher) had a Smart Board. I am a chalk kind of guy, but at the urging of another teacher, I brushed up on the Smart Board and tried it in class. Big on the “ooh aah” factor, but it didn’t add much to my geometry lesson. Maybe it would have with better planning, but much of what I do is simply done on the blackboard (sometimes I use the overhead projector). I am not a Luddite; indeed I developed a robust gradebook on Excel while most teachers are using pen and paper. I just think the role of technology in education is overstated.

  3. NYC Math Teacher says:


    Yup — nothing inherently wrong with using Excel in class, but as you say, there must be some actual math underpinning the lesson.

  4. Redkudu says:

    I read a great book (series of essays) on this very subject years ago, called “High Tech Heretic” by Clifford Stoll. He also talks about the “educational software” being sold to schools that isn’t educational at all. Like the example above, it simply simulates a video game to hold student interest, but is so easy to play it’s worthless.

  5. “When do the students fling poo?”

    During math class — but they don’t have to flush the toilets!

  6. Parker says:

    When do the students fling poo? After lunch?

    Because it seems like any primate could learn what little they will be learning…

  7. As for the Excel question, the students enter how much water they use, and when they’ve done that, the cell will divide by whatever they’ve put in the cells. As for the refreshing lack of computers, well of course, that’s a whole nuther topic. I did think about addressing it (along with calculators), but felt that it would have been overkill. However, if you must use Excel in math class, it seems reasonable to actually have MATH in the problem, doesn’t it?

  8. NYC Math Teacher says:

    How to Create a Bar Graph in my 6th Grade Math Class:

    On actual graph paper, draw your axes. Write a title and label your axes appropriately. Decide on a numerical scale to use for the vertical axis. Write in your numbers. Ensure that the numbers fall on the lines, not in between. Ensure that each gradation represents an equivalent increase in value. Take the numbers from your data and draw your bars up from the horizontal axis, making sure that each bar is the same width and the same distance apart from its neighbors. Do not smush them together — that’s a histogram. We’ll cover that tomorrow.

    Note the refreshing lack of computers.

  9. SoCalOilMan says:

    I am only self taught in using Excel, but if the spreadsheet used above is an example of what’s used in the curriculum, what is the answer that will be reached in cell B15? being it refrences two blank cells the answer should be 0. Is this the new conservation formula, or did I miss something.

    I learned how to use Excel by reading a book, and practicing and trying different ideas to make it do what I required. I was only able to do this, because I had done all the computations myself for years before gong to a spreadsheet. If I hadn’t understood the steps needed to get to the right answer at the end, I never could have done it.

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