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Thompson: Marc Prensky, Digital Wisdom, & Zuckerberg's Newark Folly

ZuckerbergI never want to bet against our digital future, and I’m predisposed to agree with most of Marc Prensky’s hopefulness, as proclaimed in Brain Gain. But, Prensky seems too dismissive of the reports by teachers and others about the shortterm damage being caused by our rapid adoption of digital technology.

I don’t think that we have gotten to the point where all of the reports about unintended negative effects of this technology could be due to a mass hallucination, perhaps recorded in some secret space in the Cloud.

So, while I will enjoy and gain energy from the predictions of futurologists, I’ll stick to my knitting and just pontificate on the field I know – inner city schools.

I got a kick out of Prensky’s overly rational anticipation of a key issue related to Mark Zuckerberg’s donation of $100 million to Newark schools. He wrote that “potentially, it is a very good thing … if it is used in a digitally wise way.” Prensky thus seemed to anticipate that Zuckerberg would contribute in ways that he was qualified to contribute. He also hoped that Zuckerberg would “imagine and plan for at least a year (and maybe more) before any technology gets ordered.”

In other words, Prensky didn’t seem to consider the possibility that someone as smart as Zuckerberg would jump into a field he knew nothing about, and finance a transformational reform of it, without even looking into the basic evidence about what works in school improvement. Zuckerberg, the technology expert, illogically invested in a mayor, Cory Booker, who made a virtually evidence-free bet on incentives and disincentives that had a long history of failure!?!?  

What would have happened, however, if Zuckerberg had stuck to his knitting and invested his money in something he knew about?

Zuckerberg could have recruited the talent to plan and help implement a 21st century science and technology program in Newark. It would have been win-win. Rather than a weird gamble that performance pay (and the destruction of the professional autonomy of teachers) would attract what consultants (who had minimal knowledge of teaching) saw as the “best people,” Zuckerberg could have recruited the best science educators and innovators to lead the effort.

Since Zuckerberg’s grant was matched, they could potentially have drawn upon hundreds of millions of dollars, so that money would have been no object during the trial and error phase of transforming Newark’s schools.

Or, the other $100 million dollar increment(s) could have been invested by the proven experts in pre-kindergarten who accomplished so much in neighboring Union City, N.J. Or, they could have hired specialists to experiment with new ways of teaching reading for comprehension by third grade, or establishing digital early warning systems to identify and address truancy before it becomes chronic.

Instead, Zuckerberg leaped before he looked, followed the advice of a narrow band of economists with an outsized faith in carrots and sticks. That might have been fine if he was trying to solve an economic problem. Instead, he empowered economic theorists and business consultants to solve an education issue, and he didn’t even seem to ask education experts to vet the non-educators’ hypotheses.

The point is that Zuckerberg had many options. Regardless of the path he chose, he should have stuck to his knitting, and hired experts who would stick to their knitting, and tackle challenges that they were qualified to address.-JT(drjohnthompson) Image via.

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