Teachers and Mad Men

You probably have heard this. You take five professionals from 1960 and bring them to 2009. There is a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a scientist and a teacher. Which one would have the least difficulty in doing her job after this 49 year gap? Most people answer: the teacher. She can still get up in front of the class with a textbook and talk and ask questions and lead a discussion.

I heard this story presented at several conferences as a way of pointing out that teaching has not kept up with technology. The other professionals would be faced with new methods and tools and be a bit lost. One version I heard actually had those pros time travel 100 years - and the teacher from 1909 was still okay in front of the classroom.

I'm not sure it's a fair comparison, but I get the idea behind it and I pretty much agree with it. But, after 30+ years in classrooms, I'm having mixed feelings about educational technology.

I thought about this as I was watching yet another promo for the TV program Mad Men. This period dramatic television series broadcast on the American cable network AMC started its third season in August. It is set in New York City at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in 1960. The main character is Don Draper, the agency's creative director, and his life in and out of the office.

Mad Men gets great reviews for its depiction of the changing social mores of 1960s America, and its historical authenticity and visual style. I have watched three episodes, but I just can't get interested in the story.

In a recent episode, Don and his wife Betty visited their daughter's school for a conference about their daughter’s recent bad behavior. The teacher thinks it may be connected to the recent death of her grandfather.

Sally's teacher, Miss Farrell, was first introduced on the show dancing around a maypole with her students. The character is named Suzanne Farrell, after one of the most famous American ballerinas of the 1960s,'70s, and '80s.

Betty excuses herself from the meeting for a few minutes and Don and the teacher quickly connect. Miss F. even drops by the house one evening. It looks like another affair for Don.

I don't really recognize this view of a teacher from 1960. I do recognize her classroom devoid of technology, and it actually looks like a pretty nice place to teach.

It looks safe. JFK is still alive and so is Camelot. Teachers have all the answers. Parents trust that teachers will do a good job and know what needs to be done in the classroom. Teacher evaluations are one page long. Teachers request conferences with parents more often than parents request conferences with teachers. Some kids are a bit out of control in class, but no one is ADD, and no one takes medication so that they can do their work.

So, how fair is that charge that teachers and classrooms have not significantly changed over the decades? I checked out ISTE’s TimeGlider which covers 30 years in a timeline of tech advancements. How far have we come? Even though there are many new tech tools, devices and services, most are not in common use in classrooms. In some instances, it's not because of teachers, but because of school administrations. And the use of tech in K-12 versus higher education is very different - not better or worse - different.

I have always believed that if you have a really good teacher, you can put her in a classroom full of kids without any books, supplies or technology and have great lessons and real learning. Given a choice: a classroom with great technology or a classroom with a great teacher - which one would you pick? Yes, I know that you want the great teacher with great technology. I agree. So do the students and their parents.


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