Bear with me as I walk down memory lane and take a moment to get to my point.
Sometimes a Christmas TV special delivers more wisdom than it intended. Like millions of other parents I watched “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” this past weekend with my kids. They absolutely loved it. My 5-year-old daughter was saddened when the other reindeer teased Rudolph, and touched by Clarice’s affection. My 3-year-old son shouted “SCARY” when the Abominable Snow Monster growled over the mountaintops and swatted at Cornelius. Both keep skipping around the house singing “Silver and Gold.” My kids’ reaction was no different than mine when I first saw the show not long after it debuted in 1964.
What strikes anyone who watches Rudolph today is how basic this stop-motion classic is. The set for the show appears to be made of little more than felt, foil wrappings, beads, and plastic snow. The characters are of course puppets, made of wood, wool, faux fur, and vinyl. If you look real closely you can see the lead wires on the puppets’ hands—and the dirt on Santa’s gloves. This is low-tech.
Rudolph is one of a handful of 60s-era shows that continue to dominate the Christmastime TV lineup. The others—you could name them—include “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” These shows are successful, of course, because they are beautifully crafted interpretations of great stories, either from books or from song. It is the quality of the storytelling that keeps these tales around. They not only don’t suffer from their low-tech-ness, but their simplicity helps us to focus on the story and characters.
Even though the broadcast and cable networks generate oodles of new shows every holiday season that they hope will enter this vaunted lineup, none has made it (though Polar Express appears to be making a good run for it.). Most of these shows are faster-paced than the old stand-byes and, needless to say, far more slick.
My point (yes, I’ve finally gotten there) is that technology is no replacement for quality content. A great story—no matter how simply told—will still shine through. And a poor one—no matter how aided by special effects—will still fail.
One can draw a similar parallel between curriculum and education technology. A curriculum rich in literary, historical, artistic, and scientific knowledge can of course make good use of new technologies, as long as they are smartly used in the service of the content and skills a teacher is trying to teach. Such a curriculum also can work unaided. But a weak, content-free curriculum based on vacant ideas such as “reading strategies” and relying on dry, incoherent basals containing “leveled” excerpts will fail, no matter how actively one tries to animate this dead material on a SmartBoard.