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  • November 12, 1997                                                   1997.1
    # This article has been forwarded as a service of NETFUTURE.  You may    #
    # freely redistribute it, with this message attached, for noncommercial  #
    # purposes.  http://www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture/                   #
    I seem to have settled into an every-other-week schedule with the NETFUTURE newsletter. With today's posting I begin the occasional circulation of items separate from the newsletter. (I'll welcome your pointers to material that might be of interest to the readership.) These additional postings will normally occur during "off" weeks, and the frequency of all postings from NETFUTURE should still never be greater than one per week. It may be considerably less.

    This first posting is an edited compilation of material drawn mostly from NETFUTURE and dealing with technology and education. The idea was to pull together some responses to the most common arguments for wiring primary and secondary classrooms. I wanted to do it in aphoristic form, and in a single document that readers could give to their local teachers and school board members, or share with other mailing lists. (The current document has already found some good use in this regard.)

    I may well update these notes regularly, responding to new issues as they are raised, so please let me hear any critisms you have.


    Steve Talbott


    A Little History

    Back in the late Seventies and early Eighties, computer-aided instruction (CAI) was going to revolutionize education. Then CAI lost its glitter and computer literacy was the rage -- students would learn to program in BASIC, and then become engineers and scientists. Today, you don't hear much about programming in BASIC (or any other language). Now we're convinced we have to let our kids mine the informational riches of the Net if they're not to fall hopelessly behind.

    Do we have a much clearer idea about why the Net is so essential to the child's education than we once did about why computer literacy or CAI was the critical thing? And are we so knowledgeable about this that we can confidently say, with full understanding of the trade-offs, "It's obviously better to invest billions of dollars in wiring our schools than to use these billions to improve teacher salaries, lower the teacher/student ratio, or add more highly trained staff"?

    Computers are not the first technology to promise an educational revolution. Here's what the New York Times wrote in 1923 about radio:

    The Hertzian waves will carry education as they do music to the backwoods, isolated farms and into the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. The limitations of "the little red schoolhouse" will pass away; the country schoolteacher will be reinforced by college professors and other specialists. Radio will be an institution of learning as well as a medium for entertainment and communication.
    Of course, when that promise soured, there was no need to be pessimistic; attention was already focused on the next, glittering opportunity -- television:
    While children may be bored and restless when merely listening to a speaker [on radio] without seeing him, living talent or motion pictures broadcast at a certain time to all schools in a given area will capture and hold their interest. The fascination of television for children has already been demonstrated in the homes of those now possessing television receivers in the New York area. (Sarnoff, 1941)
    Today, we've all heard the new mantra countless times:
    You can't expect a passive medium like television to contribute much to the education of viewers. But with the advent of interactive computer networks, education will be revolutionized. The child's imagination will finally be set free to roam the world, guided by his own interests.
    And we already hear rumors of the next round:
    Why should students be interested in flat-screen interaction with a two-dimensional world? But with full-immersion virtual reality we can present the child with infinitely rich learning environments. He lives in the world he is learning about, and even helps to create it.
    The problem in all of this is not hard to grasp. The proponents of these new technologies have taken their eyes off the educational ball. They have not first identified an educational problem and then gone out and determined that, yes, computers do indeed look like the best of all possible solutions to this problem. Instead, bedazzled by the technology, they simply assume its necessity and try to figure out how it should be used. Absolutely convinced that they have an answer, they set about looking for the question -- upon which they are convinced their children's future must hang. Unfortunately, they never seem quite able to locate the question, which is forever shifting.

    Every proposal to bring computers into the classroom ought to be preceded by a clear statement of the educational problem to which the computers are expected to be the solution, along with an explanation of the solution. This is not too much to ask of an institution devoted to the cultivation of human understanding.


    There are good reasons for having computers in (some) classrooms, and there are lousy ones. It just so happens that the reasons driving the current frenzy to wire our schools are almost uniformly lousy ones. They include the following:

    *** "We Need Computers Because They Give Students Access to So Much Information."

    But the availability of information is not the educational bottleneck. It has not been for several decades, if it ever was. Our challenge, given the infinitesimal fraction of available information we can actually use in the classroom, is how to make it the occasion for a profound learning experience.

    As Neil Postman has remarked, "If a nuclear holocaust should occur some place in the world, it will not happen because of insufficient information; if children are starving in Somalia, it's not because of insufficient information; if crime terrorizes our cities, marriages are breaking up, mental disorders are increasing, and children are being abused, none of this happens because of a lack of information."

    In fact, Postman tells us, information is more like garbage than anything else. It assaults us from all sides, and needs to be cleared out if we're to blaze a path that the child can follow.

    When we think about the teachers who most decisively influenced us, what we remember above all is the teachers themselves, not some striking piece of information they conveyed. We saw in them what it meant to be a human being facing certain aspects of the world. That is a path a child can follow.

    The informational content of our learning is almost never as important as the intensity and qualitative vividness with which we work over this content as we bring it to life within us, or as the degree to which we exercise and extend our capacities in doing so. How do we gain this intensity and vividness? Most of all with the aid of a teacher or mentor who brings those qualities to our shared experiences.

    Louise Chawla at Kentucky State University has reviewed the published research about the influences that make people choose careers as environmentalists, naturalists, ecologists, and the like -- careers suggesting a concern for the natural world. Not surprisingly, two of the influences consistently showing up at the top of the list are (1) wild places directly experienced (usually at a young age); and (2) adult mentors (Chawla, forthcoming).

    *** "We Have To Prepare Our Kids for the Jobs of the Future."

    This argument is fatally off-target. The software that kids use today will not be the software they use five, ten, or fifteen years from now on the job. The World Wide Web, for which huge numbers of people are programming and creating content today, did not even exist four years ago. And, by all accounts, the pace of technical change is increasing rather than slowing down.

    The critical thing is to prepare centered, reflective, deeply grounded students who will, as adults, prove able to cope with the change. Students who have not come to know themselves and their own powers of understanding before they are exposed to the dizzying, adult world of technology and commerce will be the ones least likely to adapt in the end.

    Messrs. Clinton and Gore -- supported by high-tech corporations and far too many educators -- drill into us that we must train children to carry out twenty-first-century jobs. But that does not nearly raise the mark high enough. Our real task is to raise mature individuals who will be able to decide what sorts of jobs are worth creating and having in the twenty-first century. Adapting kids to existing technology is not the first priority; the first priority is to enable them to stand above all technology, as its masters rather than its tools.

    Ironically, the kids today are typically far ahead of their teachers in their adaptation. As many teachers today cast around frantically to figure out what they're supposed to do with the high-tech toys being pushed at them, the kids are often the ones who end up showing them how to use the stuff.

    A single semester's course for eighth graders could easily teach basic typing, word-processing, spreadsheet, and web-search skills, preparatory for any high-school requirements in this regard.

    *** "We Have To Help Our Kids Become Global Citizens."

    If you want to find out whether a child will become a good world citizen, don't look at a file of her email correspondence. Just observe her behavior on the playground for a few minutes -- assuming she spends her class breaks on the playground, and not at her terminal playing video games.

    Contrary to the prevailing, romantic picture, the Net invites yet further de-emphasis of the single, most important learning community (consisting of people who are fully present) in favor of a continuing retreat into communal abstractions -- in particular, retreat into a community of others whose odor, unpleasant habits, physical and spiritual needs, and even challenging ideas, a student doesn't have to reckon with in quite the same way her neighbor demands.

    A technology educator once remarked to me that he's seen students who spend time corresponding with pen pals in Kuala Lumpur never bothering to say a word to the Asian students standing at the lockers right next to them.

    As to the multicultural benefits of online exposure, certain basic truths have yet to make their appearance in the public discussion. Lowell Monke taught for several years at a private, international school in Quito, Ecuador -- a school that now has Internet access. These kids, he points out, "raised in a society influenced by cable TV and vacations in Miami," are hardly in a position to educate American children about a native culture that predates the Incas. Go twenty miles outside the city, however, and you will find that those who live in the thatched-roof huts don't even have power outlets, let alone Internet access.

    The global network of techno-haves reinforces the participants' impression that they live in a homogeneous thought-world, leading 'Net gurus to extol the virtue of the 'Net as a means for discovering commonalities among "all" people of the world. The irony is, of course, that the similarities being discovered are those that high technology itself has spread. (Monke, 1997)
    Perhaps the most convincing reason for use of the Net has to do with learning a foreign language. But even here it's useful to see how distorted the rhetoric about computers has become. It is, of course, perfectly reasonable for the more advanced language student to look for opportunities to correspond with language natives. Setting aside the likelihood that there are native speakers in the local community, this opportunity has long been available -- and occasionally taken advantage of -- courtesy of the postal system. And without massive capital outlay. Students who send and receive one email message per day can just as easily send and receive one letter per day.

    The fact that email has suddenly given new life to the penpal idea is certainly owing to the computer's (temporary) glamor. Is glamor the substance of the new educational paradigm?

    *** "CD-ROMs Bring the World to the Student's Desktop."

    It is true that CD-ROMs, like television nature programs, carry images and sounds that would otherwise remain unavailable to students. But to leave the matter there is, again, to ignore what is essential to education. Listen to this true story:

    Yesterday my eleven-year old son and I were hiking in a remote wood. He was leading. He spotted [a] four-foot rattlesnake in the trail about six feet in front of us. We watched it for quite some time before going around it. When we were on the way home, he commented that this was the best day of his life. He was justifiably proud of the fact that he had been paying attention and had thus averted an accident, and that he had been able to observe this powerful, beautiful, and sinister snake.
    Barry Angell, the father, then asked exactly the right question: "I wonder how many armchair nature-watchers have seen these dangerous snakes on the tube and said `this is the best day of my life.'" And he concluded: "Better one rattlesnake in the trail than a whole menagerie of gorillas, lions, and elephants on the screen" (Talbott, 1995: 160).

    The point is not that children have to encounter rattlesnakes or other exotic and dangerous animals. The essential question, rather, has to do with how children forge an inner connection to whatever experience of the world they are having. The dramatic footage on the screen distances the child from the subject matter, which is why this footage is not often the cause of memorable days. And to the extent the child is affected by it -- most likely to happen in the case of jolting special effects -- the result is more like something that is done to the child than something he gains from his own capacity to connect to the world.

    Imagine that the boy's father had begun tormenting the snake, and that together they had thrown rocks at it, finally leaving it killed or injured. We can be quite sure that the boy would not have celebrated the best day of his life. In fact, assuming that all natural feeling had not yet been deadened within him, we can guess that he would have felt distinctly out of sorts by the end of the day.

    But that, of course, is not what happened. The father clearly felt wonder at the snake's presence, admiration for its beauty, grace, and power, and a receptive curiosity about its nature. Without this context, the boy's experience could not have been what it was. What counted was not only that he met a snake on the trail, but that he found something of the snake's meaning in his father's responses. The boy learned about the snake by seeing its image, not upon a screen, but reflected in a living teacher.

    There's a very simple, and intuitively obvious rule: where we fail to impart a a love for the bits of nature to which kids are immediately exposed -- in lawn, garden, park, and street -- we will not make up for the deficit by subjecting them to more distant, more mediated experiences, however exotic. The quest for powerful sensations can only have the opposite effect, blinding children to the "routine" wonders of their own experience:

    As an environmental educator leading field walks for many years, I found I often had to wrestle with the fact that kids (and adults) who had been raised on lots of [nature] programming expected the same sort of visual extravaganza to unfold before their eyes; they expected a host of colorful species to appear and "perform" for them. (Kevin Dann, quoted in Talbott, 1995, p. 161)

    Why the Computer Belongs in Education -- and When

    As a society we suffer, paradoxically, not only from a certain giddiness and euphoria about the dramatic changes brought by technology, but also from a kind of technophobia. For all the eagerness to bring the computer into our classrooms, we seem unwilling to have our students confront the computer.

    Encouraging students simply to consume the offerings of the computer and the Net (and of corporate sponsors) is the truly timid approach -- rather like uncritically turning the classroom over to television. The computer, after all, is not a less tendentious form of technology than television; by its very nature as a logic machine, it is capable of embodying more tendencies, biases, assumptions, cultural imperatives, and hidden agendas than any other technology ever developed.

    When children are asked to employ complex technologies as "black boxes," they almost certainly defer to those technologies in inappropriate ways. They fail to understand their experiences, and abdicate their own responsibilities.

    The need, then, is to demystify the computer for children, enabling them to understand the nature and limitations of this remarkable machine. How did it arise historically? Who were the inventors, and what was driving them? What sorts of problems are suitable for the computer's algorithmic, or recipe-like, functioning? What problems do not lend themselves to this functioning? How does the computer's intelligence differ from human intelligence?

    John Morris, a computer engineer and educator, has put together an instructional block for eighth or ninth graders in which just such inquiry is undertaken. In addition, students resort to the laboratory, where they undertake work giving them a basic understanding of the technologies supporting the modern computer -- magnetics for memory and disk drives, primitive relay-based calculators, and so on. Then they visit Boston's Computer Museum, where they can see some of the machines they've been learning about. They also see how computers assist us in various jobs -- weather prediction, air traffic control, automated directory assistance, reading for the blind. Finally, back at school, the students pull apart a personal computer -- dismantling its disk drive as well -- to see how the machine is constructed.

    Understanding the technology and simply using it are two different things. One can play video games for years while having almost no understanding of the underlying technology. During the high-school years students should begin to gain an understanding. Use -- and, far more important, appropriate use -- will naturally follow from the understanding.

    How much of the pressure from parents and teachers to "bring the schools up to date with computers" is the result of their own insecurities, projections, and hopes in the presence of a technology that has never been demystified for them?

    Morris reports this classroom incident:

    While I was teaching this year, the famous chess tournament between Kasparov and Big Blue was held. I brought to the classroom a magazine that offered the banner, "The Brain's Last Stand: Kasparov versus Big Blue." "That's silly," said one student. "It's not a man versus a machine; it's a man versus the people who programmed the machine!" One could not ask for a greater insight into this media- and industry-hyped event. The students will understand that the theory behind the machine and its construction, though challenging, is knowable. They will look upon computers differently. Yes, the computer will still be seductive and alluring. Computer games appeal to their innocence and curiosity. But the machines will look a bit more like a tool and an invention, whose sole purpose is controlled by the user, not the other way around. (Talbott, 1997)
    It is worth adding that much of this desirable, high-school education about computers can take place without there being any computers in the classroom. For example, the algorithmic nature of the computer's functioning can be taught using such things as kitchen recipes. And the students can learn about the basic operations of the computer's CPU, buses, memory, and so on, by acting them out -- one of the more effective ways of imparting a real understanding.

    Educators Must Grapple with Technology

    One can easily imagine the first users of the automobile thinking, "What a wonderful tool for strengthening our communities! It's so easy to hop in the car and drive across town to visit with friends or people in need!"

    Yes, the opportunity was there. But the nature of the car, interacting with our own natures, had, by most accounts, a rather different overall effect upon our communities. Urban sprawl, ghettos walled off by freeway ramps, malls, the "escapist" mindset of car-owners, air and noise pollution, long commutes .... The positive potentials remain even now, but it is foolish to celebrate them without heeding the full text of the bargain we have struck with the technology.

    Or consider television. One could have said -- many did say -- that now we would bring politics into the intimacy of every living room, and there would be a renaissance of democracy in America. Yet the actual fact, as most would acknowledge, has been quite different: the immediacy of the screen somehow translates into a greater distance. The political process becomes more remote, more artificial and scripted, less sincere. It "goes cosmetic." The involvement of those who watch in front of the screen is less intense, not more so.

    Do we understand why it happened this way? And if we do, have we learned how to prevent the same problems from infecting those other screens we are now importing wholesale into our classrooms?

    One thing is sure: no school that does not look into these issues with all the wisdom it can muster, and does not become passionate about them, can possibly resist the parental, professional, and political pressures to wire the classroom. Only a school with a sense of mission and a willingness to undertake a difficult conversation with its community has any hope of steering a purposeful course through the hype, the industry propaganda, and the public's near-religious view of technology.

    The tragedy is that so many schools are rushing ahead with a fundamental transformation of their classrooms without any considered sense of mission, but only with a vague feeling of necessity or compulsion. Our children, some years from now, will doubtless let us know the results of our willingness to make of their lives a grand experiment -- an experiment founded upon our own reluctance to confront technology and put it in its rightful place.


    Chawla L. (forthcoming). "Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity." Journal of Environmental Education.

    Monke, Lowell (1997). "Letter from Des Moines," in NETFUTURE, http://www.ora.com/people/staff/stevet/netfuture/1997/May2297_49.html.

    Sarnoff, David (1941). Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, January, 1941.

    Talbott, Stephen L. (1995). The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol, Calif.: O'Reilly & Associates.

    Talbott, Steve (1997). "Helping Students Understand Computers: John Morris's Innovations at a Waldorf School," in NETFUTURE, http://www.ora.com/people/staff/stevet/netfuture/1997/Jul3097_54.html.

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