What Tomorrow's Classrooms Can Learn from Today
I love watching my parents master new technologies. First it was word processing and e-mail. Then digital photography and cell phones. A computer mouse once baffled my father—now he uses it as naturally as a steering wheel. When my mother began using e-mail, she would send a message, then pick up the phone and call the recipient to make sure it got there. She doesn't do that anymore.
Indeed, my parents are far more sophisticated than I am with some new technologies. That heartens me. Maybe they're proof that analog-era creatures can live happily in a digital world.
What impress me more, though, are the habits of mind they developed before computers. My father loves to tinker with physical things and has an architect's eye for symmetry. My mother devours long, complex novels and writes elegant letters. They're both prone to quiet reflection.
Today's so-called digital children have much to learn from those of us who grew up before computers were so heavily infused into our culture. An increasingly vocal montage of educators, psychologists, scientists, and writers are making that point.
One of them is Alan Warhaftig, a nationally recognized public-school English teacher in Los Angeles, who is also director of Learning in the Real World, a non-profit network of educators seeking balance in the pursuit of educational technology. Warhaftig told me his students used to protest when he played classical symphonies or jazz as background music during some of his classes. The kids wanted the sounds of hip-hop, rap, and alternative rock. But Warhaftig said no. His classroom was his world, a place where the sounds of J.S. Bach and Miles Davis and the words of William Shakespeare and Ralph Ellison are revered.
"My role is not to go and meet the kids in their world and hang out there," says Warhaftig, who teaches at the Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts and is one of a select group of high school English teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. "My role is to drag them into my world."
By pushing and prodding students into his world, Warhaftig believes he will teach them lessons that will last a lifetime. By and large, the lessons the digital child can learn from the analog adult are commonsensical. Unfortunately, these lessons are also easy to lose sight of in our technology-driven culture.
The tortoise learned more than the hare
Faster isn't always better. In The Child and the Machine by Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement, Karl Pribram, an internationally recognized brain researcher, points out that rats learn faster than humans. But the complexity of their learning is limited. Unlike humans, rats are not prone to ponder. Rather, they simply react. "...Some skills need to be developed slowly," Pribram told Armstrong. "[For humans] it is the level of complexity that is important."
Particularly now, in this speeded-up world, educators need to be reminded of that, says William L. Rukeyser, a founder and former director of Learning in the Real World. Rukeyser, who is also a former California state education official, says one of the more dangerous assumptions floating in education circles is that digital-age children process information faster than those of us who grew up before computers.
It's tempting to buy into that assumption if you've watched young kids zoom around the Web or navigate a computer game. They appear to have a natural knack for "mind speed." But Rukeyser and others say there's no definitive research showing that the brains of today's children have somehow evolved to better fit the parameters of a digital world. He cautions educators: "It should not be accepted as a given that [digital age] kids think differently than we do."
Learning to read, for instance, is a methodical, oftentimes agonizing process. It takes years to master the skill, but once mastered, it is one of the best predictors of success in life. I've watched my nine-year-old son develop his reading skills—step by plodding step. There was nothing speedy about it. Now, he's reading well above his grade level; getting him there was mostly a matter of good teaching and good books, which I hope my six- and three-year-old sons will get heavy doses of as well.
Years ago, I was struggling in a college chemistry class. In today's vernacular, I'd be labeled "scientifically challenged." My father, a chemistry professor, advised me to slowly copy over my notes after each lecture. "Slowly" was the operative word, he told me, because it would force me to think about the concepts. I followed his advice and got a B+.
Says Warhaftig: "Learning to read, learning to think—I don't think any of that has changed."
Stay grounded in the real world
When kids are involved, there are certain scientific experiments that are best conducted in the simulated worlds of computers. A nuclear chain reaction comes to mind.
Arthur Eisenkraft, a physics teacher in Bedford, N.Y., who served as president of the National Science Teachers Association last year, says he can think of several other scenarios that work best on computers. What would happen, for instance, if the law of gravity behaved differently?
But, Eisenkraft cautions, spending too much time in simulated worlds is a mistake. "The problem with computer simulations is that they are not real," he says. What's more, "computer simulations can make mistakes. Nature cannot." In other words, nature is what it is. A simulated version of a forest, no matter how well designed, is still fake.
Simulated worlds, Eisenkraft says, do not provide the serendipitous learning experiences that occur in the real world. To study the laws of motion, for instance, students might examine how a block of wood slides down a plane. In a simulated version, the perfectly programmed block slides neatly down. But a real block of wood might roll off the side of the plane. Why? What happened? What laws of physics made it fall? The student must figure out what happened, and that's when learning can take some curious twists and turns.
In Minnesota, "hands-on" learning made national headlines about five years ago. Le Sueur, Minn., biology teacher Cindy Reinitz took her middle school students on a hike to examine a pond. The students found frogs with missing or extra legs and one with a small eye staring out from its throat. The students dissected some of the frogs, conducted water and soil studies, interviewed geneticists at the University of Minnesota, and—in a splendid example of the appropriate use of technology—documented their findings on the Internet for other students to see. Their discovery drew the attention of scientists, who then studied frog deformities in Maine, Minnesota, and Vermont.
"...Computers should enhance, but not replace, essential ‘hands on' laboratory activities," says an NSTA position paper titled "The Use of Computers in Science Education." Adds Eisenkraft: "I would certainly not want to see a pilot trained on a flight simulator flying a plane without real flight experience. Most experiences that can be done in the real world should be done in the real world."
Style should never overshadow substance
To be fair, this adage applied long before PowerPoint presentations and multimedia razzle-dazzle. Years ago, William L. Blundell, a Wall Street Journal editor and author of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, described what he called "well-written failures"—poorly reported stories told in perfectly polished prose. Inevitably, he said, such writing was noticeably uninspiring.
In today's classroom, the problem is more likely to be "well-produced failures"—multimedia presentations that put more effort into glitzy graphics and entertaining video clips than the substance of the topic. "Too often," says Rukeyser, who during his time with Learning in the Real World travelled across the country to convince educators and policymakers to take a more critical look at the use of educational technology, "we tend to reward sizzle rather than steak."
Others agree. "One thing we're seeing a lot of these days is kids are making a zillion PowerPoint presentations," says Margaret Honey, director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York City. "Where is there value added?"
Sometimes, of course, PowerPoint is the perfect tool. Honey says a student or teacher who is doing a presentation on the power of persuasion—particularly in advertising—could use PowerPoint to show how certain colors, sounds, and images convey a message better than others. But, she warns, it's a mistake to use the technology simply because it's a novel way to convey information.
The style-over-substance problem is also evident in students' almost compulsive toying with computer fonts. In The Child and the Machine, the authors Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement point to a research study of eighth-graders. As the students wrote first drafts of papers, screen-recording software kept a record of the computer functions they used. The feature used most frequently was the format, not the edit, function.
Two years ago, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a discouraging report on the quality of students' writing. It found that only about 1 of every 4 students at each grade level tested (four, eight, and twelve) performed at or above the proficient level—only 1 percent of students in all three grades performed at the advanced level. This lackluster performance cannot be blamed on computers, which can have a very positive effect on the quality of students' writing. But one thing is clear: Students need to pay greater attention to what their words say and less to how they look.
Don't heckle the Sage on the Stage
Educators like to rail against the so-called Sage on the Stage—the teacher who knows a subject well and imparts that knowledge through lectures. To be sure, droning on or arrogantly pontificating is a colossal turnoff to kids, especially today's digital children, who have so many alternative ways to soak up knowledge and understanding.
But the ability to present a thoughtful lecture is still a valuable piece of any teacher's repertoire. A good lecture provides a foundation of knowledge for students to build on and helps improve their listening skills. The best literature teacher I ever had stood at a lectern holding an old paperback copy of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. He picked through the nuances and complexities of that novel carefully and slowly. He asked probing questions and demanded thoughtful responses. He was, in other words, a sage on the stage.
Hard-line constructivists—those who believe teachers should be primarily "guides on the side," encouraging students to construct their own knowledge—would probably deride my literature teacher. For them, learning should be student-centered, freed from the authoritarian grasp of teacher/lecturers, oriented toward exploration.
That is an important part of instruction. But Warhaftig laments: "The constructivists have taken over education to a shocking degree." And he is skeptical of their notion that students are clients who can design their own reading lists and surf the Web to understand the complexities of literature, history, science, or mathematics.
"Student-centered learning can often end up reinforcing misinformation or misconceptions," adds Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education. "If you look at the Web, there's so much information out there that is without reference to quality. Students could end up with shared ignorance rather than enhanced wisdom."
Jeanne S. Chall made the same point in The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom. Chall, a professor emeritus of the Harvard School of Education who died two years ago, argued that students learn more in teacher-centered (not student-centered) classrooms. Teachers who use student-centered learning exclusively, she wrote, are doing a particular disservice to children who are struggling in school.
Ideally, educators need to strike a balance between the two approaches, says Honey: "There's never just one effective way to teach. Sometimes, it makes sense to do an overview lecture; sometimes it makes sense to break into groups. Teachers who lecture all the time are just as problematic as teachers who throw kids into groups all the time."
Linear thinking works
A year ago, I tutored a community college student in writing. I was impressed by his ability to surf for information, hypertexting from here to there and virtually everywhere. If there was pertinent information on the Internet for a topic he was writing about, he could find it.
What he couldn't do was synthesize that information and attend to the task of writing a well-structured, cogent paper. He seemed lost. Whenever he got frustrated, he'd return to the Web, searching for more information, distracting himself from the real task.
It is students like this young man who worry Jane Healy, an educational psychologist and author of Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds and What We Can Do about It. In today's digital world, Healy says, learning how to use hypertext (nonlinear thinking) to navigate through mountains of information is a necessary thinking skill. Yet so is reading a book from cover to cover, listening to a teacher read a story aloud, writing well-organized research papers, designing coherent oral presentations, or mastering multiplication tables.
Linear thinking, Healy argues, develops the mental discipline necessary to stick to a task even if you're not thrilled about it. "It's a terrible mistake to give that up," she warns. "Both types of thinking (linear and nonlinear) are important."
Plus, assuming everyone is naturally a nonlinear thinker is a mistake, says Gary Bloom, a former superintendent who is associate director of the New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Some students, he points out, perform best in structured environments where they can focus on one task at a time. Others can thrive while doing multiple tasks in highly distracting environments. For example, Bloom says, one child might feel perfectly comfortable doing homework with music blaring or the television turned on. Another might need to be blanketed by silence to concentrate.
But Bloom suggests even the "multi-taskers" need to learn how to slow down, pause, reflect, and focus on one task at a time. "What will we lose if the next generation doesn't have the patience or skills to read a novel?" he asks. "I'm convinced we lose something."
Learning isn't always fun
Rarely a week goes by without our office receiving some new piece of software promising to make classroom learning "fun." My nine-year-old loves activities that are fun. That's why he plays his Game Boy whenever we let him.
But learning isn't always fun. Often, it's difficult. In the end, it's our ability to overcome the difficulties and frustrations that make learning meaningful and satisfying.
When educators talk about a student's "zone of proximal development," says Bloom, they're talking about an area of personal discomfort where a learner isn't fully competent. That's the experiential zone, he says, where it becomes increasingly difficult to make learning fun. Yet that is also when students learn the most.
Good technology used wisely can help students enter that zone. A few years ago, I saw that in practice at a 3-D animation lab at South Burlington High School in South Burlington, Vt. One of the students developed a mathematical formula to show how a spider walks. Before he could develop the program, he had to master difficult calculus concepts such as vectors and cross products. After some frustrating twists and turns, he created a twenty-five-line mathematical formula that programmed the virtual spider. It wasn't easy, and sometimes it wasn't "fun." But it was absorbing, and it was serious learning.
And it was enormously rewarding.
Human contact matters
Warhaftig told me about the "silent moments" that often occur in his literature classes after he asks a question or makes a point. That's when he pauses to read kids' faces. Do they look confused? Are they shaking their heads in disagreement? Do they try to avoid making eye contact? Then he knows whether he has to try a different approach. But if he were teaching a cyber class and all the students were at remote sites responding by e-mail to his questions or comments, he wouldn't be able to read their faces, and that, he says, would be a shame.
Says Bloom: "Digital advocates are deceiving themselves if they think they can replace flesh and blood interactions between students and teachers [with technology]."
One of the most ridiculous technological affronts to the importance of human contact is the so-called brain-building software for infants currently on the market, says Healy. "It's nonsense," she says. "Frankly, it shows how clueless the American public is about what young children really need."
But it's not just infants who need regular human contact to develop into happy, productive adults. Older children need it too, says Healy: "The ability to get along with other people...to work with groups of people...the personal skill of self control.... Those are far more important skills than how we acquire information. [Yet] those are all in danger of erosion if we use computers the wrong way."
Honey says the school districts where computers are used most wisely are both "technology rich and print rich." That makes sense to someone like me—someone who fits somewhere between a cyber skeptic and a technology evangelist. It's a perfect blend of the new and the old. A place where learning would be as natural for my parents as it would be for my nine-year-old son.
Kevin Bushweller, the former senior technology editor of Electronic School, is an assistant managing editor at Education Week. This article is reprinted from Electronic School, September 2000, (www.asbj.com) with permission from the National School Boards Association, all rights reserved.