[EAS]Flickering Minds

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Mon Nov 3 03:35:06 EST 2003

Subject:   Flickering Minds

Dear Colleagues -

This, from the last issue of Steve Talbot's excellent NETFUTURE
newsletter <http://www.netfuture.org/index.html>, sounds like a very
important book about computers in secondary education, with, no
doubt, implications for college level applications as well. 

The rest of the issue is also excellent as usual.  --PJK

from NETFUTURE #151 <http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Oct3003_151.html>

                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

A New Assessment of Computers in the Classroom

A substantial book, just released, may help to alter the tenor of
the public discussion about computers in the classroom.  It's called
*Flickering Minds: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom
and How Learning Can Be Saved*.  Written by National Magazine Award
winner, Todd Oppenheimer, the book is sober, well-researched,
thorough, and marked by as much undeniable good sense as you are
likely to find in any book about education today.

I hope to have more to say about the book in the future.  Meanwhile,
here are some of Oppenheimer's conclusions:

** Computer technology will not go away.  The challenge for schools
is to reject fads and use the tools sensibly.  Generalizing: 
"technology is used too intensely in the younger grades and not
intensely enough -- in the proper areas -- in the upper grades". 
The failure in the upper grades is that students are given no deep
understanding of the technology, but instead are allowed to occupy
themselves with the "hot programs of the moment".

** The computer fad has temporarily blinded us to a central truth
that has been evident for thousands of years:  the crucial process
in education is not a technological one but a human one.  In the
words of the *Forbes* editor, Stephen Kindel, "the best schools will
eventually recognize a fact that's been apparent since Plato sat on
Socrates' knee:  Education depends on the intimate contact between a
good teacher -- part performer, part dictator, part cajoler -- and
an inquiring student".  In the end, Kindel added, "it is the poor
who will be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers".

** "The computer industry [Oppenheimer writes] has managed to
survive on such a plethora of hype, habituating all of us to accept
such a string of unfulfilled promises that we've long since lost the
ability to see what new inventions really can and cannot do. 
Schools as a result have become industry's research-and-development
labs as well as its dumping ground -- while asking very little in

** We are self-deluded if we delight in how computers enable
students to "take over" their own education.  "The students aren't
taking over in most of these classrooms.  The computer is".  It's
hard for some observers to recognize that "downloading a captivating
live software applet from a NASA site, which some web designer has
loaded with a few earnest questions to satisfy somebody's grant
requirements, does not a satisfactory lesson make.  Nor does simply
writing a paper about this material, based on some extra Internet
'research'".  As Ken Komoski, the director of an
educational-products watchdog group puts it, when a boy turns in a
paper today, "how would you know if he knows *anything* until you

** One study after another has shown that "whenever tutoring is
matched against some competing pedagogy, including technology,
tutoring wins handily".  In one "gold-standard" study, tutored
students were found to outdistance 98 percent of those taught in
conventional group instruction.

** "With only a few exceptions, computer technology has become one
more feature on an already crowded landscape of high-stimulus
consumer items -- TV, video games, pop music, action films,
high-caffeine coffee shops on every urban corner, the list goes on
and on.  The primary function of that topography is to keep people
buying; a side effect is that it keeps people perpetually hyped up
and distracted from activities that might be more soothing and
reflective.  We have become, in a sense, a society of masochists. 
We bemoan youngsters' turning to violence while pouring millions
into making suffering human beings the stuff of their entertainment.
 We criticize them for their poor self-discipline and short
attention spans; then our commercial enterprises do everything
possible to crowd and fragment their minds still further".

** For all the publicity value of the slogan, "leave no child
behind", the policies associated with the slogan oddly ignore the
libraries of insight now available to educators about what makes
children excel.  "One would think that the nation's policy makers,
armed with this information, could come up with something better
than a lengthier sheet of multiple-choice questions, millions of new
test essays, and a corps of evaluators who don't have the skill, or
the time, to do their job".  Or, I would add, the necessary
familiarity with the individual student.

** Finally, our most inspiring moments in school almost always turn
out to have revolved around great teachers -- a fact educators have
recognized since the beginning of formal education -- "yet in some
bizarre act of cultural sadomasochism, we continually pretend it
isn't true.  We let teachers twist in the breeze seemingly forever. 
For decades, we have taken people whom we hold responsible for the
intellectual and moral development of our children, put them in
chaotic, overcrowded institutions, robbed them of creative freedom
and new opportunities for their own learning, imposed an
ever-changing stream of rules and performance requirements that
leave them exhausted and hopeless, and paid them about $40,000 a
year for their trouble -- far less, proportionately speaking, than
teachers earn in most other industrialized societies".

Related articles:

See the articles listed under the "Education and computers" heading
in the NetFuture topical index:




                          ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

NetFuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology
and human responsibility, is published by The Nature Institute, 169
Route 21C, Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116; web:
http://www.natureinstitute.org). Postings occur roughly every three
or four weeks.  The editor is Steve Talbott, author of *The Future
Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst*

Copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute.

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