Obstacles to a Technological Revolution

By John Merrow

Our society uses the computer as its central tool for communicating and creating knowledge. Public schools do not. Most public schools misuse computers, and some cannot use them at all. Three significant obstacles stand in the way of the technological revolution schools desperately need: inappropriate teaching methods, stereotyping of students, and obsolete facilities.

"We have to teach children about computers. After all, computers are the future." The teacher's voice trembled slightly, and for a minute I was afraid she was going to cry. We were sitting in her fifth-grade classroom in an elementary school in Queens, finishing an interview for a PBS documentary on technology. Her emotion notwithstanding, her comments were misguided in two important ways.

First, I doubt if she has to teach her students about computers; in all likelihood they already know more about modern technology than she does. That "bank deposit" approach to teaching (teacher as 'depositer' of knowledge into students) may have been appropriate years ago, but it is certainly obsolete today particularly where technology is concerned.

She was upset because her class's ambitious project, a multi-media yearbook, was stalled in mid-stream, because the itinerant instructor who had been visiting her school regularly had been laid off. The teacher felt abandoned. "I know there's lots of information, like the folk songs the children recorded at home, in this computer, but I don't know how to get it. And now I'll never learn."

Sadly, it had not occurred to her to ask her students, because that's not the way she had been taught to teach. But teachers won't survive, and school will become increasingly irrelevant, if teachers don't change their style of teaching.

Her second statement, 'Computers are the future' is also incorrect. Computers are the present, and that's a fact. The high-tech, information age parade is well under way. We're living in the digital age now can you even remember when you had to wait in line at the bank to get some cash? Everywhere we go today. . . offices, shops, hotels, the supermarket, the drycleaner and banks, technology is there.

Schools haven't joined the parade. For years they've used computers as a management tool, largely ignoring its remarkable capacity for creating knowledge and stimulating learning.

Most teachers like that fifth-grade teacher do not know the world of computers, because from the very beginning, schools have kept computers in the administrators' offices and in special "laboratories." That unfortunate policy has kept teachers away from technology, keeping them technologically illiterate.

Even today, schools provide little in the way of help for teachers who are unfamiliar with computers. Fewer than half of the schools in this country report having a basic computer class available for teachers, but formal training isn't essential if teachers see themselves as learners. Jill Livoti had had almost no exposure to computers when she was hired to teach at a middle school in Columbia, South Carolina, last year. Her principal told her, "relax; let the kids show you." She describes what happened. "When we started on our first computer project, I said, 'I'm not all that familiar with this, so if you have some ideas please come to me and we will work something out.'"

And her students, how have they reacted? "They love the fact that I don't know too much about it, because they love to teach me, and it's fun for me because they really are good teachers. Some kids aren't as strong on the computer as others, and it helps those kids to see that I'm learning too. It's not as intimidating for them."

Livoti is comfortable with the idea of teacher-as-learner. "I think it's important for children to know that a teacher doesn't know everything," she says. With technology changing and knowledge expanding, teachers have to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing. What's sinful is not seeking to know, or not caring.

A second obstacle that must be overcome is the persistent stereotyping of children that has led to very different uses of technology for poor and well-to-do children.

Basically, schools use technology to control poor kids. Many schools in poor neighborhoods have computer laboratories equipped with drill-and practice tutorial programs called Integrated Learning Systems. Students sit in front of these computers and follow the programmed routine, typing in answers to problems like "12+4-2=?" Critics call this the "drill and kill" approach, and it would be hard to find a student who would disagree. In contrast, in many suburban schools, students are likely to be able to manipulate computers, databases, spreadsheets, and drawing programs_which allow them to create. They are able to express themselves and their thoughts, and then share that information with each other.

In other words, middle class kids are using technology in ways that will make them controllers of their lives, while poor children are being denied that power. Practices like these serve to divide our society. They also contradict our American myth of public education as the great equalizer, the road to advancement.

Outsiders often assume that lack of money is a major obstacle to a technological revolution in schools, but that is not correct. Last year schools spent $2.4 billion on technology computers, laser discs, CD-ROM drives and the like. Advance planning must not be our educators' strong suit, because all too often someone discovers that they can't run their new equipment without blowing a fuse or burning down the building.

Sad to say, school buildings themselves are a major obstacle: 31 percent of our public schools were built before World War II. Another 43 percent went up almost overnight during the baby boom of the '50s and '60s. These are yesterday's buildings, but they're trying to run today's technology.

When the two worlds meet, bad things can happen. Clark High School in New Orleans caught fire and burned last April when the demand for power to run the new computers caused a short circuit. In New Orleans, which has 124 public schools, the average school is 55 years old, and their basic wiring inside can't satisfy technology's thirst for electricity. In fact, only 10 of that city's public schools are properly wired for, and equipped with, today's technology.

Recent federal legislation will provide money for facilities repair and upgrading, but the amount set aside, $100 million, is woefully short of what's needed billions, not millions.

In the past, schools have resisted technology successfully, but that's no longer possible. Our children swim in a sea of technology outside of school. If schools resist technology and its opportunities, young people will simply turn off. That means more discipline problems, a higher dropout rate, and greater waste of human potential. In other words, schools must adapt, or they will die a lingering death.

"Adapt or die" may seem harsh, but it's not the grimmest prospect. Today's technology is truly democratic: the computer doesn't know whether the person sitting at the keyboard is rich or poor, male or female, black, brown or white . . . only how competent that individual is. If your schools don't give all young people a fair chance to become competent, then the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" will grow wider. That prospect should frighten us all. . . and persuade us to help teachers and schools transform themselves.


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