Connections: Brave New World

By Ronald A. Wolk — January 01, 1995 3 min read

Most of us talk about schooling and learning as if they were the same. Unfortunately, they are not. Schooling has always been more about control, socialization, and acquisition of certain specific information than about education. Learning, by contrast, is often unpredictable, spontaneous, and largely self-directed, and it occurs at least as much out of school as in.

The extraordinary technology of the emerging “Information Age” has the capacity to make learning and schooling more synonymous. And there has been remarkable growth of that technology in schools over the past decade. Its promise, however, has been largely unfulfilled. Nor will it be fulfilled so long as our schools adhere to lock-step schedules, rigid curricular structures, and the practice of treating students as passive recipients of information. Many schools still use the new technology mainly for drill and practice, which is like using a tractor-trailer to haul a suitcase.

Computers, CD-ROMs, videos, and virtual reality are potent teaching and learning tools. When used creatively, they can transform an ordinary classroom into a library, laboratory, museum, theater--or even a kind of magic carpet.

Software designer Roger Schank, profiled in the story beginning on page 22, is somewhat of an iconoclast who believes that students will learn best when they are avidly pursuing their own interests. Convinced that information is retained only if discovered in useful contexts, Schank designs computer programs that allow people to learn by doing, by drawing from both their own experiences and those of others, and by failing. Although schools tend to punish failure, Schank believes it is indispensable to learning.

Jan Davidson, the subject of the story beginning on page 28, is a former teacher who started designing her own educational software in the early 1980s because the programs then available were “just horrible.’' Now she owns one of the most successful educational software companies in the nation. And she is trying to make computer programs the “real work’’ of classrooms and not just supplemental to textbooks. “I sense that our schools are preparing kids for a workplace that no longer exists,’' Davidson says. “The majority of our schools are set up to teach kids how to work in an Industrial Age. But the world these kids are going to face is an Information Age.’'

Although Schank and Davidson would probably not agree on what makes a good computer program, they share the conviction that learning should be fun. Schank argues that learning should be about the pursuit of happiness. “Fun is always valuable,’' he says. “If it’s not fun, you won’t learn it.’' And he insists that nobody has a right to tell students what to learn or how to learn it. Davidson says she bases her prize-winning educational programs on the premise that learning should be fun.

The children and teachers at Lincoln (Neb.) High School know well what Schank and Davidson are talking about. Theirs is the only school in the United States piloting a new IBM educational technology project known as EduPort. (See page 14.)

Using a multimedia computer system connected to the University of Nebraska, the teachers and students at this school have instant access to such resources as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, NASA, and various scientific laboratories. At the touch of a button, they can monitor a space satellite, study college-level Chinese, track a hurricane, and watch former presidents deliver speeches. U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who helped persuade IBM to choose Lincoln, sees the technology as a way “to make learning more valuable, more relevant, and more exciting.’'

Clearly, the new technology has the power to make schools real centers of learning, but only if schools change their structure and practice to use it creatively. If they don’t, the new technology may well become an alternative to conventional schooling by giving individuals their own window on the world of knowledge.

Unfortunate as that would be, it is preferable to have learning without schooling than to have schooling without learning.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Connections: Brave New World