Reviews: Vision Quests

April 01, 2002 6 min read
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THE CONNECTED SCHOOL: Technology and Learning in High School,by Barbara Means, William R. Penuel, and Christine Padilla. (Jossey-Bass, 272 pages, $27.) Several years ago, three researchers at SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning in Menlo Park, California, set out to discover what it takes for urban high schools to effectively incorporate technology into the curriculum. The answer, as they tell it in this engaging book, is a discouraging “everything and more.” Indeed, school administrators reading this volume may come to see computers and other new technologies as something akin to a pricey new boat—that proverbial hole in the water into which the unfortunate owner pours great sums of money. This sense of foreboding is rather ironic given that the authors are boosters of educational technology and its potential to improve teaching and learning.

Of the six urban schools they write about, all but one have made a strong commitment, both financially and philosophically, to technology. Several have spanking-new computer labs, and all have teachers who try to integrate the technology into project-based instruction. At one Chicago school—the six are divided between Chicago and Detroit—a math teacher has his students use computers to analyze weather data and heating costs to determine the best week for winter break. After downloading information and creating spreadsheets and graphs, they give a PowerPoint presentation to the entire community. At the other schools, students use Adobe Photoshop to create wilderness art, a computer program called Family Tree Maker to study genealogy, and another called BGuILE to examine evolutionary patterns. More routinely, students go online to conduct research.

These projects sound interesting enough, but the only real evidence of their educational efficacy is anecdotal. “Anytime you’ve got a toy,"one teacher tells the authors, “you’ve got the student hooked.” The problem, of course, is the daunting costs associated with all this technology. One school—described as perhaps the most technologically sophisticated in the study—needs to come up with some $500,000 just to upgrade its electrical system. And most can’t provide the technical support needed to keep their expensive systems running smoothly. One Detroit principal complains about having to wait more than three months to get a new server working, a situation the authors describe as “not atypical.”

Attempting to compensate for fiscal shortages, the schools feverishly apply for technology grants. Although corporations like to provide startup assistance, their support often vanishes after a year or two, forcing administrators to continually seek new benefactors. Meanwhile, students and teachers encounter nagging problems—system crashes, frozen screens, and the like—which only a couple of already overburdened faculty trouble-shooters know how to fix. Indeed, many teachers are in desperate need of computer-oriented professional development, but there is little available, and a shortage of substitutes makes it unlikely that they will get release time in any case.

The authors go to considerable lengths to demonstrate that even the most technologically advanced of these urban schools are still way behind their suburban counterparts, which tend to have a gleaming abundance of the latest devices and software. They also point out that the one school in their study that has been reluctant to invest in technology, Renaissance High in Detroit, also has the best academic track record, turning out some of the nation’s most successful minority graduates. Corporate visitors to the school, along with a number of Renaissance parents, wonder why it should consider allocating critical resources to technology when the students are doing so well without it. It’s the same questions readers are likely to ask themselves as they come to the end of this book.

CHILDREN WHO SEE TOO MUCH: Lessons From the Child Witness to Violence Project,by Betsy McAlister Groves. (Beacon Press, 224 pages, $25.) In 1990, children from a day-care center where the author was employed watched from a van window as a bleeding man ran from his knife-wielding attacker. The next morning, the staff agreed to discuss the horrible scene only if one of the youngsters brought it up first. No one did. Finally, a teacher broke rank and broached the subject, which brought a flood of questions from the children, who, it turned out, were worried that such an assault could happen to them.

The episode was a turning point for Groves, who saw for the first time just how reluctant adults are to discuss violence with kids. This “conspiracy of silence,” she writes, is rooted in a belief that children, if left alone, will soon forget violent acts they witness. But research that she cites in this book demonstrates exactly the opposite. Like adults, many children show signs of post-traumatic stress and devise self-destructive theories to explain what they have seen or experienced. They tend to suffer from a form of “hypervigilance,” fearing that violence can break out anywhere at any time. If unattended, Groves writes, these unfortunate children will not only perform poorly in school, but also possibly become perpetuators of violence themselves.

With its numerous descriptions of kids who have witnessed the very worst of human nature, Children Who See Too Much is in many respects a sad, almost elegiac, book. Thankfully, Groves draws on her tenure with the Child Witness to Violence Project in Boston, a program she founded, to show that there is hope for these youngsters, that they can be helped through frank talk and therapy. Her message is clear: Children must be encouraged to openly discuss the violence in their lives; otherwise it will foment trouble within.

SOKA EDUCATION: A Buddhist Vision for Teachers, Students, and Parents,by Daisaku Ikeda. (Middleway Press, 208 pages, $25.95.) Soka education was founded in Japan in the 1920s by a Buddhist schoolteacher named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, whose simple but poignant idea was that education must have “the happiness of children as its fundamental purpose.” This idea eventually cost him his life when the Japanese military authorities, believing that education existed to serve the state, threw him into prison during World War II. He died there, but Soka flourished as a Buddhist movement. It now boasts millions of adherents in some 160 countries and operates nonsectarian schools throughout Japan as well as the Soka University of America in Southern California.

American teachers need not be Buddhists to find relevance in Soka education as described by Ikeda, current president of Soka Gakkai International. Criticizing the Japanese rite of “examination hell,” he argues, as many progressive-minded U.S. educators do, that schools have abandoned true literature and learning in favor of information “digests” designed to help students pass high-stakes tests. The competitive nature of the exams is insidious, he writes, adding: “Young people are sensitive, and it is cruel to make comparisons among them.” The Soka view is that education should not be a means to economic ends but something that is valued for its own sake.

While some teachers may find this excessively idealistic, others will be attracted to Soka and Ikeda’s plea that educators bring heart and soul back to education. “It takes a truly humanistic person to raise a truly humanistic person,” Ikeda writes. “The effects of this task will last forever.”

—David Ruenzel


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