November 01, 2003 5 min read
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The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom
And How Learning Can Be Saved

by Todd Oppenheimer
(Random House, 512 pages, $26.95)

Oppenheimer, a contributing writer for the Atlantic Monthly, spent three years visiting schools across the country, trying to determine the extent to which the technological revolution has reshaped American education. What he concludes in this sprawling and devastating book is that technolology has indeed had a huge impact, but mostly in ways that seriously undermine teaching and learning.

Oppenheimer estimates that at least $90 billion was spent on technology in schools in the 1990s, often at the expense of decimated music, art, and extracurricular programs. Nevertheless, glitches often are the order of the day. A computer crash in the middle of a key lesson, an Internet search on wildlife that leads students to the Black Bear Bar & Grill, software that becomes obsolete shortly after it’s installed—this is all standard fare, especially in the least wealthy school districts.

But even in the most technologically sophisticated schools, things rarely work according to expectations. For instance, one teacher walking from workstation to workstation observes students entering data into spreadsheets; Oppenheimer, later strolling about on his own, sees the same students exchanging e-mail gossip and visiting entertainment Web sites. This kind of experience is repeated in school after school. “The differences between what the teacher saw and what I saw on my own,” he summarizes, “were so dramatic that it was hard to keep from laughing.”

Oppenheimer’s critique, however, involves much more than gullible teachers and flighty students. His primary concern is that technology, with its endless stream of distracting and easy-to-manipulate images and data, unwittingly fosters a “flickering mind” that loses the will to struggle with difficult problems or challenging texts. One student in West Virginia, for example, says he likes to use the Internet for research because “you don’t have to read it or anything....All you have to do is just use your fingers and just look.”

Oppenheimer’s examination of the much-touted New Technology High in Napa, California, is particularly revealing. This small and well-funded public school, which draws visitors from across the nation, has the best of everything; its students use the ubiquitous technology to churn out dazzling PowerPoint and multimedia presentations. But the results, Oppenheimer argues, tend to be content-light, as evidenced by a project on Vietnam that features rich graphics but very little history.

It’s no wonder that schools like New Technology are almost devoid of books: Who needs them when the entire world is online? But this belief, the author suggests, leaves students unanchored in the comprehensive worldview that a good book provides. Online, kids areat the mercy of images and “facts” that are here today, gone tomorrow. They’re lost in Plato’s cave, mistaking the flickering shadows in front of them for reality.

Oppenheimer does acknowledge that computers have a place in the classroom. He also convincingly argues, however, that “life’s fancy tools” should be used only at the top of the learning pyramid and that at the lower, more fundamental levels, students should do the work of acquiring knowledge and enriching their intellectual capacities. To this end, he insists, they need to immerse themselves in the tactile world of handheld tools—paper and pen, for example.

One of Oppenheimer’s sources, MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, perhaps best encapsulates the author’s own point of view. “In most cases,” he says in an interview, “the computer programs the kids and not the other way around.”

A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children
The Education They Need

by William G. Ouchi
(Simon & Schuster, 284 pages, $25)

In recent years, increasing numbers of business management experts have turned their attention to the field of education, arguing that the real problems in schools have little to do with bad teachers and jaded students and much to do with dysfunctional organizational structures. Ouchi, a professor of corporate renewal at UCLA, is of this ilk. He argues convincingly that power must be shifted from the district bureaucracies to the principal and his or her teachers, who, in turn, become problem-solving entrepreneurs.

Power means, first and foremost, money—the ability to control one’s budget. In the weakest school districts, like Los Angeles, Ouchi writes, principals often have hardly a clue as to how much money is in their budgets. The central administration controls everything, placing principals—unable to make staffing decisions or allocate resources—on “remote control.” But in the highest-achieving school districts, like Houston and Seattle, according to Ouchi, the principal and theteachers have both the financial resources and the decisionmaking autonomy to “customize” a school to meet the needs of its parents and students.

None of this is exactly revolutionary; it calls to mind the “effective schools” movement of the 1980s, which considered the principal the lodestar of school reform. Still, it’s nice to come across a book that asserts, in this time of educational mandates, that “if there’s anyone who doesn’t deserve to be blamed [for low student achievement], it’s the teachers.”

What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices

by Edmund M. Kern
(Prometheus, 296 pages, $17)

While children everywhere have been passionate readers of the Harry Potter novels, some adults, especially in the university community, have expressed concerns about the sexism, escapism, and consumerism they find in the books. To Kern, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, such criticisms are little more than whining from cheerless adults suspicious of anything that’s popular. His book is a passionate defense of the J.K. Rowling series and will give comfort to parents who may wonder about fiction that causes children to skip meals and television time to continue reading.

Kern’s defense is multifaceted, but at the heart of it is his belief that the books “present an updated Stoic moral system whose primary virtue is old-fashioned constancy—resolution in the face of adversity.” Stoicism, above all, preaches that while you can’t control fate, you can control your reaction to it, and this is exactly what Kern claims Harry does. He must learn, first of all, to cope with the Dursleys, his brutish adoptive family. And he later learns at Hogwarts, the training school for wizards, that magic is not enough to battle someone as evil as Voldemort, the fallen wizard who killed Harry’s parents—he must also learn self-control, patient problem-solving, and empathy with others.

As someone who best knows the series through the Harry Potter obsessions of his own daughter, I cannot evaluate Kern’s thesis with complete authority. But it’s nice to know that many of our children admire a character who cares about more than just himself.

—David Ruenzel

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