The Mouse That Roared

By Peter West — June 19, 2019 8 min read
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Surrounded by synthesizer keyboards, electronic drawing boards, and the other tools of his trade, Tom Snyder, sporting wire-rimmed spectacles and an earring, easily could be mistaken for an artist or a musician. It is unlikely that a casual visitor to his home-based workshop in Cambridge, Mass., would peg him for who he really is: the 41-year-old owner of a multimillion dollar educational software firm.

Snyder would probably describe himself a little differently: as a math and social studies teacher who left the classroom nearly a decade ago to develop software that would improve education. While he may not have achieved this lofty goal, Snyder has made headway. The company that bears his name has beaten the odds in a competitive and fickle market. He also has become a well-paid lecturer on the educational-technology conference circuit and has been invited to teach software development at Harvard University.

The key to his success, and the thing that sets his software above most of the other 11,000 programs on the market today, he argues, is that his products are designed to facilitate classroom interaction between teachers and students and students and students. Most software, Snyder asserts, forces students to work alone at the keyboard. While these products claim to promote “interactivity,” he says, in reality they “seem to be less interactive than the worst conversation you’ve ever had with a cat.”

The technological revolution sweeping the country today will have little impact on teaching, Snyder argues, until software programs are created that “put computers in teachers’ hands and enable them to do whatever they want to do with them.”

Not surprisingly, drill-and-practice software, long a fixture of the educational market, is an anathema to Snyder. Such programs, he argues, are no better than the workbooks they have replaced. Students, Snyder says, should be urged to concentrate on issues and how to resolve them, rather than on producing a “right” answer to every question. He thinks of the computer as a learning accessory, a storehouse of information that teachers and students can draw on to inform their opinions and give substance to their views.

Snyder’s thinking has attracted criticism. The critics argue that his view is too narrow, that there are occasions when drill and practice is useful. They also charge that his philosophy is “elitist”; few teachers, they say, have the technological know-how to use computers as he suggests they should be used.

But Snyder’s many supporters, particularly his customers, are fervent in their admiration for his vision and products.

The series “Decisions, Decisions” is typical of the company’s offerings. Geared for students in grades 5 to 12, the software is designed to get kids thinking about important issues of the day, such as immigration or urbanization. Students assume the roles of various decisionmakers who have a particular interest in the issue. For example, one “Decisions” program, called Urbanization: The Growth of Cities, has students play the role of officials in a small town where a valuable resource has been discovered. Drawing on examples from the history of urbanization, the participants must work together to decide how to manage a resulting boom in growth precipitated by the discovery.

“Snyder tries to get kids to see the issue from a lot of different points of view,” says Shirley Neill, the co-editor of Only the Best, an authoritative annual guide to superior educational software.

A key component of Snyder’s programs involves cooperative learning, which, he points out, recent cognitive research has found to be effective. “The social component of learning is more important than we’ve been pretending,” he asserts. “All the hip news in cognitive research is that learning may not take place [as effectively] in an isolated situation.”

Snyder’s philosophy and methods are spelled out in detail in Great Teaching in the One Computer Classroom, a book published by his company. In it, David Dockterman, a former teacher now employed by Tom Snyder Productions, describes visiting Snyder’s classroom and watching groups of students take turns, as part of a larger classroom exercise, at a single computer in the corner of the classroom.

The machine, writes Dockterman, who claims to have been previously skeptical about the value of teaching with computers, “was helping him run the simulations he was already doing in his classroom. And it was helping him in the background, while keeping the student interactions at the forefront.”

Dockterman concludes that “maybe the computer did have a place in the classroom, but it didn’t belong to the students. It belonged to the teacher, and the teacher is the one who should control and determine its use. The technology should serve educational goals and not direct them.”

The philosophy underlying all of the company’s products has propelled Tom Snyder Productions into a solid, if relatively small, niche in educational software publishing.

The company, which employs 25 people, earns “several million dollars” annually in retail sales and is, according to Rick Abrams, its president, “very profitable.” But, in the grand scheme of software publishing, and even in the smaller field of educational publishing, the company is still small potatoes. Compared with the earnings of leading educational publishers, Abrams says, the company’s income would practically equal “a rounding error.”

But Yesha Sivan, coordinator for the Technology in Education program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, says Snyder’s earnings are nothing to scoff at. “For a small company that’s trying to fight the giants, he’s doing quite well,” he says.

Snyder cultivates his underdog business image, crediting the firm’s success to teacher-to-teacher word-of-mouth advertising.

A number of observers note, however, that these claims are somewhat disingenuous. How, they ask, can a company that distributes more than 500,000 catalogues annually claim to be a word-of-mouth enterprise? Still, glowing testimony by educators such as Myra James, a learning resource specialist at Apopka (Fla.) High School, is indeed a key component of the company’s marketing strategy. “I was the teacher who hated taking kids to the computer lab,” James says. “Then, I got my hands on a copy of Great Teaching in the One Computer Classroom and what a magnificent tool the computer became.” James learned of Snyder’s book from Cindy Servi, the computer coordinator at Apopka, who is such a devoted fan that she is quoted in the company’s promotional materials.

Snyder’s software programs fare well in Neill’s Only the Best, the authoritative software guide. After sifting through the educational software programs currently on the market, the editors chose to include 29 of Snyder’s products among the 925 best educational software programs published between 1985 and 1992. Entries in the guide must have been rated “excellent” by such independent agencies as state departments of education. Other teacher-turned-developers also appear on the list. Although the number of Snyder’s programs included in the guide is a small percentage of the total, the showing is “very respectable,” Neill says, especially considering the size of the organization.

Although clearly appreciated by many people, Snyder’s approach and products are not universally accepted as having widespread application. While conceding that there are numerous opinions about what constitutes pedagogically sound software, Sivan of Harvard argues that, for all their glamour and glitz, Snyder’s programs do not address the basic needs of most students and teachers. He notes, for example, that most of Snyder’s software cannot be used to teach elements of a core curriculum. “Some teachers like it,” he says. “But we know that the average teacher and the average student cannot deal with what he’s offering, and even if they [could], they should not be doing it.”

Snyder, of course, disagrees and has begun to push the company into new areas of software development. The term “software” was once synonymous with the step-by-step instructions written for computers. But the definition has expanded in recent years. Now, software is generally considered to include images, sounds, and data stored on video or compact discs, video clips culled from satellite broadcasts, and any other raw electronic material that can be manipulated by computer. Snyder’s new products reflect this change.

He believes this broader view of software has the potential to radically improve the way teachers teach and students learn. What he finds discouraging is that few teachers know how to manipulate a computer to get at the storehouse of information available through the software.

This reluctance to learn is something he understands. His own early experience with software left him doubting that the computer had a future as a teaching tool. Indeed, it was only when he began writing software programs to help him organize his work and balance his grade book that he began to see the teaching potential of the machine. “It finally occurred to me,” he says, “that I could use it to organize the big group simulations that I used to do in the classroom.”

His most optimistic estimate is that for most of today’s teachers, faced with a glut of electronic resources and little time and guidance to assimilate what is available into their lessons, such an epiphany won’t happen for years.

When it comes to technology, Snyder says, most teachers still ask for telephones, photocopiers, and videocassette recorders, not computers. This, he explains, is because teachers are comfortable with these machines; they know how to use them and know they’re reliable.

If schools and software developers place greater emphasis on making teachers comfortable with the computer, and on making the machine functional, dependable, and easy to use, he says, it “could be the blackboard of the future.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Mouse That Roared


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