Is School Out?

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School is over, dead, obsolete, finished, kaput--so asserts Lewis J. Perelman in his recent book School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education (New York: William Morrow & Company Inc., 1992). Therefore, all of the efforts by well-intentioned but misguided individuals and groups to reform, renew, or restructure schools are doomed to fail.

School's Out is an important book, one that should be read by everyone concerned about the future of American education. It is very different from all other books and articles on educational reform. Unlike other such books, School's Out focuses on learning rather than schooling, describes what learning will be when information-age technology is fully employed, proposes radical rather than conservative solutions to the problems of education, and criticizes rather than glorifies the educational-reform movement itself.

School's Out will not make Mr. Perelman popular among many educators and reform advocates. Few fashionable ideas escape criticism. For example:

  • On the relationship between schooling and learning: "Schooling and learning are at odds--more of one means less of the other.''
  • On educational goals: "The right learning goals can be summed up in four words: MORE, BETTER, FASTER, CHEAPER.''
  • On school choice: " 'School choice' is a solution in search of a problem that mostly does not exist.''
  • On the importance of going to college: "Let's get clear about this: There is no major job in the economy that requires an academic diploma for its successful performance. None. Nada. Zippo.''
  • On the New American School Development Corporation initiative: "While called a 'research and development' program, NASDC resembles a genuine R&D program about as much as a lightning bug resembles a lightning bolt.''
  • On school reform: "Reform is a hoax.''

If Lewis Perelman is correct, the millions of dollars being spent currently on school reform can be compared to French expenditures on the Maginot line prior to World War II. Not only was the money totally wasted, it also produced a false sense of security leading to devastating results.

But Mr. Perelman is only half right. He is right that we appear to be backing into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on where we have been. Few reformers are paying attention to the way that new technology is transforming nearly every aspect of our lives and will surely change the way we learn.

However, Mr. Perelman is wrong that the new technology will eliminate the need for schools, colleges, and universities. Furthermore, Americans do not want to close schools; they want them to succeed. Children and youths like to go to school; the few who are alienated are those for whom traditional schools hold no appeal.

It is true that schools generally lag behind other sectors of the society in joining the information age, but many teachers and schools want to participate. And while computers and other instructional technology do threaten some educators, it is often for good reason. Educators have been burned by exaggerated claims of technology zealots in the past; teachers worry that needed training and technical support will not be provided when required; and although technology may ultimately enable schools to prepare students better at lower costs, technology adds greatly to the current cost of schooling. Who can blame teachers, administrators, and school boards for being cautious?

Yet, we are only at the beginning of the information age. Faster, cheaper, more powerful teaching tools are just over the horizon.

Mr. Perelman believes that educators will resist these tools until schools collapse. I believe that schools can and will survive, while changing massively in response to the advantages afforded by these technologies.

Perhaps education is where medicine was 50 years ago. We have not abolished hospitals or made doctors and nurses obsolete. But neither is medical practice what it once was, and few want to return to the past.

Textbooks, classrooms, and teachers have been the essential core of traditional schools; they shall remain the heart of new schools but take quite different forms.

The hardback, printed textbook will be replaced by "electronic textbooks'' that provide a library of information in easy-to-use multimedia format for each student. Electronic textbooks will also be "intelligent,'' that is, they will know how their "masters'' learn best and adapt instruction to their needs. Electronic textbooks will be portable; students can carry their "library'' and "tutor'' home, on trips, or wherever they may wish to work.

Some classrooms will become sensoriums, rooms equipped with a vast array of technology that engage all of the learner's senses and can be controlled by them. Imagine, for example, a group of middle-school science students who are studying the role of white corpuscles, entering a sensorium that makes the students feel as though they are traveling through the circulatory system of the human body. Acting as white corpuscles, the students attack the viruses and defend the body. Or, imagine social-studies students engaged in a simulated hunt of the wooly mammoth during the Ice Age. Simulation and "virtual reality'' technologies will make such classrooms feasible by the turn of the century. Technology now employed only in amusement parks and a few museums will make sensoriums as much a part of schools as cafeterias and gymnasiums are today.

Teachers will be more, not less, important in the new schools. The only teachers who are likely to be replaced by technology are those who do nothing more than a computer can do. They should be replaced. But teachers will be needed to inspire, guide, tutor, and coach students, enabling them to become capable, self-directed learners. Teachers will also have tools to enhance their professional knowledge, including diagnostic tools that are commonly available to other professionals ranging from physicians to auto mechanics. If a student has a special reading problem, for example, the teacher will be able to consult an "expert system'' for advice.

Technology is also the key to resolving perplexing educational policy problems. Distance learning using interactive video and other technologies may offer a low-cost means to achieve educational equity, meet desegregation goals without busing, and avoid school consolidation. And urban schools may find the "magnet'' they have been seeking in schools that offer learning opportunities through technology. Technology can be the means to respond to the special needs of remedial as well as gifted and talented students and to extend the school year for everyone.

So, how do we get from where we are to where we must be to take full advantage of the opportunities science and technology afford us? First, we must envision new ways of schooling. It is difficult to create something different from what exists unless there is a clear image of what is possible. Most of the current models of "restructured schools'' resemble all too closely the best schools we have known for years.

Second, we must become serious about research and development in education. Think of the money that has been invested in military hardware and in the field of health care since World War II and what has been accomplished by such investments. To date, American policymakers have not treated education as a field that could benefit from serious research-and-development support. While private-sector investments in instructional technology are likely to occur when commercial opportunities become apparent, it will be necessary to kick-start the process. The U.S. Defense Department has invested more in the development of instructional technology than have all of the state departments of education in the country. Corporations are major investors in technology for employee education. The opportunities for private- and public-sector cooperation for research and development in instructional technology are both obvious and largely overlooked.

Third, we need to develop working models of new kinds of schools. Some of these may be public schools while others, like the Edison Schools, will be launched privately. The kind of competition "choice'' advocates favor can be best encouraged by establishing schools that are radically different from the current model.

Fourth, we must train and retrain those who will work in new kinds of schools. Teacher education must change radically, if it is not to retard progress. Even more importantly, however, is to provide the technology that enables teachers to upgrade their own knowledge and skills as needed. The United States may have the best-educated teacher force in the world, but it was trained for schools of the past, not the ones of the future.

Computers, video, and other examples of high technology are not the solution to all of the problems confronting American education. They do not put food in the stomachs of hungry children, compensate for the lack of loving, attentive parents, or overcome violence in the neighborhood. But technology can contribute mightily to resolving problems that teachers face each day in their classrooms: keeping children on task, adjusting instruction to fit the pace, interest, experience, capability, and learning style of each child, and making the classroom more nearly like the context in which children and youths will work as adults. We cannot gain the kinds of schools America requires until we begin to take advantage of the tools science and technology have provided us.

Vol. 12, Issue 23, Page 33

Published in Print: March 3, 1993, as Is School Out?
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