Books: Readings

June 09, 1993 7 min read

“Across the world, children have entered a passionate and enduring love affair with the computer,’' writes Seymour Papert, creator of the Logo computer language, in the preface to The Children’s Machine. What this love affair may mean for learning, and in particular for schools, is the book’s subject. Below, the author ventures a theory on why schools have avoided embracing computers as the agents of what he calls educational “megachange:''

In the early 1980’s there were few microcomputers in schools, but those few were almost all in the classrooms of visionary teachers, most of whom employed them in a “progressive’’ spirit, cutting across School’s ?yes, but not always, skg practices of balkanized curriculum and impersonal rote learning. Thereafter, however, the pattern changed sharply. The initiative and the power in the field of computers were moving from teachers to school administrations--most often at the city or even at the state level.

When there were few computers in the school, the administration was content to leave them in the classrooms of teachers who showed greatest enthusiasm, and these were generally teachers who were excited about the computer as an instrument of change. But as the numbers grew and computers became something of a status symbol, the administration moved in. From an administrator’s point of view, it made more sense to put the computers together in one room--misleadingly named “computer lab’'--under the control of a specialized computer teacher. Now all the children could come together and study comptuters for an hour a week. By an inexorable logic the next step was to introduce a curriculum for the computer.

Thus, little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.

This analysis directly contradicts the answer most commonly given by researchers when asked why computers have made so little dent in the problems faced by School. They are inclined to say that “schools don’t know how to use the computer’'; and they propose to remedy this by more research on methods of using computers, by developing more software, especially software that will be easier to use, and by setting up channels of dissemination of knowledge about computers. They are fundamentally wrong.

Of course, research will increase the variety and effectiveness of uses of computers, but this is not what will change the nature of computer use in schools. The shift from a radically subversive instrument in the classroom to a blunted conservative instrument in the computer lab came neither from a lack of knowledge nor from a lack of software. I explain it by an innate intelligence of School, which acted like any living organism in defending itself against a foreign body. It put into motion an immune reaction whose end result would be to digest and assimilate the intruder.

Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change; School knew very well how to nip this subversion in the bud. No one in the story acted out of ignorance about computers, although they might have been naÃive in failing to understand the sociological drama in which they were actors.

The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, by Seymour Papert. Copyright 1993 by Seymour Papert. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

John T. Bruer proposes in Schools for Thought that a missing ingredient in the current education-reform movement has been a concentration on finding ways to change “how teachers teach and how children learn in the classroom.’' His book places the knowledge gained in three decades of research in cognitive science in a classroom context. Mr. Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, asserts in the following excerpt his belief that education, no less than medicine, should respect and support its research community:

To solve our educational problems, then, we also must change our representations of the importance and the role of educational research. Even among other scientists, educational research is often held in low esteem. Yet sound theory and solid research generate compelling applications. Research, both basic and applied, is as important to educational practice as it is to medical practice.

In contrast with medical research, which many people want to know about and whose outcomes many want immediate access to, there is little interest in educational research and little awareness that it contributes to instructional advances. The brief history and the legacy of the National Institute of Education serve as an example. This federal agency was started during the Nixon Administration and gutted during the Reagan years. The N.I.E. lacked a viable political constituency, partly because of the research community’s inability to reach out to the political leadership on terms that politicians could understand and appreciate. Although many percieve the N.I.E. as a failure, it helped make a science of learning possible.

Patricia Graham, now president of the Spencer Foundation and a former director of the N.I.E., relates that during the 1970’s it was hard to find any serious researchers or funding agencies interested in schools. The N.I.E. began supporting the work of people such as Lauren Resnick and Lee Shulman--investigators who were interested in schools--in the late 1970’s. We have seen where that research has led. ... This defunct agency, generally thought of as a failure, anticipated the policy and practice needs of the 1980’s and the 1990’s. We are now applying in our schools the research this agency funded 15 years ago. Unfortunately, there is now no comparable agency anticipating the educational needs of the early 21st century.

If we want to improve our schools, now and in the future, we need a research base. Research isn’t free. Many of the methods described in this book are time consuming and labor intensive. As Alan Schoenfeld [has] noted, a cognitive scientist may well spend 100 hours analyzing a one-hour videotape from a problem-solving session, and two or three years writing a computer simulation. Little of the research described here could have occurred without the support of federal agencies and private foundations. Yet support for educational research is shockingly small.

In 1988 the U.S. Defense Department spent $39 billion on research and development, the National Institutes of Health $5.5 billion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration $4.2 billion, the National Science Foundation $1.6 billion, and the U.S. Agriculture Department $1 billion. In the same year, the U.S. Education Department spent $130 million--about 0.6 percent of its budget--on research and development. In 1990 it spent $153 million, again 0.6 percent of its budget. In real, inflation-adjusted dollars, federal funding for educational research has decreased by 80 percent over the last 15 years. We wouldn’t tolerate this in the case of medical or defense-related research, because we believe research in those areas contributes to our national and personal well-being. Apparently, we don’t believe this about educational research.

There are over 7,500 private foundations with assets over $1 million and annual giving of at least $100,000 in the United States. The annual expenditure of all private foundations for all purposes is approximately $8 billion. The Foundation Index, a computerized database that records foundation grants awarded since 1973, lists 158 grants to support cognitive science. Of these grants made over 20 years, only 23 supported cognitive research that addressed instructional issues in precollegiate education. The total value of these grants was $2.8 million. As of this writing, only four private foundations have programs that fund research on applications of cognitive science to school instruction.

Education research is crucial. We need it to solve our problem. But we’re not funding it. [The Stanford University professor of education] Lee Shulman described one way in which our representations must change: “We have to work hard to detoxify the idea of supporting educational research.’'

Schools For Thought: A Science of Learning in the Classroom, by John T. Bruer. Copyright 1993 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reprinted by permission of The M.I.T. Press.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 1993 edition of Education Week as Books: Readings


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