Northern Valley Beacon

Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains----- E-Mail: Enter 'Beacon' in subject box. Send to: Minnekota@Referencedesk.org

Sunday, January 08, 2006

 

Laptop dancing in the classroom


People of a conservative bent love to say you can't fix the problems in education by throwing money at them. So, Gov. Rounds has this bright idea that giving every school child in South Dakota a laptop computer will send them zooming up to the educational level required by the age of global technology. This is really "throwing money" at something. I know of no people in education at any level, except some administrators and teachers union officials (who think groveling before the governor is the way to obtain equities for education), who think this plan has any relevance whatever to the issues confronting educators as they are revealed by their own experience and by the mass testing fad that holds public education in its thrall.

No one is a bigger advocate of the use of computers in the classroom than I am. If anyone cares, they can check out the record. I found that computer networks were invaluable in teaching literature because they made it possible for every student, not just a few who volunteered or were called upon, to contribute to discussions. Computers provided a way of discerning the salient comments from the banal.

Most importantly, computers and word processing were the most significant development in writing since the lead pencil. They made it possible for writers to concentrate on writing, not the mechanical, clerical process of transcribing that writing into manuscripts for the ultimate, formal reading. In the process of honing writing skills, computers created more work and demanded more attention from students and teachers, but they enabled teachers to provide guidance and informed responses to students at the time they are most effective. And computers certainly reduced the drudgery involved in research so that students could focus on materials and manage content to their best advantage.

The problem with computer laboratories and computer-supported curricula is that many people think of computers as a replacement for teachers. To them, computerization of education is like the robotic automation of manufacturing. The computer-driven machines do all the work. You won't need teachers, just technologists to keep the computer systems running. Anyone who has spent even a casual hour or two in a classroom or has read a chapter or two in a book on how the education of children really works knows that this is nonsense. When children are learning, their minds need engagement by people competent in the subject area and in coaching the development of those minds. Computers can enhance and intensify that engagement. They are not a substitute for it.

Since the end of World War II, electronic media have changed the culture. No one wrote more incisively about the effect of electronic media on society, politics, and culture than George Orwell. Again, most people read him, if they actually read him at all, in terms of how the electronic media contribute to the surveillance and control of people by totalitarian regimes. They miss how Orwell included the domination of the media by corporate interests for their purposes and the totalitarian aspect they impose on the world as one of the dangers. Many writers and thinkers and researchers have contributed to this discussion during the last half century, but their work seldom gets attention.

Our children are besieged by influences that intervene between them and their parents. And which intervene between them and their teachers. Electronic means of communications are the main instruments that cut away at the cultural and moral connections parents try to maintain with their children. Electronic gadgets are merely the instruments used by those driven by greed and the need for power to impose their designs upon the world. The underlying cause of social disintegration is the philosophies and ideologies that those gadgets serve. Our children are not the products of their homes, but the products of operant conditioning that works on their capacities for pleasure, excitability, and distraction.

The adult world is engaged in blame-placing for the social attitudes and phenomena of our time. I read a blog today that strongly suggests that it is the Democrats' penchant for the licentious that is the root cause of the social milieu that affects our children.

Of course, the logical progression from that conclusion is that the world would be a much more moral and constructive place if it could be rid of Democrats or their penchant for moral profligacy could be replaced by conservative measures. One may conjecture whether that portends stocks, whippings, concentration camps, or death chambers, but when a group of people are designated as the source of contamination, you can be assured that some form of environmental cleanup is being considered.

A legislator told me yesterday of how he attended a meeting of a legislative committee and the members were e-mailing each other on their laptops during the meeting and posting jokes and the like. The laptops are supplied by the state. He conjectured about what a bunch of high school kids would be using their laptops for inside of and outside of class. As he put it, the meeting was a farce and a sham, although it ostensibly met the requirements of legislative rules, even if its members were not paying attention to the business at hand.

The problems in education will not be solved by computers or money thrown at any other scheme that strikes the political fancy. They might be solved for some by cleansing society of Democrats, but in the meantime we might listen to educators who actually work in classrooms as to how to meet the objectives of our educational enterprise and how technology can actually support the reaching of those objectives.

There is a force behind the use of our technology that is subverting our democracy, and I don't think, as yet, that it is Democrats.

Comments:
Blaming the laptop (or any medium) for the sorry state of our secondary education, when compared against the rest of the industrial world, is as flawed as blaming Gutenberg for the proliferation of pornography. Who's the regressive now? Get with the program. For example, one positive unintended outcome of Janklow's wiring the schools was a semblence of standardized schedules, course materials and electives, when small classes were piped to numerous small districts that were unable to offer the same at each dispersed location. Such standardization threatens some small-minded school boards (who would rather be different for the sake of being different), but it better prepares the student for college and life outside of Hooterville. Standardization for its own sake is no solution - but neither is the present system a solution, or the lame idea that 100-odd districts each have found the holy grail of educational excellence for the 21st century. Too often instead of dealing with what and how students ought to be taught to prepare for the 21st century, school boards bottom feed on intelligent design or that there be no worthwhile sex education (despite what occurred on the Roosevelt bus). Additionally such standardization of classes and curriculums is a god-send for the majority of us who have had to move kids during their school "career." What will make or break the laptop initiative isn't the hardware or software, but rather how it's used, how and what is taught. That is what the focus, discussion, and argument should entail. The potential for us to catch-up to most of the industrialized world with our secondary education is nothing short of phenominal. Imagine that our high school students could master 8th century geometry, 13th century algebra, and know our history better than do their British peers. Imagine that instead of 29% of our highschool freshman not completing highschool and instead becoming felons-in-training, that nearly all complete highschool and many go on to further education. The laptop by itself, like the current system (with its undue emphasis on testing) - is unable to deliver by itself, so our focus ought to be on the whats, hows, and whens of laptop school delivery. The current system is incapable of reforming itself, the laptop initiative, like wiring the schools was, can be a vital step in the right direction.
 
Rigt on, John.
 
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