Column #11, posted 7/11/00

Are Computers the Bad Guys in Education?

Recently ads have been running in prestigious newspapers asking: "If computers in the schools are the answer, are we asking the right question?" It is a call to parents to take action against the tremendous expenditures being made to get computers into the schools. The ad brings up the issue of whether computers are really all that valuable in schools and suggests that they may even be harmful.

This is an important issue and it matters that people understand it properly. The organizations that sponsored this ad are probably well meaning enough. The recent findings they cite to support their arguments against using computers in the schools are accurate and right headed. Nevertheless, the message is dead wrong and its writers need to understand why.

Computers are being used in the schools in the wrong way. They are being put in the schools at tremendous expense because educators and politicians see computers as a way of improving education without really knowing why.

Access to the Web is often cited as being very important to education, for example, but is it? The problem in the schools is not that the libraries are insufficient. The Web is, at its best, an improvement on information access. It provides a better library for kids, but the library wasn't what was broken.

Computer programs that teach math are often cited as being improvements in education. But the ad cites studies that say these programs are of no proven value, that they really don't improve a student's performance in math. Are they right? Probably. But again, the problem is that they have misunderstood the issue.

Computers will save our schools -- eventually. But they will definitely not save our schools by raising math scores. Saying that computers don't raise math scores as a way of criticizing computers is like saying that computers don't make the food in the school cafeteria taste better. No, they don't, but should they?

What is the alternative to computers in the schools? The everyday wisdom has good old teachers motivating students to care about math through the human touch. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are living in insane times in education. On the same day this ad appeared in the New York Times there was an article about a school principal who was caught manipulating the system to make his students' test scores better. The only unusual part of this story is that he was caught. The test score mania that has gripped our nation has forced even the most well meaning teachers to care only about test scores and has made children fodder in a test score machine. It makes no difference if computers try to raise test scores or if teachers do. The problem is the tests themselves. The problem is the curriculum.

Why are children learning algebra or trigonometry? The fact is that no one really can say why. (Oh, there are defenses like "math teaches reasoning" of course. But does it? Are mathematicians the best everyday reasoners in our society?) Math has just always been there. So while the writers of this ad complain that computers won't improve happiness or wisdom, neither will the current curriculum. Don't blame the delivery vehicle, blame the content.

Nearly all the subjects we teach in school today are taught because a committee of university presidents in 1892, chaired by the President of Harvard decided that if everyone took these subjects the job of the colleges would be made easier. Times have changed. Very few students are actually preparing for Harvard. Even Harvard has changed. We must stop teaching the subjects that helped students function at Harvard in 1892. We must start teaching more human subjects--how to get along with fellow students, how to deal with stress, how to make life decisions, how to run a business, how to deal with health issues, how to make an intelligent decision as a voter about whether to bomb a country in Central Europe.

Computers can help in two ways. First they can bring the world's experts into the classroom in software that allows exploration, simulated experience, learning-by-doing and hypothesis testing. Software can be built that makes children want to learn because it is so much fun. This is not the software we have now. What is there is boring drill and practice software that numbs the mind.

The second way computers can help is by starting the process of curricular change. We cannot change how mathematics is taught, biology will always be the same, foreign language instruction is unmovable. There are too many vested interests to allow us as a nation to suddenly notice that geometry is a waste of time or that studying health and nutrition might be more useful than studying phylla.

New software that changes both what is taught and how it is taught is our only hope for change. We must get rid of competency testing all together and replace it with performance testing. Children should be taught to do things that they might sometime do in the real world. Computers will be the vehicle by which this change occurs. They will also enable teachers to go back to teaching more human subjects. Please don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

It will take some years for this software to be built. Be patient. If ads like this don't destroy the effort, good software will come. What should we do in the meantime? You really can't fix the schools until politicians understand the problem. Neither presidential candidate has a clue about education. So, in the meantime, parents must take their children's education into their own hands.

My new book (Coloring Outside the Lines: Raising a Smarter Kid by Breaking All the Rules; HarperCollins) gives some suggestions on how to do this. The book is available now in bookstores and at

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