October 26, 2011

Digital Peril

Let's rethink the computer-centric classroom.

Gone are the days when the virtue expected of students was discipline or attention. Now we demand something more—it goes by the name “engagement.” We don’t want pupils to be obediently receptive; we want them actively and imaginatively involved. The aspiration, of course, is admirable. In his wonderful 1945 book, Teacher in America, Jacques Barzun stated that “the whole aim of good teaching is to turn the young learner, by nature a little copycat, into an independent, self-propelling creature, who cannot merely learn but study—that is, work as his own boss to the limit of his powers.”

The latest means to this noble end is the computer-centric classroom, where students will be motivated to embrace self-directed learning through technological devices equipped with educational software. In other words, the gizmos and games to which young people are already addicted are expected to become humanizing and civilizing instruments. The students’ digitized learning will be helped along by a teacher who has migrated from being “a sage on the stage to a guide on the side” (as the mantra of the new movement puts it).

The Computer-Centric Classroom
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Cutting-edge school districts around the country are experimenting with this classroom of the future, including the hoped-for transformation of teachers into tech-ers. Recently, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to issue “A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children.” Duncan declared that “technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students.”

Is a computer in every lap the answer to our education troubles? There are reasons for doubt. A recent front-page story in the New York Times reported on the disappointing results from an Arizona school district that since 2005 has invested heavily in technology. While test scores statewide have been rising, the reading and math results in the district of Kyrene have stagnated, prompting debate about the place of technology in schools. This debate is all the more important now that government and private business seem primed to fund a tech-infusion. (To signal the public-private partnership on this front, Secretary Duncan’s co-author for the Wall Street Journal op-ed was Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix.)  

Is a computer in every lap the answer to our education troubles?

So let’s ponder what education—the so-called “knowledge-based industry”—in America is going to look like. Sometimes an anecdote reveals more than all the studies and graphs. Here is one of Kyrene’s twenty-first century classrooms:

With the lights off, a screen at the front of the room posed a question: “Jefferson Davis was Commander of the Union Army: True or False?” The 30 students in the classroom held wireless clickers into which they punched their answers. Seconds later: 23 percent answered “True,” 70 percent “False” and 6 percent didn’t know. The students hooted and hollered, reacting to the instant poll. [The teacher] then drew the students into a conversation about the answers. The enthusiasm underscores a key argument for investing in classroom technology: student engagement.

I’m afraid I don’t regard this as an instance of the wondrous powers of technology to “enable, motivate and inspire” (in the words of President Barack Obama’s National Education Technology Plan).

What precisely “engaged” this group of middle-schoolers?  Truth be told, it was not anything related to the causes, conduct, or consequences of the Civil War. What the technology activated was their narcissism and vanity. They were intrigued by the instantaneous information about themselves. They gloried in the “knowledge” of how many of their fellows deserved to be mocked for their ignorance. (I don’t mean to imply that shame and honor have no place in the classroom. Good teachers can deploy student passion to good effect—and they don’t need technology to generate it.)

No account is given of the discussion that followed, but it is hard to imagine how a name-date-and-serial number question like this could give rise to an inquiry of much depth. And, in any case, such an exploration would require engagement of an entirely different order, drawing students out of their narrow self-absorption and Facebook-style thumbs-up/thumbs-down polling.  No wonder the research so far, as the Times article points out, “does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning.”

All the other anecdotes and testimonials were equally disheartening. In one corner of a Kyrene kindergarten sat a young boy playing, very interactively, with a video game that was ostensibly teaching him addition by rewarding him for shooting down the spaceship containing the correct answer. He, however, was perfectly happy to fire at random and be treated to a robotic “Try again” after each misfire. Videogame learning is just a technological—and apparently less reliable—version of the very old “spoonful of sugar” trick. The assumption of the designers is that learning is like medicine: needful but nasty.

Smart classrooms don’t mean smart students.

Even if this particular program had been effective in spurring the acquisition of math facts, it could never convey or encourage a love for numbers. It was, after all, built upon a denial of the intrinsic satisfaction of learning. The very disorder of the invading spaceships is at odds with the lovely structure of the addition table. Better to set the boy to work with a stubby pencil and a page of problems. Even if he’s bored, he will learn his sums; and there’s at least a chance of his glimpsing the beauty of the overall pattern. Either way, he will take in something else of value: that the grown-ups in his life believe the strange properties of numbers are important.

Teachers and parents owe it to students to impose on them a direct engagement—unmediated by the distractions of technology—with the three R’s (reading, writing, and ’rithmetic). The more mediated the engagement is, the more remediation will need to be done later—when we discover that smart classrooms don’t mean smart students.

Gadgets are not the solution for our education woes. As Barzun noted, “in theory, the printed book should have technologically annihilated the teacher.” What the marvel of print did not accomplish, the marvel of the screen will not either. What we need are teachers unafraid to stand front and center, commanding the attention of their students.

This fell out of fashion, as we know, when educators grew uncomfortable with practices (like memorization, recitation, and drill) that seem passive. They now want to put students in control from the start—or at least give them the illusion of control. Yet this flies in the face of human nature. Listening is the first habit to cultivate in the young. Attending to the presence and words of another opens the self to knowledge. When listening intently, the self is humbled or silenced, while at the same time becoming fuller and more expansive. Listening well conduces to thinking—the ultimate goal. The new emphasis on computer-assisted engagement threatens to short-circuit this connection between moral virtue and intellectual virtue. Democratic educators, in sum, refuse to acknowledge that being ruled is the required preparation for ruling.

With its buttons and rapid responsiveness to human will, technology promises empowerment.  Youngsters, of course, spend much of their time outside of school exercising their will in this way—their thumbs always on the controllers. The timeless challenge facing schools is how to transform the willful into the willing. Technology has only made the problem more acute.

Thoughtfully used, technology can make a modest contribution to learning, particularly for older students ready for such tools. However, it should never rival or displace the essential relationship of teacher and student, for it is that relationship—“the contact of living souls” in the immortal phrase of W. E. B. DuBois—that transmits the love of truth. We should be wary of mistaking plugged-in liveliness for real, honest-to-goodness learning. 


Diana Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Kenyon College and holds an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. She has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Program on Constitutional Government at Harvard University (1994–95). In 2001, she was the recipient of the Richard M. Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters; in 2004, she was appointed to the President’s Council on Bioethics. She is the author of Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu's “Persian Letters” (1995), along with a number of book chapters and articles in the fields of political philosophy and American political thought. She is a reviewer and essayist for a variety of publications, including National Affairs, the New Criterion, the Claremont Review of Books, the American Interest, and the New Atlantis.


Diana Schaub is also the Garwood Visiting Professor at Princeton University and the co-editor, with Amy and Leon Kass, of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song (ISI, 2011).

Letters to the editor

Two Educational Paths

I’ve long believed that the key to making learning more interesting is to (eventually) divide students into one of two learning paths, and therefore career paths. One path is for abstract learners/thinkers. They ultimately obtain a liberal arts education. The military equivalent would be commissioned officers. The other is for concrete learners/thinkers. They ultimately obtain an education in a physical skill/trade/craft. The military equivalent would be warrant officers. Of course, there could be some combination, such as an electrical engineer. My own education is in accounting. It would have worked just as well, perhaps better, if it had been taught to me as a trade rather than in a college setting.

---R. Willis Cook, CPA


Letters to the editor may be sent to definingideas@stanford.edu. Editors reserve the right to reject or publish (and edit) letters.