Don't count on the computers

The Flickering Mind
December 19, 2003

Wally Math - Walter Warshawsky, to give him his proper name - started teaching at Urban Academy High School in New York in 1990 when he was in his 60s, with a grey ponytail and beard. His way of teaching mathematics is to divide classes into teams, set them puzzles to which there is only one right answer, and then reward them with points (100 points to pass the course). His purpose is to teach the basics and then get students to practise until they can get it right. He does not like to use computers or even calculators. Soon after starting at Urban, writes journalist Todd Oppenheimer, Wally Math became a legend.

Warshawsky could serve as a kind of hero of Oppenheimer's The Flickering Mind , an investigation into the rush to wire up America's public schools over the past 30 years and the use of computers today. At the end of the day, concludes Oppenheimer, despite the wilder promises of some of technology's advocates, teaching and learning depend essentially on people and on learning the basics. If the choice is between spending on computers or humans in the classroom, for Oppenheimer, in most cases, it's a no-brainer.

Oppenheimer won the 1998 National Magazine award for his story in Atlantic Monthly on this subject. He spent three years criss-crossing the US, visiting dozens of schools and talking to hundreds of teachers, business leaders and politicians. He discovers schools where computers crash repeatedly, teachers who are not trained in how to use the technology and classes where students email their friends and surf the internet on laptops when they are supposed to be listening to lectures. "How do you keep them from going to Satan or violence?" asks one bemused teacher who is being taught how to use the internet. "Supervision", comes the swift response from the technician.

Oppenheimer charts the story from the first introduction of computers into Silicon Valley schools in the 1980s, unravels some of the lucrative deals struck between the computer industry and local and national government to supply computers to schools, and unpicks research suggesting that computers can boost students' tests scores.

But it is in the chapter "Bulldozing the imagination" that some of the most provocative anxieties surface. Oppenheimer cites the fears of specialists in childhood development that we know little about the effect of using computers and video games on the growth of young children's minds. Is it possible that, in some as-yet-unexplained way, prolonged exposure to computer and video games can also reduce children's capacity for concentration and blunt their imagination - producing flickering minds to match the flickering screens?

Oppenheimer acknowledges that the research evidence is sketchy and that no definite conclusions can be drawn. Nonetheless, he concludes: "Over and over, high technology is steering youngsters away from the messy fundamental challenges of the real world - and towards the hurried buzz and neat convenience of an unreal virtual world. It is teaching them that exploring what's on a two-dimensional screen is more important than playing with real objects or sitting down to a conversation with a friend, parent or teacher. By extension, it downplays the importance of listening carefully to people and of expressing oneself with acuity and individuality. And this leads all of us to sideline activities that have long helped youngsters develop fundamental human capacities, particularly the imagination, that sustain society over the long haul."

Oppenheimer's anecdotes are sharply observed. The book is stuffed with statistics and facts. On many issues it is convincing. Who could argue with the hopes he expresses at the end of the book: spend on school buildings, labs and books before throwing money at computer equipment; fund schools more generously overall; if you are going to get computers make sure you also provide the technical support to maintain them - and pay teachers more. But, at the end of the day, the thesis fails to convince completely.

Computers have changed and are continuing to change the way we work, write and - perhaps - think. Shawn Whitfield, 11, quoted in the book, may be exaggerating his case when he says: "We'll probably never get a job if we don't learn how to use computers. When I grow up, it's going to be the computer age." But which parent or teacher wants to take the chance that he's wrong?

And on the bigger issue - whether we are irrevocably changing the way our children's minds develop - the jury is still out. We will not know whether Oppenheimer is right for another generation. The value of this book is that it has highlighted the risks and shortfalls of computers - it is up to all of us now to carry on monitoring them.

Sian Griffiths is deputy editor, supplements, The Sunday Times , and edits the paper's education pages.

The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved

Author - Todd Oppenheimer
Publisher - Random House
Pages - 481
Price - $26.95
ISBN - 1 4000 6044 3

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