One fall day, I watched a group of 11th graders in Worcester,
Massachusetts, engage in what was billed as an inventive civics
project at Worcester's Accelerated Learning Laboratory. The ALL
School, as it's commonly called, is the flagship institution of
the"Co-nect" program, the only one of the big, national school
reform initiatives to organize itself around modern technology.
On this particular day, a social studies class was working on
reports about the powers of Congress, constructed as Power Point
presentations (named after Microsoft's ubiquitous business-presentation
product). The reports were nearly finished, and the teacher was
feeling pleased with the results. When I asked to see one, she
steered me to a young man whose report she felt was in particularly
good shape. Sure enough, as the student clicked through the presentation,
I was immediately struck by the clean graphics, the strong colors,
and the digestible writing. Then, suddenly, he was done. This
was the extent of his report. But its content was no deeper or
more complex than what one commonly sees in civics papers done
elsewhere, with pencil and paper, by seventh and eighth graders.
Mystified, I asked the student how he'd used his time. He estimated
having spent approximately 17 hours on the project, only seven
of which had been devoted to research and writing. The rest went
to refining the presentation's graphics.
Surely, I thought, this can't be a fair representation
of what's going on at this school. Not only was ALL supported
by Co-nect, but Co-nect was in turn supported and funded by the
New American Schools Development Corporation, the huge, $130-million
school reform consortium formed by a collection of corporate leaders.
All of which had brought ALL advantages that most schools only
dream about—not the least of which were small classes. This
social studies class, for example, had no more than six or seven
students. Since small classes are generally synonymous with generous
teacher attention, and by extension good academic work, I took
a seat in the social studies class to watch some more. Toward
the end of class, when the teacher took a moment to review their
knowledge of the subject they'd spent much of the term studying,
asking a few elementary questions about the purpose and powers
of Congress, there was an uncomfortable silence. Half the class
didn't know the answers. Later, as diplomatically as I could,
I asked the teacher if she ever worried that the computer's multi-media
appeal is distracting the students from studying the subject matter
at hand. "Not at all," she said. "I use technology as a tool.
This is their first Power Point presentation. Next time, we'll
incorporate video. So it's like a building block."
Wait a minute. If the thin academic experience in
this class is now considered by a model school's teacher to be
an educational "building block," then we have entered a new
world. We have arrived at a time when our entire sense of what
it means to become an educated person has been turned on its head.
Fortunately, as readers of this book will discover, remnants of
education's sturdier traditions—practices that constitute
real building blocks—are still available. These traditions
are now scattered through a random assortment of schools across
the U.S. and other countries, like archaeological artifacts. With
occasional modification, their example offers great hope for American
education. In fact, a collage of these practices could open up
a whole new direction in education policy—a turn to what
might be called enlightened basics.
Until this occurs, the contrasts between the nation’s
real schools and its more numerous unthinking trend followers,
like Worcester's ALL School, seem to grow wider every year. This
intellectual distance makes me think of the old Chinese definition
of the word "crisis." In Chinese script, "crisis"
consists of two opposing characters, one symbolizing danger; the
other, opportunity. The tension in this duality exemplifies what’s
been happening lately in schools here and abroad, as politicians
and education leaders in nearly every community in the world have
been making their largest investment ever in state-of-the-art
This trend became front-page news in the latter
half of the 1990s, when the emergence of the Internet made the
high-tech classroom seem like education's long-awaited savior.
With missionary zeal, technology's promoters defined this initiative
as nothing short of a revolution. It was supposed to do more than
any reform in recent memory to revive our weakened schools and
prepare today's students for tomorrow's increasingly high-tech
jobs. In the ensuing years—partly because of growing skepticism
about classroom technology, and technology in general, and partly
because of the fickleness of public attention—the topic
has somewhat receded into the shadows. In the meantime, though,
the education world has been quietly investing in technology without
pause. At this point, many are spending small fortunes to upgrade
systems that, not long ago, were state-of-the-art but are now
going out of date or beginning to break down.
Image detail from the cover of The Flickering
Mind. Art by Jamie Keenan.