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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 technology.

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.

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