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A reader’s guide to the literature on learning, and technology’s odd place in the spectrum

The primary source materials for this book were the live interactions I recorded as a journalist: myriad classroom scenes in both public and private schools; interviews with teachers, students, parents, political leaders, and academic experts; presentations from industry and education conferences. To understand and frame these anecdotes in their proper context, I of course turned to the history of these fields—specifically, the literature on education, child development and imagination, brain science, technology, even politics and sociology. Some of the most tangible and revealing literature was the reams of news articles that are continually published about the ups and downs in both education and the technology industry. Those articles, along with government reports, internal memos, and other written documents I used as sources, are fully listed in the book in an extensive Notes section. But a subset of that material—the various books that guided my inquiry—tell their own wide story about the hidden realities of both educational and social change.


On psychological development and the art of learning

Developing Talent in Young People, Benjamin S. Bloom, editor; Lauren A. Sosniak, Anthony G. Kalinowski, William C. Gustin, Judith A. Monsaas, and Kathryn D. Sloane; Ballantine Books, 1985. This book, which profiles people who have achieved a high level of mastery in a broad range of fields (the arts, sports, the sciences), makes a powerful argument for the value of mentors and other kinds of support that teach youngsters how to persevere. The editor of this book is best known for his famous theory on the various stages of learning and cognitive skill that he devised in the 1960s, called "Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives."

Education and Ecstasy by George Leonard, North Atlantic Books, 1968 and 1987. It’s no coincidence that Leonard, then an education writer for Look magazine, conceived this book in the idealism of the 1960s. It describes an educational environment of unprecedented utopian proportions (pastoral geodesic domes, children happily educating themselves on omnipotent touch screens, and so on). When I met Leonard decades later and asked him about why this vision failed to become real, he said, "It’s not that computers are so dumb. It’s that we’ve discovered that the human brain is much more complex and beautifully organized than we’d ever dreamed." When I then asked him what he thought about having so heavily promoted such idealism, he smiled, shrugged and said, "That was the 1960s."

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman, Bantam, 1995. In this groundbreaking book, Goleman demonstrates that IQ isn't nearly as important as personal traits such as self-awareness, persistence, flexibility, and empathy. A former science reporter for The New York Times and editor of Psychology Today, Goleman assembles an impressive array of evidence here. This is one of those books that really connects the hidden dots between disparate fields and findings to make a long overdue argument.

Endangered Minds: Why Children Can’t Think and What We Can Do About It by Jane Healy, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1990; and Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds–for Better and Worse by Jane Healy, Simon & Schuster, 1998. Like many child development specialists, Healy, an educational psychologist, focuses on the dangers of automated media on the very young. With a few notable exceptions, she believes, intensely automated material generally dulls their imagination and other cognitive capacities.

Experience & Education by John Dewey, Touchstone, 1997 (first published in 1938). Dewey is the well-known father of "progressive education." (This is the non-traditional approach to scholastics that, loosely defined, stresses creativity and understanding over the mastery of facts.) While Dewey was never known as a writer of great prose, in this brief book, one of his last, he explains what can be gained by toiling through real and challenging practical experiences.

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner, Basic Books, 1983. Gardner has become the most visible advocate of the notion that people have many different kinds of intelligence. But as we can see (by Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, above, and several other books that follow), there has been no shortage of theories about the different ways people think and learn. While Gardner’s definitions are a bit facile (and similar to the "taxonomy" distinctions that Bloom devised two decades earlier), all of this literature puts its finger on a valuable point: Our longstanding notions of what constitutes intelligence—primarily quickness with facts and tests, along with mathematical and verbal acuity—are unnecessarily limited. For his part, Gardner argues convincingly that skill in the personal, physical, and creative realms offer signs of ability that are often more accurate and thus more durable.

The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture by Frank R. Wilson, Pantheon, 1998. In this dense but provocative book, Wilson traces the way the hand shapes the development of the brain, language and human culture. The endeavor turned Wilson, a neurologist, into a fervent opponent of the high-tech emphasis in a range of domains—medicine, the workplace, and the classroom.

The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon and Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, both by David Elkind (Addison-Wesley, 1988, and Knopf, 1987, respectively). In both of these books, Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University, presents an impressive array of evidence that our rush to get young children into rigorous academics (including such things as early reading) is actually making them fall behind.

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard, Penguin, 1991. Leonard (described in the notation above on Education and Ecstasy) wrote this book nearly three decades after his breathless account of futuristic schools in computerized geodesic domes. The wisdom he gained in the intervening years shows. This book is a marvelous exegesis of the patience it takes to really master something; it’s also a delightful send-up of the dysfunctional personality types who chronically fail to master anything.

The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise A Moral Child by Robert Coles, Random House, 1997. Coles is the prolific chronicler of the meaningful in children’s lives. This book offers a somewhat precious but helpful picture of how children develop a sense of morality, and the kinds of activities, experiences, and conversations that can further the process.

The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons from America from a Small School in Harlem by Deborah Meier, Beacon Press, 1995. Meier is the founder of Harlem’s famous progressive trailblazers, the Central Park East Schools, and the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant for her work. This book engagingly describes her experiences getting poor children to respond in classrooms with the same fascination, discipline, and sense of hope that children of wealthier families often exhibit.

The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools That Work by Linda Darling-Hammond, Jossey-Bass, 1997. Darling-Hammond, one of the leaders of today’s progressive approaches to education, delivers a convincing attack here on the prevailing school bureaucracy. She points out, for instance, that in other industrialized countries, the vast majority of school staff actually teach, whereas in the U.S. most are administrators.

Teaching Elementary Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: Practical Approaches for Grades 3-6 by Rita Dunn and Kenneth Dunn, Allyn and Bacon, 1992. For several decades the Dunns have been the primary advocates of the notion that many children (and adults) learn best in unconventional settings—while sitting slumped on a sofa listening to music, for example, or by doing their studies late at night when presumably they are tired, or by having physical projects or frequent opportunities to move and change what they’re doing, and so on.

Thinking Styles by Robert J. Sternberg, Cambridge University Press, 1997. Written by a professor of psychology and education at Yale, this is yet another valuable description of some unappreciated ways that different people understand problems, analyze them, and solve them.

Toward A Theory of Instruction by Jerome Bruner, Harvard University Press, 1966. Bruner is the American father of "constructivism," an educational theory arguing that children don’t learn particularly well by being force-fed facts and figures. Instead, constructivists believe, children must discover, or construct, their own intellectual connections by doing physical projects and other self-directed activities. (The other prominent founders of this line of thinking are the famous Swiss psychologists Jean Piaget and his Russian follower, Lev Vygotsky.) This book is an early sample of Bruner’s thinking; later ones include Actual Minds, Possible Worlds and The Culture of Education, both from Harvard University Press, 1986 and 1996 respectively.

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On the imagination

The House of Make-Believe: Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination by Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, Harvard University Press, 1990. This book has become something of a classic on the topic of children and play. Even-handed and well researched, it examines how certain activities, including exposure to electronic media, affect children’s imagination.

The Essential Steiner: Basic Writings of Rudolf Steiner, edited by Robert A. McDermott, Harper San Francisco, 1984; and The Child's Changing Consciousness and Waldorf Education by Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophic Press, 1988. Steiner was the founder of Waldorf schools and an early "holistic" school of scientific thought called "anthroposophy." In articulating his theories, Steiner wrote a great number of books and articles, most of which are far too arcane and abstract for the average reader. A few of his more accessible remarks, which come from these two books, are quoted in the chapter on Waldorf schools.

Play at the Center of the Curriculum by Judith Van Hoorn, Patricia M. Nourot, Barbara Scales, and Keith R. Alward; Merrill (Prentice Hall), 1993 and 1999. In stressing the role of imaginative play in learning, the authors trace their argument to many of the great modern child psychologists (Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, George Herbert Mead, and Erik Erikson). Although the book goes to some unnecessary lengths to explain what should be common sense, it also includes numerous examples of instructive playful activities in domains ranging from art to mathematics.

The Thinking Classroom: Learning and Teaching in A Culture of Thinking by Shari Tishman, David N. Perkins, and Eileen Jay; Allyn and Bacon, 1995. This book is written by members of ProjectZero, the Harvard organization that studies creativity and arts in education. As such, it strives to spell out a specific, step-by-step process for sound thinking: reflection and understanding, applying principles from one field to another, working with ingenuity and discipline, and so forth.

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim, Vintage Books, 1977.

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On technology and the media, both pro and con

Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte. In this brief book, Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, makes a boosterish but articulate case for a fulfilling digital future.

Bringing the Internet to School: Lessons from an Urban District by Janet Ward Schofield and Ann Locke Davidson, Jossey-Bass, 2002. This book has its shortcomings (the text is plodding and the district is unnamed, going instead by the odd pseudonym “Waterford”). But it is thorough. After studying Internet use in one district for five years, the authors concluded that, all told, technology had not made much difference.

The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk by Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement, Robins Lane Press, 2000. While not terribly broad or surprising, this book is full of worrisome studies and anecdotes that offer a compelling warning.

The Computer Generation by Peter Stoler, Facts on File Publications, 1984. Written during the first big wave of popularity for personal computers, this book captures many moments of early optimism, much of which didn't pan out.

Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation by Joseph Weizenbaum, W. H. Freeman and Co., 1976. As out of date as this book would seem to be, it is widely regarded as a classic. Written by a renowned professor of computer science from MIT, it is no Luddite rant; the book is a tightly reasoned, informed examination of the injurious ways that human beings tend to use, and be used by, the tools they make.

The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking by Theodore Roszak, University of California Press, 1986 and 1994. Although dense and a little overwrought, this was one of the first books to advance a number of important arguments against high technology in schools, in industry, and throughout society at large.

Handbook of Children and the Media, edited by Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, Sage Publications, 2001. This is a thick but useful academic reference work, which offers digests on a range of research conducted over the years by experts in child development. It focuses primarily on television and video games, but it also includes a few chapters on computing, an area where the scientific findings are still preliminary and tentative.

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by Sherry Turkle, Simon & Schuster, 1995. For years, Turkle has held a lonely position in academia as one of the few who deeply understands technology but who can also see beneath its shiny surfaces. The former wife of Seymour Papert, MIT’s guru of computer programming for children, Turkle uses this book (and an earlier work, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit) to look at a subtle phenomenon: how youngsters who use computers intensely eventually develop an entirely different psyche and world view—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert, Basic Books, 1980. This is where Papert, one of the primary inventors of LOGO, first laid out his techno-sociological vision. While Papert has never been terribly realistic in his predictions, he is an extremely articulate advocate for technology.

Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway by Clifford Stoll, Doubleday, 1995. This wonderful polemic by a refugee from the technology industry was among the first to lampoon the modern-day hype about the wonders of computing.

Teaching with Technology: Creating Student-Centered Classrooms by Judith Haymore Sandholtz, Ph.D., Cathy Ringstaff, Ph.D., and David Dwyer, Ph.D., Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1997. A relatively uncritical but comprehensive portrait of Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT), the company’s decade-long experiment with technology in schools.

Technology and the Future of Schooling edited by Stephen T. Kerr, University of Chicago Press, 1996. A scholarly volume offering an impressive variety of perspectives and experiences with school computing, both pro and con.

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman, Vintage Books, 1992. Postman is one of the most well-known (and most vituperative) critics of technology. While his arguments often go overboard, he sketches a frightening portrait of a society increasingly defined, shaped, and ruled by technology.

The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier by Howard Rheingold, Addison Wesley, 1993. Like Negroponte, Rheingold is a believer in the sociological changes that computers make possible. One gets the sense that Rheingold has never encountered an online interaction he doesn’t like. But he does convincingly describe the new communication possibilities that computing has made possible.

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On the culture of education

The Aims of Education and Other Essays by Alfred North Whitehead, The Macmillan Company, 1929.

Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do by Laurence Steinberg, Simon and Schuster, 1996. Steinberg presents an array of evidence that students are increasingly distracted by extracurricular demands and temptations—sports practices; part-time jobs; social pressures; shopping malls; television and videos (one could now add computers)—so much so that they’re unprepared (or too exhausted) to study.

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education by John Taylor Gatto, New Society Publishers, 1992. Anyone impatient with the state of public education ought to treat themselves to the writings of John Taylor Gatto. Twice named New York State Teacher of the Year, Gatto makes a compelling case for staging lessons outside the classroom.

The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman, Vintage Books, 1995. As is Postman’s habit, this book is delightfully irreverant and irrascible (and sometimes excessive). Nonetheless, it gives education’s passive trend followers a badly needed shake.

Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools by William Damon, The Free Press, 1995. Although writing with a level of detail that is of interest mostly to educators, Damon offers some badly needed reminders that factual rigor (the traditionalists' mantra) and creativity (the progressive's priority) are not mutually exclusive.

Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s Hope: What Works for the American High School by Theodore Sizer (Mariner Books, 1984, and Houghton Mifflin, 1996, respectively). Sizer is one of the most thoughtful critics of school culture, particularly high school culture. Through the device of a fictional, composite character (Horace, a middle-aged teacher), Sizer tours us through a fascinating array of non-fictional school scenes. Some are depressing, some are fabulously inspiring.

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform by Diane Ravitch, Simon & Schuster, 2000. This is one of the most readable and comprehensive histories of American education, albeit one that’s quite critical of the progressive policies that have generally dominated school change.

Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, Yale University Press, 2001. While most of the arguments here are predictable, the book includes a few good essays on how real-world experiences with local politics can make for good students.

The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, Perseus, 1995. The primary target here is the notorious 1983 White House report "A Nation at Risk," which argued (falsely, the authors claim) that U.S. schools were slipping into dangerous decline.

Oversold & Underused: Computers in the Classroom by Larry Cuban, Harvard University Press, 2001. Cuban is known in this field for his earlier book on the subject (see Teachers and Machines, below). This book is his update, based largely on intensive studies that he and his graduate students conducted in schools around Stanford University, where Cuban is a professor of education.

Revisiting "The Culture of School and the Problem of Change" by Seymour B. Sarasohn, Teachers College Press, 1996.

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol, Crown, 1991. The undisputed classic when it comes to accounts of the horrible poverty that has been visited upon classrooms across the country. Sadly, despite some superficial improvements in funding for poor schools, the inequities that Kozol describe still exist (see the close of chapter two in my book).

The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch, Anchor Books, 1996. Hirsch is perhaps the leading advocate of traditional approaches to school reform—the notion that education is primarily about mastering a basic body of knowledge. In his mind, creativity and understanding (the priorities of the progressives) will come of their own accord—if students are given the basic factual tools they need.

Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920 by Larry Cuban, Teachers College Press, 1986. This tiny but wonderful book was the first to look at the long history of education’s love affair with technology.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Dell, 1969. This old classic was one of the first to argue for education as an act of social acitivism. As such, it inspired a generation of socially conscious teachers.

Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform by David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Harvard University Press, 1995. A concise history of efforts to change the culture of schooling—an environment, the authors argue, that has been remarkably impervious to alteration.

Waiting For A Miracle: Why Schools Can’t Solve Our Problems – And How We Can by James P. Comer, M.D., Penguin Books, 1997. Comer is the chief spokesman for reform efforts that strive to get both teachers and parents more actively engaged in the culture of their schools.

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Other topics that inform discussions of technology’s effect on education

America: What Went Wrong? by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, Andrews and McNeel, 1992. This is an expansion of a nine-part series that these two Pulitzer Prize winners wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer. It chronicles the way the Reagan Administration (with Wall Street’s help) slowly dismantled the economic foundation under the middle class, largely by shifting the nation’s tax burden away from the wealthy.

Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy by James Fallows, Pantheon, 1996. While this book focuses on the odd pathologies of the news media, it opens with some wonderful insights into what guides the behavior of any institution—the military, law enforcement, and so on. I borrowed his thinking because the principles he outlines seem to apply equally well to the field of education.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson, Knopf, 1998. Wilson, who is known for his wide-ranging scientific mind, coined this term to argue that the world’s myriad fields of study— history, the sciences, the arts—have more in common than most people have believed. As such, Wilson's findings lend support to the theories of his more esoteric forebear: Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf schools, the subject of chapter 13.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow, Viking Press, 1973. As noted above (see "On the imagination"), Rudolf Steiner founded an unorthodox science called "anthroposophy." Strange as his beliefs were, they had enough going for them to intrigue Saul Bellow, whose hero in this novel is fascinated by Steiner’s theories.

More Like Us: Making America Great Again by James Fallows, Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Writing at the peak of our 1980s’ bout of Asia envy, Fallows argued that imitating another country’s social and economic mores is doomed to failure. More important, the U.S. was founded on a spirit of adventure and egalitarianism that we chronically forget, to our undoing. While his point argues against borrowing too readily from other countries' systems of education, Japan’s case is rather paradoxical: their elementary schools actually make better use than we do of our own leading education theorists, including stalwarts such as John Dewey.

The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath by Kevin Phillips, Random House, 1990. For my discussions of the personal computer's early history in schools (in the 1980s), Phillips'book offered some context for the political and economic atmosphere of the period.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown & Co., 2000. This book offers an unusually elegant examination what makes certain ideas and social trends, such as computing, really take off.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, 1790. This ancient volume contains a line from one particular poem, "The Proverbs of Hell," which seems to encapsulate humanity's habit with fads like computers: "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough." This inspired the final line in my book: "Let us all hope that it is not much longer before that time comes when technology’s road of excess will have led our schools, and the rest of us, to a new palace of wisdom."

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