|The Flickering Mind|
|publisher||Random House (Oct. 2003)|
|summary||An extremely well-researched critique of technology's role in education.|
What's bad:The first 350 pages of The Flickering Mind are as depressing as anything I've read. In case after case, Oppenheimer describes politicians' and educators' mindless acceptance of claims by technology pundits and technology companies. The sheer number of tax dollars poured into worthless software and soon-to-be-obsolete hardware is appalling The fact that so few lessons have been learned in 20 years beggars the imagination.
Those are my words, not the author's. The book's examples are laid out in very plain, factual language. No raving rants, no wild tangents. Just record after record, study after study, interview after interview.
Oppenheimer has researched the book by interviewing teachers, students, former students, educational software employees, district policymakers and government officials across the U.S. People with hands-on experience using things like distance-learning systems, CD-ROM-based textbooks, math and reading games, multimedia software, student laptops, school intranets, web-based research papers, and dozens of pieces of educational technology.
A recurring theme in these interviews is how computers either make formerly easy things harder (like classroom discussion), and hard things avoidable (students who know how to copy-paste don't have to construct sentences).
"One English teacher could readily tell which of her students essays were conceived on a computer. "They don't link ideas," the teacher said. "They just write one thing, and then they write another one, and they don't seem to see or develop the relationships between them."
The many interviews give The Flickering Mind a personal feel, and make the reading easier. In many ways, it's like a record of the author's travels from school to school. But one of the book's great strengths is Oppenheimer's unwillingness to rely on anecdotal evidence. Much of the book is devoted to analyzing studies of technology's impact in schools. A good chunk of these studies are commissioned by firms that sell educational software. Not surprisingly, they tend to be shallow and nonscientific. Many pages are spent pointing out flaws in this research. This becomes important when Oppenheimer turns the same critical eye on studies which support his own conclusions. An interesting sub-topic of the book is how very few truly objective educational technology studies exist.
All the evidence against computers as useful learning tools wouldn't be so alarming if computers didn't cost so much. But educators seem especially blind to the continual costs of staying on the technology bandwagon. There are two faces to this problem, and The Flickering Mind addresses both. The first is schools cutting faculty and programs in order to purchase hardware and software. The second is local and national governments granting subsidies and to companies who promise to assist schools with technology. In both cases, taxpayers foot the bill.
The Flickering Mind relies mainly on educators' own criteria for determining how technology helps learning (can the kids read, write, and do math?) But it also takes time to puncture the oft-recycled dogma that society has a shortage of graduates with high-tech skills:
"When employers who were fretting about this gap were asked what skills mattered to them, this is what they said: Most important of all is a deep and broad base of knowledge. "Want to get a job using information technology to solve problems? Know something about the problems that need to be solved." This statement reflected the sentiments of nearly two thirds of the Information Technology Association of America's members. Following far behind this priority was "hands-on experience" with technical work, which less than half the nation's IT managers considered critical (Most apparently felt perfectly capable of teaching those skills on the job.)
All is not Luddite doom-and-gloom. The Flickering Mind is careful to highlight the areas where computer technology helps kids learn. Many schools do benefit from computers--as long as the computers are in central labs (not in the classroom), and not networked. One school has a senior-level class in which students build the computers used in the labs. Programming classes are valued by upperclassmen with an interest in technology careers. Some educators have made adjustments, like the teacher who removed all but a single-size font from the machines "so the students can write instead of wasting time adjusting the text".
The final third of the book is an uplifting counterpart to the ignorance and frustration described in the first two thirds. Oppenheimer gives details of visits to several schools which buck the trend of embracing technology as an end in itself. They use computers, but not in the class:
"In an aging brick building on New York's Upper East Side, a dozen teenagers of varying ages, half of whom look like street kids, pull their desks into a circle as their teacher distributes several thick handouts. "You're killing trees," one student complains."
"Yes," says the teacher. "I'm killing lots of trees"
After the students have spent fifteen to twenty minutes with the handouts, discussion begins. The debate is constant and heated. Whenever the dialog bogs down or goes off course, the teacher quickly interrupts. "I want to hear some pieces of evidence here!" he insists.
A university professor contrasted former students of this school with others she'd met: "I've had the experience of asking students a question and there's a one-sentence answer. And it's not a question of shyness or dumbness, but the person hasn't learned how to develop an idea. How to make a statement and then qualify and describe and give examples and illustrations. Each and every one of these people could do that."
The Flickering Mind is one of the most well-researched books I've read. It is well worth checking out from your library. It's even more worth buying, because you'll likely be re-reading it and lending it to your friends.
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