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Jewish World Review July 13, 1999 /29 Tamuz 5759

Bob Greene

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A 21st Century idea for schools: log off and learn --
PENDLETON, Ky. --- The key to helping the next generation of American children be bright, literate, intellectually self-sufficient, steeped in the most important areas of knowledge?

It all comes down to computers in the classrooms.

Get rid of them.

Yep. It's a thought that has been nagging at me for a long time, but it wasn't until I saw an essay by journalist Jonathan Karl that it all crystallized. Computers -- routinely hailed as the saviors of America's schoolchildren as they enter the new century -- are not the answer at all. Except if we throw them away.

Or, more precisely, throw them out -- out of the classrooms. There is no question that computers are taking over the world -- in many aspects of life, they already have. But acknowledging that Americans can and will depend on computers in their daily activities is quite different from assuming that putting them into the classrooms of young schoolchildren is a helpful thing. As Karl writes:

"Forget about wiring every classroom for the Internet. Unplug the monitors. Sell the keyboards for scrap. The computer ban should extend to all classes through the 8th-grade level. Incorporate computers in the curriculum from 9th grade on, but not before. The benefits (of this) would be many: In the short run, schools will save money; in the long run, we can develop an educational system that will truly equip students to thrive in the computer age."

I'm much more concerned with the second part than the first. Karl points out that no category of education spending is increasing more rapidly than the purchase of computers; meanwhile, as local school boards make computers a high priority, arts programs are being cut, and other uses for the money -- hiring better teachers, reducing class sizes, improving libraries and safety -- are being left out.

The money aside, though, the main reason to cure ourselves of the computers-in-the-classroom addiction is this:

What do young students do with computers?

Play with them, mostly.

Computers are like television -- they're fun, they're hypnotic, and when you place them in front of children, they are all that the children can think about or want to do. Try getting a child to read a book, or participate in a cogent discussion, when a TV set is on or a computer screen is glowing. If you've ever had trouble doing that in your own household, think about what happens in schoolrooms when computers are routinely available.

Karl quotes a researcher named Barbara Means: "I've seen kids spending a whole period illustrating a color cover of a report, pixel by pixel, when they haven't even done the report yet." Of course: We tell ourselves that children must be exposed to computers so that they can compete in the next century, but the fact is that most children are already much more well-versed in how to use computers than we adults are. It's not getting them to start using the things that is the problem -- it's getting them to stop using the computers long enough to actually learn something.

Which is the the real point here: We are not doing children any favors by plopping them in front of yet another set of screens and programming them to tap and stare away. What we should be doing is actually teaching them: helping them work hard for the knowledge and insights that come only from the diligent and disciplined pursuit of the things that really matter. As Karl writes:

"Even if computers are used in a purely educational way, they may not belong in the classroom until after 8th grade. Every hour spent in front of the flickering screen is an hour not spent interacting with real flesh-and-blood people such as teachers and fellow students.

"Socialization and values are critical components of early education; it is hard to imagine that the computer enhances either. Yale computer scientist David Gelernter (has said), `Children are not being taught to read, write, know arithmetic and history. In those circumstances, to bring a glitzy toy into the classroom seems to me to be a disaster.' "

The only people (other than computer companies) likely to object to tossing the computers out are the schoolchildren who would much rather fiddle with computers in class all day. And -- here comes the famous line -- they'll thank us someday for doing this.

(The thank-you notes will undoubtedly be sent via e-mail.)

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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