Monday, December 26, 2011

Old Tools, New Tools in the Classroom: The Battle is Unchanged

I've been reading--once again--about how computers are going to save U. S. education. And I admit: I'm not really sold. Maybe it's because I use Facebook regularly. Don't get me wrong. I like Facebook. Still, it reminds me of something Henry David Thoreau said when the world was "speeding up" in the 1840s, with the new telegraph, and the new railroads cutting deep into his beloved woods.

"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys," he grumbled, "which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end...We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

That probably sums up every status update I've posted for the last six months.

I remember when my old school district started bringing computers into classrooms and setting up computer labs and hearing that technology was going to revolutionize education. I remember learning how to use Power Point and how to upload pictures from the Internet for use in lesson plans.

It was going to be great!

Now, instead of the tired old way, writing "AMERICAN CIVIL WAR (1861 to 1865)" on the blackboard with a piece of chalk, we could put it into Power Point. Then the letters would come flying out of a corner of the computer screen and spell out:

"AMERICAN CIVIL WAR (1861 to 1865)"

You could even add sound effects, like cannon crashing and horses whinnying. Unfortunately, students still had to memorize the same fact.

Of course, computers opened up a vast ocean of knowledge to students. Some dived in; and others merely dipped their toes. Others, still, walked the beach checking out the hot young guys and the tanned girls in their bikinis.

In fact, if you took a class to the computer lab and put everyone to work some students buckled down, and got excited about what they could find. Others surfed the web when you weren't looking or played electronic Solitaire. You could find interesting primary sources on the web; or you could go to Wikipedia, do a bit of quick cutting and pasting, and turn in the mishmash as "original" work and hope your teacher went away. You could even find sites pedaling pre-written term papers on all kinds of subjects for the right price. Or you could go to YouTube and find helpful tips on how to cheat on tests.

One suggestion: A) tear off old label from a Desani water bottle; B) scan label on computer; C) write tiny cheat sheet notes on back of new label: D) glue fake label back on bottle; E) carry bottle to next test. Drink as needed and refresh.

Improved means to an unimproved end.

I don't mean to sound like a Luddite here; I know computers can help good teachers in the classroom; but maybe we need to understand that there is no magic cure in education.

I used to take slideswhenever I went on vacation, for example, and used some to great effect in my American history classes. In that mythic era known as the "Good Olde Days" you could use a slide projector to flash a picture on a screen. It was interesting, though, when computers came into use. The old slides filled the screen no matter how the camera had been held originally. A horizontal landscape, 3" x 5", became a 3' x 5' picuture on the screen.

A portrait taken vertically became a 5' by 3' shot instead.

Here's an old favorite--which I used whenever we talked about John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and early efforts to save the environment. Muir pushed for Yosemite Park to be protected and devoted his life to drawing boundaries to save sequoia trees from rapacious lumber companies.

I used to ask students how many thought that was a big tree lying on the ground behind my wife (now ex; a nice lady) and virtually all agreed. Then I pointed out that what they were looking at was actually part of a sequoia limb, 150 feet long, before it broke from a tree and shattered on the forest floor. That got everyone's attention.

Unfortunately, when we switched to computers, if you took a picture in portrait mode and flashed it on the screen it was fitted to a computer monitor, shrinking it in size and leaving large blank spaces to left and right. So: if I wanted to show this picture from a cross country bicycle ride I took in 2007, with the old slide projector method it looked like this:

And if I used the computer to flash the picture on a screen it looked like this:

What I discovered, I think was this: you had to interest students in real learning. Old-fashioned notes on a blackboard, with chalk = regular flathead screwdriver. New-style notes in Power Point, with computer = electric screwdriver.

The real question remained, whether you worked with old tools or new:  What did you and your students plan to build?

If I was still teaching--and the subject of the environment came up in class today--I might show students this picture from the top of Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, taken near the end of another cross country bicycle trip this summer. I think, slide projector or computer, it might gain a little adolescent attention and lead a class into a stirring discussion along the way.


  1. Again -- thought-provoking, delightful and informative. Better than anything I've seen in the New York Times Opinion or Education sections. Or anywhere else. Get these chapters to the publishers.

    Bruce Abel (I transfered his comment after I renamed this entire post.)

  2. wow! I loved this post and I wholeheartedly agree. The one really good outcome of computers in the classroom is that is does expose children to them in preparation for work or college- especially those that do not have computers at home.

    My FAVORITE part of your post was the Dasani bottle method of cheating. If the kid that came up with that isn't the CEO of some corporation- I would be surprised. That is amazingly creative! (yes, I know cheating is wrong- but still- creative!)
    Lori Chisman Barber