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Learning Through Computers

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By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

Late last year First Teachers focused on an article by computer guru Joshua Davis, which appeared on the web site Wired (www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers). Davis wrote favorably of an educational innovation being carried out in India in which small groups of students were “given a computer loaded with molecular biology materials.” The students were told “there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look.” Then the teacher left the room.
According to Davis, “Over the next 75 days the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn.” When the teacher returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. “The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days,” with some encouragement and guidance, “they were getting every other question right.” The educational consultant who put this program in place states flatly, “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it like bees around a flower.”
This consultant is now in the process of establishing five more schools in India based on this approach. “There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups — just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: ‘The children are completely in charge’.” He is convinced that “the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before,” one that it will be far more productive than traditional methods of teacher-directed teaching.
We asked our readers to respond. Peter P. Pranis of McAllen, Texas, a frequent source of valuable insights on educational issues for the readers of this column, took us up on the offer. He writes that learning at the high school and college “can be broken into about four components:
“1. Reading textbooks and other readings, ideally before. . . .
“2. Lectures on the material covered in 1.
“3. Doing problems (math, science, engineering) or writing essays for….
“4. Recitation sessions, going over problems, and discussion groups, or seminars in the liberal arts.”
Pranis contends that “computers can do great on lectures, such as those provided by the Khan Academy. Indeed, in comparison to the lectures given in large lecture halls at many colleges, the computer version is far better.”
But, Pranis continues, “point 4 is the key to personalized learning. The computer cannot handle this responsibility. In recitation sessions, the students should put the problems done at home on the boards — to be critiqued by the teacher and class. For this to happen, the students must have worked on the material at home, on their own. How will it be possible to keep the kids from just copying from the computer and not working on the material?
“From what I have heard as feedback from college students, the faculties at our colleges seem to be getting lazier and lazier. Recitation seems to be going by the board. When I was an adjunct professor at the University of Texas in Odessa, Texas, I had the students put the problems they had done on the board. This practice disciplined the students; they seldom would go to the board unprepared more than once. Recitation and seminars should be the focus of the faculty, regardless of the extent to which they use computers in their classes.”
Pranis closes with an observation that requires our attention before we look to make computers the key to learning in this country. He points to the work of Donald P. Hayes, Department of Sociology, Cornell University, who “demonstrates in his work that K-12 textbooks were dumbed down three to four grades from 1945 to the early 1990s. This means that a 1990s high school diploma signified little more student accomplishment than a 1945 grade school diploma.” Pranis thinks it would be better to “tighten up the K-12 education” than to waste time and money on remedial courses after unprepared students are admitted to college.
On another topic. John, a reader from New York, has forwarded to us an article by Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria from the January 31 online edition of The American Conservative (www.theamericanconservative.com/the-importance-of-working-earnestly/). It has much to say to those who insist that it is the responsibility of a school and a teacher to make coursework “relevant,” even enjoyable, for their students; that the cardinal sin for an educator is to make a class “boring,” that it must be “meaningful.”
Writes Romeyn-Sanabria, “The end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first have seen the rise of a new aestheticism: professional aestheticism, in which emotional satisfaction supplants the ideal of a job well done. After all, the reasoning goes, you are in your cubicle for at least eight hours a day — shouldn’t you enjoy what you’re doing?”
It is a familiar message these days. Students are encouraged to drop out of college if they don’t find it a “meaningful” experience; told that they can return to school later, “after experiencing life.” Young people, Romeyn-Sanabria continues, “are lulled into believing that we can drop out of college and leave ‘square’ careers,” perhaps in search of some vaguely defined “entrepreneurial independence.”
Romeyn-Sanabria has nothing against people seeking to go into business for themselves, as long as they have thought out what they are doing, rather than follow some romanticized dream that they will become the next Bill Gates by escaping the “drudgery” of their classrooms.
“This desire for workplace satisfaction,” she continues, “in the face of lean economic times has created an awkward tension on both the supply and demand side of the labor force. For one thing, you can’t be happy at a job you don’t have: unemployment, while decreasing, still hovers at seven percent. Secondly, the expectation of being happy at work has devolved into entitlement, following this line of thought: If I am not happy at work, then I am undervalued and must be wasting away. It’s a vaguely Marxist premise, assuming oppression that disregards the basic model of labor economics and alternate paths to better opportunities.”
She agrees: “Humans are not automata, and a value of work beyond simply putting food on the table is warranted.” But “it’s important to be aware of why one is working, to strive for a larger goal other than meeting the standard obligations. This arrangement of priorities presupposes the willingness to overlook the occasional encroachments on workplace comforts. In other words, if you hate what you’re doing, but are committed to why you’re doing it, or for whom you’re doing it, such purpose eclipses the need for the ephemeral professional aestheticism a bored worker craves, at least some of the time.
“Work is called work for a reason — it is not meant to be effortless, nor is it a method to find oneself or to have all one’s fantasies come true. It is a means to survive and fulfill one’s obligations.”
This message also applies to students. Learning is not always fun. Often it is hard and grueling work that must be endured for the greater satisfaction that will come after the subject matter has been mastered and “meaningful” (and, one hopes, gainful) employment has been secured. Students who drop courses because they find them “boring” and “irrelevant” often learn to regret their mistake. It would do parents and teachers well not to give in to this impulsive behavior.

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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.

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