Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Machine in the Classroom

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Machine in the Classroom

Article excerpt

Technology will prevail, according to Mr. Snider. But most important, it must be used to educate people who can think for themselves, people who will not be servants of the machine in the classroom.

From Lantern slides to language labs, from closed-circuit television to microcomputers, attempts to improve American schools with modern machines have been something less than a resounding success. Beginning with the magic lantern and the stereoscope of 1900, machines in the classroom have generated some promise, a fair amount of controversy, and a great deal of hype. During these 90-plus years, however, the basic acts of classroom teaching have changed very little despite sporadic efforts at research and reform - with and without machines. As Tracy Kidder reports in Among Schoolchildren, "The task of universal, public elementary education is still usually being conducted by a woman alone in a little room presiding over a youthful distillate of a town or city."[1]

Most of this effort to reform education with technology has been based on two modern machines: the camera and the computer. Together and separately, literally and symbolically, the camera and the computer are the tools of our time. Increasingly these machines dominate our consciousness and help us define reality both in and out of school. Among other things, they make it possible for us to consider seriously such neologisms as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Today, as camera functions increasingly merge with computer processes, the cultural symbolism of each machine can still be isolated. This phenomenon can be seen, for example, in Washington, D.C., where silent, monumental statements a generation apart are products of these machines. A 1945 news photograph has been rendered in bronze as the heroic Iwo Jima Memorial of World War II. Meanwhile, across the Potomac the newer Vietnam Memorial is a computer print-out in marble, a mortal manifest of those who did not return. It has become a popular place for cameras.

Cultural symbolism notwithstanding, there are still some kinds of work that remain virtually unaffected by cameras and computers. Certainly the more conservative sector of the essentially conservative academic establishment has traditionally opposed the classroom use of film, television, computers, and a range of other media. As former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett put it in 1986, "The good schools know what works; they scorn fads and insist on fundamentals."

Bennett's 1966 counterpart, Harold Howe II, who was President Lyndon Johnson's commissioner of education in a more liberal climate, held an equally fundamentalist view. "The essence of education," he said, "is beyond the capacity of a machine, and always will be."[2] Although there is something less than agreement on "the essence of education," this kind of antimachine animus seems to have been an expected, almost automatic, humanistic response to technology whenever it has been proposed as a solution to cultural problems in or out of school.

Not all federal education leaders, of course, have been hostile to classroom machines. For example, in 1923 U.S. Commissioner of Education John Tigert wrote about school movies: "Within the celluloid film lies the most powerful weapon for the attack on ignorance the world has ever known." The fact is that a century of hit-or-miss experimentation with such machines has produced an intellectual split over their use in school today. Two cultures, so to speak, can be identified, a divergence neatly put by B. F. Skinner in the title of a 1954 article, "The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching."[3]

Of course, a traditional approach to everything is characteristic of the history of organized education, where the university tops the teaching chain. Like cathedrals and parliaments, the university is a medieval invention, an institution that mostly reflected the past and did not illuminate the future until well into this century. …

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