Aphorisms on Computers in Classrooms


Steve Talbott



I have, in the following aphorisms, attempted to digest many of the past NetFuture articles on computers and primary education -- along with some current reflections on the topic -- into a series of brief, provocative statements.  The hope is that they may stimulate discussion among school board members, parents, and teachers.  Not all of these statements are my own; some originated, for example, with Lowell Monke or Edward Miller, who have written in, or been quoted in, NetFuture.




** Lack of information has not been the bottleneck in education for decades, or even centuries.  Rather, the task for the teacher is to take the infinitesimal slice of available information that can actually be used in the classroom and find some way to bring students into living connection with it.


** The single thing children suffer from most in today's society is the lack of close relationships with caring adult mentors.


** Given how many hours a day children pursue mediated experience through cinema screens, television screens, and video game screens, it hardly makes sense to add a computer screen to the mix while saying reassuringly, "Let's make sure the children use it in a balanced way".


** Computer labs have been displacing art, music, craft, and physical education classes.  Does anyone pretend to have shown that the exchange is beneficial?


** Money going toward computers could have been used for reducing class size.


** The huge amounts of time teachers are having to spend learning to adapt their curriculum to the computer and themselves to the latest software could have been devoted to a livelier understanding of the subjects they teach.


** Children, whose developing bodies need vigorous and varied physical activity, already spend too much sedentary time in cars, classrooms, and in front of televisions, contributing to an epidemic of obesity, among other things.


** The claim that computers can stimulate kids, if true, hardly points to the decisive need for an over-stimulated and hyperactive generation.


** The quality of kids' play is correlated with their later cognitive, aesthetic, and social skills.  There is no demonstrated connection between these skills and early computer use.


** Studies (by Louise Chawla and others) have shown that naturalists, ecologists, and environmental activists, together with teachers in these fields, have had, more than most people, childhood experiences in wild places with adult mentors.


** If it's impossible to love mankind without loving the people around you, it's also impossible for computer-wielding children to love the Amazon rain forest, African wildlife, and the environment in general without learning to love the bits of nature immediately around them in yard, street, and park.


** Children are more and more subject to artificial, disconnected, and chaotic environments, making it hard for them to find a stable ground for their lives in the world -- as illustrated by the boy who was taken to the aquarium and then asked, "Is this real reality or virtual reality?"


** Internet-based multicultural programs in our schools are often more a celebration of electronic monoculture triumphant than of the invisible local cultures that technology is so efficiently marginalizing.


** Literacy depends much more deeply upon the child's powers of attention, language-use skills, imagination, and questioning strategies than it does on the alphabet-sound and word drills computers are so often used for. We can reasonably ask whether the drills weaken the more fundamental capacities.


** For most people the computer, whether inside the classroom or outside, stands as an image of the human mind.  But, for all its increasing presence in the lives of children, it presents an extremely one-sided, limiting, and distorted image of the mind.


** Using the computer without understanding it encourages children to defer to it inappropriately, as when many say the computer never makes mistakes and is therefore more authoritative than their teacher.


** Teaching the principles of computation, in any full sense, is best deferred until secondary school.


** Secondary schools are widely failing in their responsibility to teach students about digital technologies.  They substitute computer use and online experience for an understanding of the technology.


** Parents pushing for computer use in schools are often driven by fears for their child's employability and by an undue respect for the computer as a glamorous emblem of technical expertise.


** Pressure to use computers in the classroom comes from the massively funded marketing arms of high-tech corporations, who are perfectly happy for the public educational system to condition the interests and buying habits of their future customers and oversee the vocational training of their future employees.


** Elementary schools should not be vocational training centers.


** The task of schools is to encourage the development of children who can decide what sorts of jobs are worth having in the coming century, not to train children to fit whatever jobs the system happens to crank out.


** A great deal of computer-based learning turns out to be more about creating nifty computer effects than about learning the subject at hand.


** The computer is often used as a gimmick to lend a touch of glamour or

excitement to a subject.  Why is this artificial glamorization more appealing than making the subject itself exciting -- something good teachers have no difficulty doing?


** As computer exposure among the young increases, the glamour factor is

progressively losing its effectiveness.  Therefore we see escalating competition among web sites and software makers to deliver novel entertainment value, much as we have seen in television and cinema. Indeed, turning children over to the computer for their education is much like turning them over to television.  Babysitters have long appreciated the convenience of this.


** More and more children's web sites have the same purpose as Saturday morning television:  to keep children glued to the screen until they see the next commercial -- a task on which vastly more psychological expertise is brought to bear than is ever available to schools pursuing the child's inner development.


** Parents who are impressed that their tube-bound kids are so focused should ask themselves whether "focused" means "mesmerized".


** The computer has been embraced as an all-purpose answer without the educational problems for which it is the needed answer ever having been articulated -- and in willful ignorance of all the problems the computer itself introduces.


(For a listing of the articles from which many of these thoughts were extracted, see the "Education and computers" entry in the NetFuture topical index:  http://www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html.  For a substantive, well-referenced treatment of the general issues, get in touch with the Alliance for Childhood, www.AllianceForChildhood.net.)

© 2003 by The Nature Institute.

Steve Talbott (stevet@oreilly.com) is the editor of NetFuture an electronic newsletter where this article originally appeared.