Sunday, February 19, 2006

Thoughtware

My wife volunteers in the junior-high/high-school library here on the island. The younger kids read lots of books, more than their counterparts back in the States, she tells me. The older kids -- well, like American kids, they have moved on to computers.

Even the settlement elementary schools are getting wired.

And something, I suspect, is being lost, something precious and beautiful that happens only when a creative and dedicated teacher meets eager students.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite. I was the first at my college to use a computer as a learning tool, back at a time when we ran boxes of punched cards on a borrowed off-campus machine. For 40 years, I encouraged students to use computers whenever appropriate.

But in my classroom, it was always human-to-human. Spontaneous. Off-the-wall. I had colleagues who gave their lectures with PowerPoint. Well, fine, but -- ho-hum.

I know these Bahamian kids need to understand computers if they are going to make their way in the world, but -- hey -- there's no danger of that not happening. Most of them already know more about computers than their teachers.

What a good teacher knows is how to ignite curiosity in young minds. When I walk into a classroom and see 30 students sitting at computers, I groan. When I walk into a classroom and see every wall and surface covered with maps, posters, books, models, plants, and even some things I never would have expected, I know some real education is going on.

Back when I was teaching, an academic administrator sent around a booklet on Information Technology (IT) in education, a copy for everyone on the faculty. On the cover was a picture of two cogwheels grinding away.

An excerpt: "The benefits of shifting away from handicraft methods, coupled with scale economies and increased flexibility, argue for the adoption of IT even when one cannot demonstrate immediate cost advantages."

And: "The 'retraining' of IT equipment (for example, reprogramming) while not inexpensive, is easier and more predictable than retraining a tenured professor. Within limits, departments will gain a larger zone of flexibility as the capital-labor ratio grows."

This technobabble was offered as the salvation of education.

Computers might very well enhance "academic productivity," if by academic productivity one means the certification of cogs at minimal cost. But they can also spell the end of literate discourse and humane learning in the classroom.

Already, teachers are referred to by "educationalists" as "information professionals," and students as "knowledge consumers." Books have become "bookware." Ideas are "thoughtware." Handwriting is a "pen-based communication interface."

Here is how an IT technocrat might define education: The optimal utilization of strategic multimedia platforms implementing flexible interface functionality to facilitate information transfer in a pro-active user-friendly networked environment for knowledge enhancement.

As IT extends its sway in education, a curious thing is happening. Increasingly, human characteristics are applied to computers. We have dumb terminals and forgiving programs. Computers talk to each other using a technique called handshaking. They are well-behaved. They sleep.

Conversely, humans increasingly refer to themselves in computer terms. We no longer talk to each other, we interface. We refer to our leisure activities as downtime. We don't get things off our chest, we core-dump. "He lacks bandwidth" means a person can't deal with multiple thoughts simultaneously. "Get off my screen" is a brush-off.

Computers become more like humans, and humans become more like machines.

Let's stop talking about computers as if they are the salvation of education. Let's talk instead a spontaneous, unprogrammed classroom buzz. Let's talk about books, and words, and poetry, and art, and history, and -- yes, science and technology. Let's do it in the language of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Martin Luther King.

And please, in the sweet little settlement schools on this island, please let Bahamians resist turning their kids into cogs.

When I wrote on this subject some years ago, I recounted a night I spent with a small group of students around our new telescope in the college observatory. The telescope was computer driven. It could point to any one of thousands of celestial objects at the tap of a few keys.

In previous years I had spent long stretches of time searching for faint objects while students shuffled their feet and waited. Thanks to the computer, we sped through the sky, feasting on nebulas and galaxies, talking excitedly about what it means to be human in a universe that contains more galaxies than there are humans on Earth.

It was a beautiful night, full of soft breezes, glittering stars and friendship. One of the students, for no particular reason that I could discern, suddenly blurted out a few lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Nor linger in the rain to mark/ The smell of tansy through the dark."

It was one of those sparks of gorgeous spontaneity that define education at its best. Meanwhile, the computer was there, unobtrusively doing its job, as computers should.

Further Reading

Here's an book I read many years ago, now out of print, recounting the inspiring experiences of a teacher in New Zealand: In the Early World, by Elwyn S. Richardson. Art, language, math, science -- all working together. Extraordinary.

Since I mentioned Edna St. Vincent Millay, let me recommend her biography Savage Beauty, by Nancy Milford, which I have several times given copies of to young student writers.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.