At School Randy Sparkman

PARENT, CAREGIVER, EDUCATOR. Nothing touches us more deeply than the open, expectant faces of our children.
Encouraged or demoralized, praised or ignored, they must look to others to help them discover who they are and what is
important. Armed with their own self-reliance, luck and the tools - gifts - they are given, they go unquestioningly forward to meet
the world as it presents itself. Almost without exception, as their first days of school become weeks, their backward glances
occur more for our reassurance than their own.

While our children share the certainty and fearlessness of youth, there is quiet panic in the hearts of those responsible for their
 care and education. Caregivers at all points on the economic scale share the keen sense that the earth is spinning a little

 the need to decide whether, when, and how to use digital technologies (computers and networks) in the classroom adds another
 dimension to an already bewildering array of educator and caregiver issues.

For the United States government, the media, and certainly for the providers of technology, the choice seems clear. According
to them, the faster we wire classrooms and convert student desktops from wood to electronic, the better.

There is little doubt that computers, combined with networked and local digital information, can add value to the learning process.

 students will certainly benefit from exposure to, and understanding of, these machines in the years before they enter the
 workplace. However, before we replace every lead pencil with a word processor ,it may prove beneficial to insert a measure of
 hopeful skepticism into the mix. As these technologies increasingly find their way into the classroom, it becomes important to

And, more importantly, it becomes necessary to begin to understand the digital landscape - the nature and impact of these
machines - in order to aid our children in the development of skills, ideas, and attitudes that will help them first deal with, and
 then thrive in, a changing and chaotic world.

It is a uniquely American response to assume that new technologies will transform the classroom. A 1997 Atlantic Monthly
article points out that, in 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that motion pictures would replace textbooks, and that, in 1945, a
director of the Cleveland public school system said that the portable radio receiver would become as common in the classroom
as the blackboard. Since then, television, film-strips, VCR's, compact discs, and "multi-media" stations have found their way
into the schoolhouse, all with mixed results. While each of these machines continues to serve its respective purpose in the
classroom, none of them has enabled the educational "revolution" for which they seemed destined. In fact,except for the
presence of some these devices on a rolling cart (along with some distinct differences in student attitudes and demeanor), an
1890's era teacher would, for the most part, feel right at home in today's "chalk-and-talk" classroom. It is not only the
government, the media and computer companies that are evangelizing the use of computers in the classroom.

Today, many of us are convinced that computers, and the Internet, will finally provide the long-anticipated, technology-driven
classroom transformation. From an educational perspective, the machine just seems too good to be true. It enables the creation
of reports, drawings, and images, it stores,indexes, cross-references, and presents vast amounts of current information, it is
suitable for teacher-driven, directed learning as well as student-driven, unstructured exploration, it blends multiple artistic
disciplines (text, image, sound), and it allows students and teachers to collaborate with peers, parents and experts down the hall
and around the globe.

In fact, the promise of digital technologies for the classroom seems to be the one idea on which the beleaguered, bruised, and
battered American educational system can agree. Paralyzed by an entrenched administrative bureaucracy, special interests,
political games, political correctness, educational fads, endless debates over standards, student (and parent) indifference and
deteriorating physical resources, American schools are desperately in need of a miracle. And, lemming-like, they, and the
government, are re-routing finite resources from other priorities toward the insertion of computers and networks into the

While there is agreement on the need for, and the inevitability of, computer technology in the classroom, there is little agreement
concerning the manner of application, or the expected outcome. The range, focus and success-rates of current educational
technology initiatives throughout the nation, and the world, vary greatly. There are examples of successes in impoverished
schools where innovative teachers and administrators maximize the utility of donated,obsolete PC's and software in order to
provide an added dimension to their student's learning experience, and, at the same time, there are examples of spectacular
failures in institutions with access to large quantities of state-of-the-art computers and networks, provided by affluent
communities and corporate sponsors, where the focus is on technology, rather than learning. In either scenario the message is
the same: the end-product must be learning, not technology for technology's sake.

If we assume computers can play two roles in the classroom: one, to enhance the learning process, and two, to expose students
to technologies that will be integral not only to their working life, but to their interaction with the world-at-large, we are able to
place these technologies into a reasonable educational context. The focus shifts from how computers can teach to how children
learn, and what do we want to teach them. This is a subtle, but,nonetheless, powerful distinction. The computers, networks,
software, and interfaces to the "information space" that children use today will not exist when they enter the workplace, but their
digital successors will. Therefore, the primary goal in the classroom should not only be to learn about computers, but to use
 computers to learn, to understand the nature of the information that resides within the machine, and to experience the social
and organizational dynamics that result from digitally-enabled, human collaboration. In The End of Education, Neil Postman
says that there are many ways to learn, all of which lead to the same end. The challenge lies in acquiring the wisdom to
decide what should comprise that newfound knowledge, and in sustaining the motivation to reach that end.

In a 1995 Atlantic Monthly article, Paul Gagnon identified "three distinct purposes of schooling: for work, for public affairs, and
for private culture". For better and worse, since the turn of this century, the focus of American educators has been to prepare
our children for what Postman refers to as "Economic Utility" - the ability to make a living.

Given drop-out rates, parent indifference and shrinking student attention spans, this is, perhaps, the most, and only, pragmatic
approach. But this should not limit our goals for our educational system: specifically, the ideal of helping our children reach
their maximum potential, not only as economic beings, but, also, as human beings.

Gagnon's educational purposes are also useful when thinking about the place of digital technologies in the lives of our children.
For not only will they be rewarded in their working life based on their degree of familiarity and mastery of computers and
networks, but their role as members of society, and as individuals, will be increasingly mediated,enriched, and encroached-upon
by bit-driven machines, processes and institutions.

So, if computers should be used as teaching tools, and not as an end in themselves, how do we prepare our children for
technology-saturated workplaces, and lives? Simple. For all the technology that we have inserted into our lives, our basic
natures have changed very little. We remain challenge-driven, deliberative, social, task-oriented, risk-taking,and spiritual,
beings. Those who are "successful" seem to have the ability to leverage one or more of these attributes a little more than the
rest of us. Those who are "happy" seem to have the ability to maintain these attributes in an agreeable relationship with each
other. Therefore, because all technology is transitional, and because human nature changes so slowly as to seem perennial,
the irony of the digital age is that it will continue to be the "basic" skills that enable individuals to thrive, not those based on

What are these skills? Perhaps it is more useful to refer to them as gifts. Not a gift in the sense of a physical thing built,
purchased, or bequeathed, but,rather, as an attitude, a predisposition, or a trait, passed from one generation to another - not
some sterile, here's-the-book vocational training. How are these proficiencies "given"? They are provided through example,
priority, and consistency. It is not enough to nod at platitudes and then abdicate the responsibility of preparing our children for
the future to public and private institutions. This is everyone's job - parents, business, community, government, as well as 

This bid for basic skills should not be taken as some nostalgia-bound call for a return to the well-ordered classroom with a real
Apple on the teacher's desk and every homogenous, happy student face looking forward eagerly with textbooks open and brows
studiously furrowed. (As if that scene ever really did exist.). No, this suggestion is rooted in the knowledge that as digital
machines increasingly insinuate themselves into our lives, it will be the very human skills - at which computers fail miserably -
that allow us to captain our technology and leverage it in a way that adds value, rather than confusion, to our existence. In that
light, the following seven "gifts" will, perhaps, prove useful to our children in the digital age.

Invariably, when historians and scholars list mankind's most significant, watershed inventions, the appearance of the printing
press in Western Europe during the late 15th century figures prominently. Consistently-rendered, portable, and increasingly-
available printed words (text) revolutionized all forms of learning. And the importance of the ability for individuals to be able to
read this text will remain as important in the 21st century as it was in the 15th.

This may seem an obvious statement, but the ability to read will translate directly into the ability to participate in the social and
commercial world of the new century. Before our children can operate all these fancy devices, they have to be able to
understand the meaning of the installation instructions. In reality, and in spite of improvements in "graphical" interfaces and
"virtual" reality, the written word (text) will remain central to our interface (window) onto the evolving information space. In fact,
as Steven Johnson points out in his book, Interface Culture, for thousands of years, the evolutionary direction for all symbolic
language has been from pictures to alphabet and words - not vice versa. So, in the new century, our children must be able
to not only read words, but, also, to sustain a linear, text-driven idea, and hopefully, retain some of what they've consumed.
How do you teach children about words and language? By exposing them to words and language.

Who would argue with the value of the ability to engage in deliberative problem solving and acts of creative design?But most
current discussions in the popular media and the academic literature related to "thinking" are attracted to one of two poles: the
need for our children to acquire "cognitive" and "critical" thinking skills or the emerging, and, some say, inevitable, ability of
computers to "think". In the former case, the intent, all too often, is to excuse the lack of specific knowledge in a subject by
eliminating the requirement for a direct answer to a direct question. The quizee is freed from this responsibility by being
allowed to "think" of an answer appropriate to his "life-experience" ,and, as such, is spared the trauma of providing an incorrect
answer. In the latter case, we continue to hopefully describe our machines in terms of human intelligence (e.g., the "Big Blue"
chess software - programmed by humans - that defeated a world champion), when, in fact, the science of artificial intelligence
remains in realm of theory, and will continue to do so for many decades.The truth is, in the new century, our machines will
assume much of the thought-less, repetitious, retail-checkout, back-office, fact-management activities, while the most sought
-after workers will be those with the ability to solve problems and create ideas, products, and processes - or otherwise think.
Our ability to begin with a single problem, or a cacophony of competing ideas, and reason to a conclusion is eroding. There
are many ways to teach this, the idea is to teach it.

Even though, in the 1960's, Marshall McLuhan told us that the "medium is the message", in the digital age,sometimes, the
message is the message. No matter that digital technologies allow us to communicate seemingly independent of time and
space, when the message arrives, it must be intelligible to another human being. It has,therefore, never been more important
that children learn to express themselves with clarity and simplicity.

Emerging communications technologies have the potential to change the dynamics of the ways in which we communicate. Real-
time video phone-calls and conferences will finally become a reality and even though the resolution and transmission rates will
be sufficient to provide life-like images, subtle, three-dimensional, and often non-verbal, communication cues may not as
detectable. During those conversations, it, therefore,becomes essential to communicate specifically and effectively.
Technologies, such as electronic mail, news groups, and web-site forums, that allow us to communicate in a more asynchronous,
off-line manner will continue to rely on text. In these information spaces, as human time and attention become premium
commodities,clear and concise communication becomes essential. It is unlikely that people will pause to decipher, or otherwise
plod through, a difficult narrative. Computers also enable the blending of multiple methods of communication - text, image, and
sound. It is impossible to effectively meld these disparate disciplines into a meaningful message before one has mastered the
basics of the component parts. So, in the digital age, our school-age oral recitations and what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation 
essays should not go away.

To say that, in the new century, our children will be "bombarded by information" not only flirts with cliche,but also begs the
question, "what's information, and who's hurling it?". Perhaps the point is better made by saying, in the new century, the degree
to which our children manage to distinguish themselves in the workplace, contribute to society, and find meaning in their private
lives will increasingly rely on their ability to identify that which has value. In their working lives, as machines continue to acquire
responsibility for mundane and repetitive tasks (and human contact), our children will be called upon to create, and identify
ideas, processes, and other forms of "intellectual capital"that add value to the end result. In their private lives, they will have, at
their beck and call, an astounding array of "experiences", "environments",entertainment, and, yes, information. It will come so
quickly, so easily, in such quantities, and be so affordable and seductive as to be inescapable.The problem is that all these
experiences will vy for the same,finite allocation of time and attention. The challenge lies in communicating to our kids how
to first discern, and then choose, that which has value. The lesson of the wheat and the chaff has never been more timely.

To see a thing in context is to see it in relationship to other things. How can our kids make good choices without understanding
who they are, where they came from, where others came from, and how we got here? Before they are drawn into the digitally
mediated world of bits, our kids need to have a sense of how they fit into the world of atoms. In that light, there is a place for
history in the digital age.

Computer generated environments - from simple operating systems and word processing software, to shared Internet "spaces",
to elaborate, immersive virtual reality worlds - can be absorptive things. There is something about these surroundings that pull
us inward, away from the "real" world. This is especially true for young people. Perhaps their youthful minds are more receptive
to an abstract atmosphere, or they like visiting a place in which they are in control, outside the scrutiny of peers, parents and
teachers. Perhaps the digital world is simply easier to deal with, with fewer problems and challenges and math tests. In the noisy
whoosh oft he digital age, our kids will benefit from a certain rootedness, a frame of reference from which to begin and to refer.
The idea of identity, and its inverse, anonymity, will no longer be the familiar, fixed, tangible concept it is today. As it says in the
infamous New Yorker cartoon, "on the Internet no one knows you're a dog". Let's hope our kids are sure enough about their own
identity not to be confused about who is on their side of the monitor.

Certainly, technology has always been a catalyst for change. But it is not the only factor. Significant alterations in our world are
almost always a function of many variables: political, economic, demographic, social, serendipitous- and technological. Nor do
these factors interact in a predictable, linear manner. They are often out of kilter as one leaps forward while another struggles to
adapt in its wake. That change occurs is a given. That the rate of change has, and will continue to, increase goes without
question. What is always reasonable to question,however, is do we have to embrace and encourage every change that enters
our lives? It is not enough for our kids to accept that accelerating change is a fundamental fact of life, they also need the
pragmatic wisdom and idealistic courage to question when change is, and is not, appropriate, necessary and desirable.

Our children, particularly the current media-saturated, rapid-fire, technology-savvy generation, are naturally adaptable to the
maelstrom of modern times. Because they have grown up with the throw-away culture of technology, heroes of popular culture,
and consumer goods, it is only natural for them to expect all other areas of their lives to maintain the same pace. The problem;
for our kids will not be their failure to accept change, it will be their tendency to expect rapid and prodigious change in all areas
of their lives, and, as a result, to feel sense of disorientation and boredom when it doesn't occur. They are better served by
understanding that change comes, but rather unevenly.

Kids need to waste some time. They need to let their carbon-based wiring catch up with their years. Mark Helprin points out in
a 1996 Forbes ASAP essay that, for the majority of disciplines, kids don't, and can't, learn until they are ready. Perhaps, it is
better to let them learn something in six weeks at eight years old rather than drilling them for four years beginning at age four.
Kids need to make, and correct, their own mistakes. We all understand that we learn much more from correcting an error than
memorizing a formula. We have to communicate to our kids the value of multi-discipline learning. The cross-pollination between
disparate knowledge and experience breeds an intangible intellectual synergy that is much larger than the sum of its parts. We
must help our kids experience the benefits of seeking equilibrium. They need to understand how a balanced life feels if they are
to be able to return to that balance after passion, event, or requirement temporarily forces them to invest all their energy in
one place. And, in terms of technology, they need to get the message that machines serve them, not vice versa.

By the year 2000, sixty percent of all jobs will require some degree of familiarity and skill with computers.What will that
percentage be in 2020? The need for our kids to be acquainted with computers and networks goes without question. The
challenge lies in acquainting them with these machines effectively, reasonably- and equitably. The disparity between the relative
comfort level of affluent kids with technology and those kids who are never exposed to it is reason enough to ensure that
technology is an accessible part of the classroom. But, at the same time, no matter if a child becomes a network engineer or a
house painter, the basic skills required to create, digest and express knowledge and information are the same, and they will be
required for every social and economic activity.

In the digital age, our kids will be besieged by a cacophony of voices clamoring for their attention, and, in the end, the voice they
must learn to hear above the din is their own. Remembering Gagnon's purpose for education - for work, for public affairs, for
private culture - can help us understand the need to structure a learning environment that nourishes the whole child - a child with
the capacity to learn, to have some fun, and to prevail.

.Copyright 1998 by RandySparkman. All Rights Reserved