Anyone over the age of 40 has the right to snicker when listening to high tech champions say that the transformation of schooling is just around the corner. In the 1980s and 1990s, we heard from Seymour Papert, Lewis Perelman and dozens of others who predicted a glittering future of home-based individualized learning, teams of students working online, distance learning, and other shining futuristic jewels.
None of these glowing forecasts are novel. In 1922, after inventing the film and starting a private company to market the innovation to schools, Thomas Edison said: “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Current books on Disruptive Innovations and Liberating Learning bang a similar drum. Yet amid predictions of technological devices revolutionizing classroom lessons and learning, public schools soldier on.
Undeniably, in the past decade cyber charter schools, distance learning, and virtual schools have grown. Yet they cling to the periphery of tax-supported schooling. Some argue that such inventions are the vanguard of a technological future that will dismantle public schools and create new forms of education that would turn Ivan Ilich into a prophet. I doubt it.
The fundamental error that high tech advocates have made since Thomas Edison’s venture into fortune telling is that, like near-sighted people, they focus narrowly on only one purpose of pubic schools: transferring knowledge and skills from adults to children. In their myopia, they lose sight of the crucial task of socializing children and youth into the community. In other words, taxpayers, voters, and parents expect far more from their schools than student’s heads bulging with knowledge ready to enter college—even in the current heated rhetoric of testing.
Surely, families are the first socializers. Schools, however, come next. Inculcating habits, beliefs, and values so that children can behave as responsible adults in a community requires more than answering multiple choice questions or doing Internet searches. Look into a kindergarten classroom for the most obvious evidence of the school’s function to get young children to act consistent with the norms of a community: taking turns, no hitting or biting, washing hands, working independently, cooperating with others who look and act different—you remember the drill. Yes, learning numbers and decoding words are important but only the shortsighted could miss the critical social lessons taught to five year-olds.
Similarly, throughout elementary and secondary schools, as knowledge demands escalate for students, socializing children and youth persist quietly and forcefully in posted classroom rules, report cards that list proper behaviors, and what gets rewarded or punished in school. Near-sighted champions of high tech, however, in their eagerness to get powerful information and communication devices into the hands of students and teachers miss the fact that daily life in schools continues to socialize children and youth.
When these advocates rail at school administrators for filtering student access to the Internet or laugh at clumsy efforts to manage laptop and cell phone use in and out of class, they fail to see that these devices play a small part in the larger role that schools as social institutions have to perform in getting students ready for college and work.
The case of school uniforms and dress codes underscores the irrelevance of high tech devices when it comes to schools teaching beliefs, values, and proper actions. Any list of reasons that parents and educators have in endorsing uniforms include reducing violence and theft of trendy clothes, helping students resist peer pressure to buy hip clothes, lessening socioeconomic differences between students, and increasing sense of belonging to school.
President Bill Clinton who pushed for uniforms in schools said in 1996, “[Uniforms] slowly teach our young people one of life’s most important lessons: that what really counts is what you are and what you become on the inside, rather than what you are wearing on the outside.” Some have argued that students wearing school uniforms will increase academic achievement. No evidence supports the claim. Anyway evidence to prove that school uniforms is a sound policy is beside the point. The school itself as a socializing agent is the point.
Laptops and hand-held devices can help teachers teach and students learn subject matter but school rules and structures, teacher habits, and institutional norms teach fundamental lessons that parents and voters want in the next generation. Those myopic soothsayers who predict that high tech devices will transform schooling have yet to learn that lesson.