Computer Solutions: Panacea or Quicksand?
Publication Date: 2013-07-03
In 1983, the editor of Classroom Computer Learning asked me to review reading software. The mailed me a huge box of offal, and Beware the Rosy View! is the result. I had been a middle- and high-school reading teacher for more than a decade but I was teaching third grade when I dug deeply into computer-based instruction had to offer.
I am told that the virtue of such a computer-managed reading system is that if Johnny moves from School A to School B within the city, the educational leaders feel confident that his educational process won't be disrupted because everybody's teaching the same skills, using the same workbooks, getting the same computer printouts. This, of course, presume that when you know what page Johnny is on, you know something about Johnny as a learner. It is the McDonald's Rule for Quality Control in Education. Teachers are provided with the franchized forumula and re expected just to srve it up "as is." The learning comes pre-packaged, pre-sequenced, pre-ordained as useful. Plug the kid in to his electronic fast fix and the management system will do the rest. Nowhere is the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" more applicable. [emphasis added]
An interesting sidelight is that some administrators are wondering how they will evaluate teachers under this new system. "After all, you won't be teaching," they say. I suspect administrators will have their hands full checking that the franchized formulas are being adhered to; meanwhile, teachers and kids will soon be looking for ways to subvert the master plan, to introduce individuality, personality, common sense. They will have to do that to stay alive.
People who sell these computerized skill programs like to emphasize that they are a "back-to-basics, No-frills" approach to learning. But if you buy into this mind set, then everything that isn't a measurable skill becomes a frill. You end up with a new Gresham's law: The curriculum that is quantitatively measurable will drive out the curriculum that is qualitatively justifiable. It would be naive not to admit the appeal this idea has for many people. Marie Winn points out in Children Without Childhood (Grune, 1970) that our children live in the Age of Preparation. Fostering early skill acquisition has become a much greater priority than encouraging fantasy, imagination, creativity. She quotes a teacher: "Kids in our kindergarten can't sit around playing with blocks anymore. We've just managed to squeeze in one hour of free play a week, on Fridays."
To dwell on computer-assisted reading instruction programs is not to suggest that the other stuff is any better. One could be as critical--or more so--of math-skills programs. According to the Wall Street Journal, when 300 teachers evaluated a batch of mathematics software, only 25 percent of it earned a score of 60 percent or better. Traditional publishers are spewing forth what they know best--only now their workbooks light up and sing. Nontraditional companies have jumped into the marketplace, but they, too, are using the workbook rather than the kid as a model.
And science is no better. Recently I was intrigued by a disk that purported to teach youngsters something about the human body. I should have been warned by the subtitle, "Step-by-step instruction." The program does nothing mroe than offer cryptic, dictionary-style definitions of various body systems and functions--just one damned definition after another. "Animation" consists of words occasionally bouncing around the screen for no apparent reason. The lessons are tripe that no reasonably healthy student would sit still for. Following the so-called instruction is a test of 67 questions, a test of the worst kind: choose A), B), C), D) or true/false regurgitation of definitions. There is no invitation to explore, elaborate on or integrate information. I had though that the program, at the very least, would show some dynamics of the body processes: the blood circulating, the food digesting. I was wrong. Programmers of such material operate under the phenomenological principle that it's enough to light up, wiggle, and bleep.
All these junky materials are marketed both as skill developers and as tools that bring "computer literacy" to the schools. This, of course, is just the newest educational buzzword, one employed to intimidate teachers, impress taxpayers, and enrich publishing conglomerates. In the name of computer literacy, children are learning a few purely mechanical skills; where to insert the disk, and which buttons to push. As implemented in most schools today, computer literacy is a fraud that has nothing to do with the significance computers can play in people's lives.
For Whom the Bleep Tolls
Teachers always need to become knowledgeable about educational theory and apparatus, but it is very likely that most of us do not ourselves need to become truly computer literate. Paul Connolly gives us hope when he questions the notion that data processing is at the core of every enlightened being. It is refreshing to hear, amidst the apocalyptic blather about the uninitiated being left crippled and helpless in the wake of the technological revolution, that maybe there are some worthwhile people in this profession for whom the computer's bleep does not toll.
It is tempting, however, for someone like me, a third grade teacher who knows firsthand of the physical difficulties eight-year-olds have in getting words on paper, to embrace the word processor as the heaven-sent answer to my woes. Sure, the novelty of the keyboard will appeal to the kids. The erasing capabilities along make it seem worth the price.
Contrary to the claims of certain proponents, however, the blank screen is not really "friendlier than a blank sheet of paper." Once the child has tired of typing his name, the names of all his friends and relatives, the alphabet, all the jokes he knows, the time will come when he is supposed to produce words of his own: he will need something to say. Actually, most young children, if properly encouraged, have a lot to say. The problem is that once it is said they seldom see any need to change it. Donald Graves, author of Teacher and Children at Work (Heinemann, 1983), although cautiously optimistic about the possibilities word processing offers young children, warns that seeing their words neatly printed might make children even less anxous to revise. Words typed are already mroe final and official than words hand written.
More important, says Graves, is the fact that a word processor won't make a good writing teacher out of a bad writing teacher. Graves is one of those educators who speak to the fact that the child needs time to explore, to discover, to create. This time cannot be pre-programmed: there are no shortcuts. The good teacher knows that and gives the child room.
Bertram Bruce, co-director of the Massachusetts-based Quill, a set of microcomputer-based writing activities for children in grades three to six, notes that sometimes the students with the best teachers don't use the computer writing program as much as expected because there are "so many interesting competing activities in their classroom." This point cannot be overstated. When a teacher decides to use the computer, she has to make time for it. She has to decide not to do something else. When a teacher introduces a computer program, she and the children have a right to demand that it be better than the alternatives.
Bruce proudly notes that the computer-writing activities are so powerful that some children come in before and after school to work on them. I believe that and am happy kids are being encouraged tow rite. We don't need a computer, however, to get the kids back into the building. They will come for optical illusions, bones, the solar system. I've had kids show up to practice borrowing in subtraction. Kids will even come to write stories with pencil and paper. If a good teacher offers to stay after school, she will always find plenty of company.
Another Shot of Novelty
Recently I attended a reading conference where a teacher-presenter said she liked working with computers because they made her feel important. "Reading teachers are so ordinary," she said. "This makes me special." At first her naivete made me sad, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. This is a parody of the professional, someone who needs a triannual shot of novelty to keep her going. The true professional needs stamina for the long haul; she needs to be able to face the fact that things are probably going to be more the same tomorrow than they are today.
In The Micro Millennium (Viking, 1980), Christopher Evans predicts that teachers will be replaced as "exclusive repositories and disseminators of specialist knowledge." While acknowledging the failure of the old-style teaching machines and programmed learning, Evans asserts that the teaching computers will be genuinely "smart"; they will "adjust their responses. . . to meet the needs of the moment," giving the impression that they are "interested" in teaching. A person who is capable of believing such hogwash has no notion of what goes on in a real classroom.
It is likely that I make myself an endangered species by admitting this, but I don't leave my classroom at the end of the day proud that I have 3--or 13--skills. When I recall my crystal moments in teaching, I'm not thinking of the day 96.4 percent of the class scored 98.672 percent on a long-division quiz. I am likely to be thinking of something that had nothing to do with the cr blend, the eights times table, or any of the other minutiae of the ostensible curriculum. I am probably recalling something serendipitous, something unforeseen that happened only once and will never happen again--like the day my deaf student learned a "knock knock" joke.
I don't offer my students a glut of information; instead of factoids, I present an attitude and approach to learning. I like to think that children with me for ten months develop some self-reliance, a love for the sound of our language, at least a beginning awareness that they can experience joy in words, both in their own words and the words of others. I also throw in a bit about the power of numbers and the wonders of messing around in science. I try to help children get a feeling of the "connectedness" of things. I believe that for this job I am uniquely qualified. On my good days I have faith in my own judgment, sensitivity, and skill. Even on my bad days I know that I will get another chance. To do my job as I have defined it, I am in charge. I yield to no higher authority. None.
That doesn't mean I don't look or help. I make sure I am knowledgeable about as many theories and as much material as possibly, even the tiddly-pom that lights up and whistles Dixie. I need the experts to help me separate the pap from the prophecy, but I don't need them to make me feel special. For that, the kids are enough.
Postscript: The deaf child referred to in this article found me on Facebook 30 years later--to tell me what Amelia Bedelia and knock-knock jokes meant to her. This is the real meaning of teacher wait time.
IBM's "Writing to Read" Program: Hot New Item or Same Old Stew?
Classroom Computer Learning
On the day I visited the classroom, the computer was drilling a youngster on the word chair. The voice output repeated: "This is a chair. Say chair. Say ch. Type ch. Day air. Type air. Say chair. Type chair." As the phoneme was pronounced, the appropriate letters made their way from the border of the screen to the center. The child was instruction to say the work, then say each phoneme sound, and then say the whole word again. And then the child was to type the word.
I watched a first grader waiting for his chance to type bed. He had three fingers poised on the appropriate keys. Those fingers were the only things about him that were still. While he waited for his chance to "interact" with the computer, he looked over his shoulder to see what the teacher was doing, kicked his partner, twisted in his chair one way and then another. Occasionally he glanced at the screen. It was all quite normal first grade behavior, especially in the face of interminable repetition. Finally the voice output prompted him to type the word. He never even looked at the screen to check his answer. The boy knew he had typed the word correctly because bed appeared on the screen. If it hadn't, he would have been looped back for more repetition--not alternative work, just more of the same.
Computer buffs will tell us that during this process the computer provided something called immediate feedback, letting the child know whether he was right or wrong. But I've yet to be convinced of the importance of immediate feedback on the /ch/ blend.
Does such division of learning into itsy-bitsy pieces divorced from content really give the child a sense of the purpose of reading? I think not. Children don't need this style of constant reinforcement if language is meaningful. If their language environment is rich and whole, children are reinforced intrinsically and continuously. The context provides natural clues that help the learner to discover what the language is about and how it works, and also whether he is right or wrong.
After completing the computer lesson, the child listens to a tape that instructs him to write letters, phonemes and words in his work journal. Later he practices the same letter sounds without the cassette instructions. There are ten cycles in the computer program and ten corresponding work journals. "Journal" is a misnomer, with its connotation of personal writing. The highly structured work journal activities are indistinguishable from those in conventional basal workbooks.
For the listening/reading station, Martin selected 18 children's books, such favorites as The Snowy Day, Make Way for Ducklings, The Little Red Hen and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The child plugs into a tape that reads the book at a very slow pace so he can follow along word-for-word in a copy of the book. Martin might well be reminded of reading theorist Frank Smith's observation that "a parent does not read to her child to teach her to read. They are sharing a pleasurable experience."
Martin recommends that the fourth station, the independent writing station where the child writes with the typewriter, be placed in the center of the room, denoting its importance to his system. Certainly, this station is an oasis of hope in a very controlled world. But how well the child learns to make use of the station depends on the individual teacher; little help is provided by the program. The teacher's manual does suggest that teachers encourage independent writing by providing "activities that stimulate play with words." But the activities listed are a potpourri of story starters, artificial topics and devices inappropriate both to the age of the children involved and to the writing process as it is described by such writing experts as Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins. One example should suffice: The guide recocmmends that after reading the Just So Stories (one of my favorite for older children), the teacher should invite the children to write a story about how a zebra got its stripes. Kindergartners and first graders! The teacher who follows Martin's advice and invites 26 children to write "If I could hope like a grasshopper, I would. . . " should be aware that she will have to read the results. There is a reason that Calkins recommends encouraging young children to stick to personal narrative.
Children like to write, and the children in the IBM are no exception. I watched them finish up the workbook pages and move to the writing screen with relief and joy. Three weeks into the "Writing To Read" program a first grader used the skill he had acquired and wrote, "My pig is a funne pig B kuz he splashz in the mud." (The influence of Martin's "key" vocabulary is clear in this child's story.) We can surely share the child's joy in writing this, but he didn't need computer lessons and workbook drills to succeed. Donald Graves has demonstrated that a child needs only five or six sound-symbol relationships (usually consonants) to be able to write. Moreover, in her book Teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner showed us years ago the vitality of "giving" children powerful words, words with emotional content. martin's list seem to have been chosen not because of a possible impact on the child but because he wants to introduce a certain sequence of phonemes.
Don Holdaway, noted New Zealand educator and author of The Foundations of Literacy, says that the sequential blending of sounds is probably one of the least useful strategies in learning to read. Holdaway describes a holistic approach using oversized books combined with the talent, intuition and experience of the teacher, and the curiosity, perception and enthusiasm of the children. Holdaway apologizes for the expense of such big books and tells the teacher how she could make her own. I look at the three or four computers, the numerous Selectric typewriters, the mounds of work journals in the "Writing To Read" program and thought of all the big books and trade books a school could buy, all the children's own books they could publish, all the poets and joke book writers they could invite to visit.
Apparently, children who complete the "Writing To Read" program do well on standardized tests, but it's important to remember that such tests have limited and often trivial objectives. What we need to ask is not children's percentile ranking at the end of first grade but how many books they have read in sixth grade, how many stories they have written and shared with their fellow students. How many hours a week do these students spend independently with books?
In fairness to martin and the IBM crew, I must acknowledge that I find most reading programs wanting. I like to see children in control, and program makers seem intent on getting them in step. Borrowing from Emerson, I want fire, "a little less mutton and a little more genius."
How Today's Software Can Zap Kids' Desire to Read
Classroom Computer Learning
Most reading software is foolish and impudent, an odious endeavor. And the mistake is right up front--in the endeavor itself, not in the execution. I like clever graphics as well as the next person, and today's software certainly drills with pizzazz. But what I find foolish is the basic premise--that reading can be achieved by drilling students on discrete skills.
Plenty of folks are fond of consonant blends and their assorted kin. A skill is comfortable. It is easy to spot; it can be measured, charted, graphed, put in a data bank, brought out on parent conference night. Certainly these skills are nothing news and I do not blame the computer parvenus for their existence. But neither do I thank them for making things easy for the educational bookies who insist we can know akid by the numbers in his folder.
Folks who play the educational numbers game never ask what a collection of 1,392 of these skills is good for, what the kid should do with them. Acquisition is the only goal. Computers, which allow isolated skills to multiply faster than the biblical tribes, merely encourage the foul bureaucratic impulse for collection, storage, and retrieval. I can only express my gratitude that, when I taught reading in New York from 1060 through 1983, I was unaware that the New York State Education Department had 1,800-plus reading objectives stored in its computer bank.
Consonant Blends that Dance a Jig
People ask me what I have against the consonant blend and other wonders on phonics. Absolutely nothing. I show my students that these devides are helpful--but only to help them read books, not to fill out skill sheets. In my years as a reading teacher, I watched any number of fancy skill-drill programs pass through the coordinator's office. But those who offer only a choice of how skills are to be presented--filmstripped, tape-recorded, televised or computerized--offer no choice at all.
Bureaucrats seem ever able to find thousands of dollars for up-to-date ways of delivering the same old skills at the very time they cite budget deficits as the reason for laying off librarians. A computerized skills checklist may be convenient for justifying one's application for federal monies (to purchase more electronic checklists), but we must demand more of our reading paraphernalia. We must insist that it be good for kids. We teachers must not relinquish our savvy about kids and how they learn to read.
Disk-drive partisans justify their use of computers by bragging about the bonanza of "immediate feedback." If one can't think of anything else to say about a program, there is always "speedy correction." And yet thoughtful scholars such as Frank Smith caution us against being too quick to offer feedback. If a child is to become a reader he must be willing to take risks. Do we want to be too quick to label such risks as error? I, for one, am not grateful to the guys who bring me the nasty combination of silly questions and speedy corrections. I find no charm in immediate numerical gratification.
And then there is "impersonal feedback." Now there's a notion to make a granite wall weep. I want my students to become personally involved with books--to puzzle over them, laugh over them, and, when necessary, to get angry with them. For this to happen, I need to be passionately involved. I need to offer myself--my intuitions, experience, knowledge, and, yes, also my pleasure, my ire. Better I should wrongly holler at a kid than abrogate my teaching role in the name of impersonal feedback. I did not become a teacher in order to replace enthusiasm with anomie.
But then, I don't see reading as a steady progression along carefully sequenced rungs of skill development. Reading has always seemed a more pesky enterprise to me. We must recognize that the hucksters of skills systems have a disarmingly optimistic view of skills but are propelled by a dismal view of children. Reading cannot be handed out like scratch-and-sniff stickers. The skill-and-drill fix is about as helpful to children's intellectual development as sucking on jujubes.
Skill-Drill Thrills.. . . and Chills
So how do we keep our feet firmly on the rock of pedagogical principle when faced with so many reading programs on disk? How do we find the few that are worthwhile? We can't rely on software review. They seldom measure the electronic hugger-mugger against, say Charlotte's Web or King Arthur or Never Cry Wolf. Instead, reviewers say, "This is better than a workbook." Paltry praise indeed. The students shouldn't be wasting time with a workbook either.
No, we have to look at the stuff ourselves. I recently did that and I doubt that anyone could possibly believe what I saw. You had to be there. The dim-wittedness offered up by much current software in the name of reading comprehension and thinking skills is quite amazing. Let is suffice to say that there exists a junk category of software totally fascinating in its foulness. I spent hours punching in wrong answers just to revel in the stupidity of the "explanations, (except that I often erred in my anticipation of errors and got answers right that I intended to miss. (That meant starting the program all over, since I was determined to see every one of the wacky explanations.)
Anyone who is in aw of the technological breakthroughs in education should work through the 815,000 ugly little sentences generated by one program--a program that purports to teach the 38 rules for capitalization. This software operates on the principle that if the kid doesn't get it the first time, then make him try the same thing 814,999 more times. Or consider Vocabulary Development, Phonics in Context, Spelling Mastery, Choosing Titles, Prefix Tutor. The titles alone tell us we don't need this nonsense. There's no wit here. No whimsy. Just whistling in the pedagogical dark.
I am stunned by the wrongness. These products are billed as research based and dazzlingly up-to-date, but they give me a prickly feeling of deja voodoo, proving over and over that anything that can be put in a dime-store workbook can also go on a floppy disk. I recall Dorothy Parker's advice about a book she was reviewing: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Likewise, I recommend rubbing these skill disks with a nice big magnet.
Or how about the program that asks students to reconstruct on a blank screen a passage from Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann? If that task seems rather strenuous, the student can choose instead to supply ever other letter or all the vowels. I'll admit there is an interesting principle at work here, one involving "structural clues," but I cannot fathom the choice of literary selections. Nor can I believe that a student, assuming she does re-create the passage, would ever be inspired to read the real thing.(But I confess to never having finished Magic Mountain even when all the letters were there from the start.) When I see such an excerpt in a program purportedly designed for students age nine and up, I wonder who is kidding whom.
Tremendous effort seems to have gone into producing software that spews out readability formulas for any literary passage you care to input. In my survey, I discovered programs based on most of the major word- and syllable-counting schemes, including Flesch, Lore and Fry, Dale-Chall, the Navy, General Motors, Bell Laboratories, the Department of Defense. But such software only encourages teachers to dump the delicate art of guiding students to books best able to capture their interests and imaginations in favor of academic numerology. And I say to hell with it.
I also uncovered numerous computer versions of word scramble, hangman, Go Fish, and Old Maid. Certainly kids like such stuff, but I can't see that the computer enhances these old chestnuts. I'd rather see a child playing Go Fish with a friend than a machine. I'm not even convinced that kids would choose to play hangman on the computer rather than on the chalkboard--not without some moments of deliberation. (Kids love the word-processing capabilities of chalk and eraser.)But if a teacher is determined to find some use for the electronic beastie in her reading classroom, better she let the kid play hangman than insist he search-and-destroy all the blends he spots or shoot down vocabulary words. And for teachers who laboriously construct crossword puzzles and word searches, the good news is that programs exist to simplify their lives.
A Glimmer of Hope And All the Bright Lights
If we do not set our expectations too high, then there are some software programs that can be useful in the classroom, programs worthy of some celebration. I've looked at various programs traveling under the name of poetry that are fun and even intriguing the first few times one plugs in words. But I hope that teachers will help children to see that poetry is the careful, meaningful choice of words, that writers work hard at their craft, that even though plugging in words at random can be fun, it isn't poetry. A program such as Suspect Sentences (Ginn), in which a student tries to hide an original sentence in a literary passage so that his peers can't find it, seems to have more potential than most language arts programs. To play this game successfully, students must read critically and then model their own writing after an author's style. They certainly won't come away thinking that any old word will do.
The Sentence Maker portion of Word Worx (Reston) encourages children to use their understanding of grammatical structure to create sentences. The computer presents five letters, and players try to make sentences using those letters. Once a word is used, the computer will not allow it to be used again. Kids keep making sentences until they run out of ideas--or guess the computer's sentence (an adage or famous quote). Although critics might point out that such an exercise addresses only surface and not deep grammar, it is nonetheless one of the better programs available, and teachers need not feel apologetic for allowing it into a classroom.
Never Forget the Pageantry of Peas
When all is said and done, the computer is not going to stimulate much reading. Reading a screen filled with type is neither amusing nor inspiring. It is actually painful, and people who are forced to do it should receive adequate monetary compensation. Certainly it is not something we should inflict on children we are trying to encourage as readers.
Long ago, E. B. White commented on the great technological breakthrough that promised to revamp the kitchen so that we could push a button and peas would appear on a paper plate. White pointed out that the technocrats had misunderstood the "pageantry of peas." Similarly, though I am bombarded by an electronic hailstorm, I'm not willing to let the skills people get away with obscuring the pageantry of reading with their flood of state-of-the-art sound-and-light shows. I don't care if the kids down the hall stay a skill lesson or two (or even 56) ahead forever.
No. Instead, I hope to nurture my students in an environment that convinces them they might want to read a book someday. I see too many proficient decoders, kids who perform extremely well on standardized tests but never willingly pick up a book. They have mastered an incomplete system, one they find lacking in marvel or mystery. As Mark Twain reminds us, the man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.
So I say to those fellows with their whistling curriculum: I am wary of mistaking convenience for progress. The worth of a machine depends upon the use to which it is put. Marching children through reading systems in the name of efficient record keeping has the pedagogical justification of a No-Pest Strip. One good book is worth 1,000floppy disks. Or more. I'd trade my WordStar disk for almost any one of E. B. White's sentences. Or Gore Vidal's. Or Calvin Trillin's. Or Max Apple's. My list is wonderfully long. And I would not trade my memory of Jessica's face when she first read Amelia Bedelia for a whole skills-management system.
Even such a rationalist as George Bernard Shaw confessed to a fascination with machines, saying he once nearly bought a cash register--"without having the slightest use for it." We teachers are probably more vulnerable to things mechanical than most. We live harried, hassled lives, beset by hucksters and inspectors alike. But we must keep track of what matters, what the children need. We must not allow bored, restless managers or sharpshooting wheeler-dealers who are ever reaching for some pie-in-the-sky to turn our reading programs into techno-skill dumps, wastelands hazardous to the well-being of the children. Do not go gentle into that computer lab. Question. Judge. And, if necessary, rage. And always, always: Resist much.
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