Education in America is a disaster, equaling perhaps any that has ever afflicted the nation. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education lamented, "if an unfriendly nation had attempted to impose upon America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war [ 10 ]."
The extent of the educational devastation in America is hard to exaggerate. Twenty-five million adults, more than the entire population of the state of New York, are functionally illiterate. Some authorities provide evidence that this figure underestimates the true number [ 11 ].
For those who are well educated, inferior schooling may seem unfortunate, but only for the poorly educated themselves. If, however, they consider the correlation between illiteracy and crime, poor education affects everyone.
Even when crime isn't involved, abysmal education is costly. Many major companies carry on expensive programs to provide basic education for their employees. In 1991, the New York Times bemoaned that "business has become America's second-largest educator. It now spends a record forty billion dollars a year on education, about three-quarters of this to teach workers basic skills they should have learned in school [ 12 ]."
Since legions of students require remedial education after regular schooling, many youths obviously spend years in schools without becoming educated. Inferior schooling affects the least learned, but also taints those who plan to go to college. The federal government reported in 1989 that twenty-one percent of college freshmen were enrolled in remedial math classes, sixteen percent were studying remedial writing, and at least thirteen percent were taking remedial reading [ 13 ].
A still more alarming statistic weighs on the nation. In tests comparing students throughout the world, Americans ranked at or near the bottom. These test takers did not include students from Japan, Germany, or England. Less advanced nations are surpassing American students. In an article in the New Republic, entitled "Japan's Smart Schools," Diane Ravitch wrote, "The average high school graduate in Japan is said to be as well educated as the average college graduate in the United States." A study by Harold Stevenson maintained that, "by the fifth grade, the worst Japanese class in the study was ahead of the best American class [ 14 ]." There is no evidence that schools in America have lessened the gap since these reports were written.
The weakness of American students is apparent when contrasted with other nations, but also when compared with American pupils of other times. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores have declined in recent years. Although many authorities shudder at this reduction, some educators blithely dismiss the results [ 15 ]. They declare lower scores occur because the number of SAT test takers has expanded, and the tests have become more democratic. Even these educational pollyannas can't explain why 1991 Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of entering freshmen at prestigious colleges had also declined markedly [ 16 ]. This is shocking, especially since it accompanies an intense national disquietude about education.
The National Commission on Excellence in Education quoted analyst Paul Copperman when he grieved that:
"Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach those of their parents [ 17 ]."
Dry, simple statistics about the nation's educational weaknesses don't dramatize the devastating human suffering. Urban riots emphasize this side of the crisis. They often seem to begin as a reaction to racism. Even if racism was eliminated, many rioting youths are virtually unemployable. They lack the education required for most jobs.
The U. S. government issued a report in July, 1991 about the kinds of skills that are needed "to hold a decent job and earn a decent living [ 18 ]." The New York Times interviewed and quoted then U. S. Labor Secretary Lynn Martin as a follow-up to that document. Secretary Martin complained that "more than half of young people leaving high school won't have the knowledge or foundation required to achieve either goal [ 19 ]."
Lack of education even haunts workers with a job and hinders their full enjoyment of working. Let's look at the problems of one worker at a major American corporation:
"Jimmy Wedmore, a General Motors Corp. hourly worker, used to run from promotions. Wedmore couldn't read or write and was afraid he'd be discovered if he advanced beyond his job on the assembly line here.
"Better jobs kept coming and I had to keep turning them down," says Wedmore, age 50. "It's really a pitiful situation to be in."
Finally, he asked for help. In 1986, GM provided a tutor who taught him to read, write, and solve basic math problems. Wedmore, who used to assemble parts for starter motors, now runs a high-tech machine that produces powder used to make powerful magnets. "I love the challenge of this job," he says. "You learn something new every day [ 20 ].""
Jimmy Wedmore finally got an education that enabled him to lead a more satisfying life. Lamentably, he had to struggle through many flawed years deprived of what he should have had when he finished school. The years of success he had at General Motors prove that he was able to learn while in school. Wasting those years without education was unfortunate for Jimmy Wedmore. Losing the talents of armies of Jimmy Wedmores who are being jettisoned from schools today with an inferior education is a deplorable waste for the nation.
Some disasters lead ultimately to massive changes because they stimulate profound reactions. In 1775, the English Parliament created monumental difficulties for the Colonists who eventually revolted. The original adversity brought a revolution that caused a new nation to arise. The present crisis in education could galvanize the United States into an educational revolution that will turn the present catastrophe into a stunning triumph.
A century from now, civilization will judge if the educational distress in America in the last years of the twentieth century led ultimately to profound improvement of schools, or to more terrible consequences. The latter alternative could include the end of America as a world leader.
The educational crisis has caught the attention of many American leaders, who talk of need for a revolutionary approach. These supposed "revolutions" are replete with good intentions but few radical ideas. Former President Bush and his administration introduced a program called "America 2000." Considerable fanfare accompanied its debut. The aim was dramatic: revitalize education completely by the year 2000. However, this proposal, with its grandiose goals, hesitated to suggest radical solutions. It stated early that "few elements of this strategy are unprecedented [ 21 ]."
Educators themselves seldom propose any earth-shaking upheaval for their schools. While they readily admit that the problems are intense, many feel it is only necessary to make minor revisions, leaving the present educational system in place. This reluctance to embrace difficult changes is a standard response to a crisis. Many honest and upstanding citizens in the American colonies wanted to solve the problem of taxation without representation by less drastic means than revolution. A bloody uprising with its accompanying disruption of living seemed absurd and wasteful to many sincere Tories.
Today, many honest and upstanding leaders of the country follow a similar path. They dismiss serious disruptions that will accompany a genuine revolution in education as impractical and unnecessary. Meanwhile, students in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere continue to excel beyond American students. Our economic rivals elsewhere in the global economy advance and increase their educational lead. Educators, politicans, and school adminstrators talk but nothing is done to narrow the gap.
American schools confront enormous problems, and nothing less than a genuine revolution will rectify their deficiencies. America is losing a competitive race with many of its global rivals although most managers and executives were educated in a school system that did produce results as good as those in other nations. The effects of inferior education are becoming more devastating because each year more workers and future managers work their ways through the present system. Real changes must come quickly. Altogether, many possible solutions have been advanced. It is important to review some these solutions, that have earned national attention.
1. Increased Funding
One solution, commonly proposed, is to call for more money for education. This demand is neither new nor guaranteed to produce noteworthy results. Funding for education in the United States increased approximately thirty-three percent in real terms from 1980 to 1990. During that same period, there is no evidence of a noticeable improvement in American schools. Today with an astronomical federal deficit, any additional significant increase of funding seems unrealistic. It might be argued that increased funding might help if it were wisely applied. Nonetheless, the horrendous problems inherent in education today would remain.
Advocates recommend increased funding for various reasons. Sometimes they contend more dollars will buy additional computers, and education, astride modern technology, will leap over its current barriers. I will explain in Chapters 7 and 8 (in this issue, Section III) why more computers alone will add little to what millions of computers are accomplishing now - virtually nothing.
Another reason for seeking additional funding is the supposed benefits that would accrue if schools could raise salaries of teachers. Additional pay, advocates contend, would bring the cream of American students into teaching and improve schools.
Additional pay hasn't helped thus far. The increased funding of the 1980s brought better compensation for teachers, but the quality of students entering the profession did not improve dramatically. Teachers, today, have an aggravating and difficult job. Consequently, many are unhappy in their positions and morale is often low. A poll of two thousand teachers in 1989, conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, illustrates how teachers view themselves. Only fifty-three percent of respondents felt they were respected by society. Only sixty-seven percent would advise a young person to go into teaching [ 22 ]. Although higher pay might lessen some of these difficulties, morale involves much more than pay. Further monetary increases will not guarantee a supply of upper-tier students for education while low morale brought on by teaching conditions remains.
Moreover, schools must compete with industry when they recruit certain classes of teachers. Math and science instructors are crucial but always are in short supply. School systems have difficulty paying wages for science and math teachers that private industry won't surpass. Even if school boards were to decree that everybody with a math or science degree would receive a substantial pay raise, industry, which also needs these people, would increase their own salary levels. Math and science teachers would continue to paid at inferior rates compared with industry. Of course, conditions in education exacerbate the problem of insufficient math and science majors. Poor education prevents the development of many potential scientists, a problem that probably begins in grade school. Most elementary teachers are uncomfortable teaching science [ 23 ].
The results from educational districts without excessive monetary shortfalls also negates the contention that more funding would drastically alter education. Students entering prestigious universities come primarily from those better funded districts. If these districts were providing superlative education, SAT scores for those entering the more highly rated universities would be rising, or at least, not declining.
The conclusion must be that merely pouring more dollars on the problem will not solve it.
2. Copy Other Nations
Some authorities propose another seemingly less difficult solution - study schools of other nations and imitate what they are doing. The divergence in test scores, as noted above, shows that educational results in many other nations are better than in the United States. If America mimics what others are doing, a drastic overhaul of American education will be unnecessary.
Other nations are using the same basic system that appears to have been successful in the United States for many years. Education in America fails to achieve the results of former times because society has changed.
One important altered condition is the underlying social structure in the United States. Public officials and private commentators often decry lessened family standards in the country. Concerned educators legitimately bewail the home conditions of many of their students. They make the valid argument that a return to the life in America of twenty-five or fifty years ago would improve education. They particularly deplore lessened participation of parents in school programs and less parental direction of children. Anyone who examines schooling in America must agree: more involvement of parents would help.
Parents, however, are unlikely suddenly to make a sudden turnabout that will bring increased participation in the schooling of their children. Trying to return to a historic level of involvement of parents with schools is an attempt to stop another societal upheaval. Those who struggle against ongoing changes in society have met a string of failures.
Even religions, which have always exercised a strong influence in the nation, have been unsuccessful. For example, some years ago when many priests and ministers vociferously decried the trend of more businesses staying open Sunday, they didn't stop a developing change in society. Stores are open throughout America every Sunday. Religions have accepted conditions and are no longer concerned. They have seen the futility of their struggle.
Teachers do more than utter loud complaints about societal problems. They also strive to change conditions. Despite their strong efforts, they make little progress. Many parents, especially those who are alone, can't hold a full-time job and run a household of never ending responsibilities, while being involved in the education of their children as they might wish. This condition is truly unfortunate but bemoaning it won't change society.
Part of the change in American society stems from the transformation of the basic idea of "family" in the United States. The idealized couple of Ozzie and Harriet where the wife stayed home and the husband supplied the livelihood has gone. It won't return. Demographics in the United States today have changed; fifteen million children are being raised by single mothers.
Even in two-parent families, both parents often work outside the home. Sometimes the income of one is insufficient so both must be employed. Women also work because they find it enjoyable and challenging to participate in the commercial world. Whatever the reasons, many parents fail to take an active role in the school work of their children that educators seek. This participation must be encouraged by schools, but with society seemingly headed in a different direction, merely waiting for the trend to stop will not solve the educational problems in the nation.
Another, and perhaps more important reason copying other systems won't suffice is because the United States encompasses a more pluralistic society than any other nation. Immigration built America's population and the influx continues today. Many thousands of immigrants from countries all over the world take up residence in the United States every year. In addition, there are many, who are experiencing political repression, and they seek and obtain permission to enter. This added inflow increases the yearly immigration into the U. S. by hundreds of thousands. It doesn't stop there, of course. There are tens of thousands of of illegal immigrants in America as well.
As a result of all these new arrivals, eight percent of those living in the United States in 1992 were born in another nation. Immigration bring hordes of new students that descend upon schools each year. In some cases, these immigrants are poorly educated or have problems with English. They bring a multitude of customs, languages, and backgrounds. No nation, other than the United States, has this sort of diversity on this scale. No existing educational system elsewhere in the world attempts to cope with this ongoing influx of new residents. Copying methods of other educational systems in other countries won't answer the needs of many unique and very American schools.
Another obstacle prevents this wholesale import of foreign educational approaches: the heritage of slavery in this country. When Emancipation took place, black children were far behind academically. For some decades after the U. S. abolished slavery, America was able to hide from itself results of involuntary servitude. The "separate but equal" system of education provided camouflage. The deplorable educational condition of former slaves continued for their children in a segregated and inferior school system. Residual effects throttle the nation even today. Schools in America must struggle to counteract a legacy that doesn't burden other nations.
Another proposed solution today is labeled "choice." In this approach, parents choose the school that their children attend. Under one form, parents could choose only among public schools. A variation would permit parents to opt for either public or private schools. If the "choice" option includes private schools, the government would help parents pay for any schooling but private schools would usually require additional payments. Poor parents would still be forced to choose public schools. The ultimate result would be public schools filled with more impoverished students who most need better schooling.
Financing for public schools would also be lessened because all students would eventually become eligible for assistance, including those of parents who would opt and pay for private schools. If funding remained the same, there would be less money per pupil for public schools.
Arguments for and against "choice" abound. By itself, it can't change education sufficiently to make American children equal to the youth of other nations. The weakness of this approach is evident by examining private schools where sufficient funds are available today. Thousands of schools today operate under the basic idea of the right of a parent to choose a school for their children to attend. Many have greater endowments and income than can be expected in new schools that would exist under "choice." Students from these private schools often score better on standardized tests than students from public schools. No evidence, however, proves that most students from these private schools can equal students from other nations.
Many "choice" schools are unable to provide individualized tutoring, which would help bright students and is crucial for students who are behind. Raising sufficient funds for this type of instruction in today's schools is unthinkable.
In any discussion of "choice" another element is important: public schools have difficulties unknown in private schools. For example, public schools cannot be selective since every student must be offered educational opportunities. Public schools must also teach learning-disabled and special education pupils, increasing costs.
Opponents of "choice" fear that better students will flee public schools leaving behind only the poorest students. Students from poor families suffer the most in the educational process. The biggest crisis in American schools today is among these students from families living near or below the poverty level. It is difficult to imagine private schools making a concerted effort to build and operate schools in the inner cities.
A subtle yet deleterious aspect of the present debate about "choice" is that many dedicated and influential people expend their efforts to bring about "choice" as if it alone would solve the problems. It won't. Even if it improved some parts of the educational process, many of the basic deficiencies would remain. When these leaders devote their abilities and influence primarily to encouraging "choice," they fail to revolutionize education in America.
None of these proposed solutions will change the American educational system, will suddenly revitalize learning. The need to remake education is arguably the preeminent problem in America because it is the root cause of other major difficulties such as crime and racism. Effective answers must be found. New educational methods, superior to older ones and easily duplicated, must be developed.
The Office of Technology Assessment, of the U. S. Congress, summarized this crisis by reporting that
"American education is at a crucial juncture. The demands on schooling in our pluralistic society are greater than they have ever been. An increasing percentage of students are educationally at risk, and demographic projections make clear that this problem will continue to grow. In addition, schools must prepare all young people with a new set of skills and understandings to assure the Nation's economic competitiveness [ 24 ]."
Opponents of serious reform in any area, including education, are seldom satisfied by evidence that a radical new method is efficient. They continually demand more proof. No advocate of retaining today's system suggests, however, that current educational practices must prove that they are effective. Millions of illiterates can be found in America schools. Millions of other students need remedial education after leaving educational systems across the country. American test scores are often below those of other nations. SAT scores at even the best universities have dropped. Hordes of students hate schooling while many others are frequently bored.
American education is in a difficult state, perhaps threatening the sheer existence of the nation. Teachers are not at fault. They have tried valiantly to help students by supporting a system that cannot cope with the vast societal changes that continue in the U. S. Teachers alone cannot remake education and eliminate the horrendous problems. If they could, they would have done it. Teachers are particularly unhappy with education and its results today.
Only a revolution led to the truly dramatic changes that resulted in the formation of the American nation in 1776. Only a real revolution will bring the turnabout needed to revitalize American education today. Unfortunate side effects, however, accompany revolutions. Before the upheaval is concluded, some people suffer as in the American revolution. The needed shock in American schooling will be wrenching for some educators unless they embrace different methods. Any failure to make changes will only intensify and worsen the current crisis.
Developing suitable answers for today's dilemmas in schools requires an examination of the essentials of education. Whenever an attempt is made to make any profound change, a disguised danger hides as efforts begin. Authorities responsible for developing a new direction may believe it necessary to continue whatever is being done if it has an extensive history. Scrutiny of basics will provide a foundation for a true overhaul, and will show what can be changed and what must be kept intact.
Education involves transference to others of knowledge and values accumulated by humans. It also means the development of skills that allow students to integrate this knowledge and those values into their lives.
Schools and teachers have been part of education for thousands of years. Everyone, however, has gained knowledge outside school. We learn by experience, by watching others in person and via media like television and movies. Some learning has always taken place without teachers; legend has it that Abraham Lincoln studied law while reading by lamplight.
Since learning has always happened and will happen without schools and without teachers, neither schools nor teachers must be considered as indispensable, despite their long use. Modern technology could probably eliminate both teachers and schools but it is important that authorities first examine their weaknesses and strengths. Even if society decides to retain either or both, fundamental changes are possible.
Present shortcomings of schools are notably evident in large inner-city institutions where learning is difficult or impossible. Syndicated newspaper columnist Ann Landers printed a letter from a teacher in Philadelphia, on May 3, 1992. The teacher complained that
"At least half of the students arrive late. It is such a common occurrence that nothing is said. There is a constant level of noise throughout the building. It is more like a lunatic asylum than a place of learning. As I fight my way to the classroom, I try to avoid being knocked down by someone who is running, fighting, looking to start trouble, or just being obnoxious... At least fifty percent of the students in this place carry a weapon... There is an awful lot of lawlessness here because kids don't care about suspension, detention, or grades... Our schools need help and they need it now."
This letter summarizes some of the problems faced by some schools where external conditions disrupt learning.
Psychological impediments exacerbate the physical difficulties of schools. Young people are particularly influenced by peer pressure, preventing students from excelling in studies. As an educational conference noted
"Peer pressure profoundly influences the academic behavior of students. By the time students reach their teens, peer groups may actually define the stance most of them take toward academic achievement and effort. Typically, peer pressure motivates students to stay in school and graduate, but even as they frown on failure, peers also restrain high achievement... some student cultures actively reject academic aspirations. In this case, high grades can be a source of peer ridicule and when effort is hostage to peer pressure, those high achievers who persist anyway may face strong social sanctions [ 25 ]."
This adverse effect often happens in inner-city schools but it also occurs elsewhere. I will later discuss the difficulty that female students may encounter in certain subjects like science and math.
Unquestionably, schools as they are now constituted have many weaknesses. They also have, however, many valuable and constructive effects.
Schools enable students to interact with each other and this interaction is an important element in growing up and in learning. Schools also furnish structure and can provide a means for insuring that students devote time to studies. Under proper circumstances, schools can foster peer pressure to aid learning.
Moreover, if schools were eliminated, the probable alternative would be to have education take place in the homes of students. Although home schooling is beneficial for some, obviously, home conditions for other children would impede learning.
Since schools provide advantages that can assist education, they should remain. Nonetheless, mere cosmetic adjustments in schools can't rectify the problems. The serious drawbacks of schools obstruct learning and demand extensive changes.
Like schools, teachers have disadvantages and advantages. Their negative features are easily overlooked since teachers are universally accepted in education. Almost everyone can remember a favorite teacher. Nevertheless, teaching has serious problems that any potential reform must evaluate and address.
Students have many teachers during their schooling. While adults may cherish the memory of an extraordinary teacher who aided them, they don't remember many of their teachers in this way. By definition, few people of exceptional caliber exist in any profession.
Besides a shortage of sensational teachers, some teachers are decidedly inferior. This has always been true, but every poor teacher impedes learning and makes school unpleasant and difficult.
Another disadvantage of teachers flows from the ingrained attitudes they carry with them when they enter classrooms. This preset disposition sometimes is detrimental. J. R. Dusek noted that
"... evidence indicating that teachers form expectations for students' performance is abundant... [and] teachers tend to treat students differently depending on their expectations for the students' performance... [and] these expectancies, and presumably their behavioral manifestations, have been shown to relate to students' academic achievement [ 26 ]."
Nobody has ever suggested a viable means of changing this condition.
Conditions in their classrooms, not their abilities or attitudes, present the foremost difficulty for teachers. They cannot tutor each student individually but must teach diverse students simultaneously. An instructor with thirty students has to try to accommodate his or her teaching to thirty different levels of ability. Anyone wishing to convey knowledge, as each student could ideally receive it, is thwarted. Brighter students can quickly grasp the lesson while slower students are still struggling to understand. Teachers must make decisions about how fast to go. Even if higher authorities decide how much must be taught, some students will fail to progress as far as they are able. Others will fail to reach even minimally acceptable standards.
Teachers also suffer from the usual human problems of sickness, accidents, psychological problems, boredom, and burnout. Just as they lessen results in every profession, these impairments hinder teaching and result in poorer learning by students. Sometimes these impediments remove instructors from their classrooms. Regular teachers are then replaced by substitutes who are unfamiliar with the classes. An entire chapter, later in the book, is necessary to address this debilitating problem.
As with most human beings, teachers can also be slow to change. Although evidence exists that modern technology can aid teaching, relatively few instructors employ it in their classrooms. Also, research findings are often ignored.
These are negative characteristics of instructors that impede learning. Teachers, however, have many strong traits that can enhance education immensely. Let's identify these characteristics:
1. In the lives of their students, teachers often achieve an influence beyond the intellectual knowledge they impart. Adults often look back on a teacher who had a dramatic and positive effect upon their lives.
2. Human teachers can also make decisions that might be difficult for a machine. For example, a computer can judge grammatical integrity in a paper, but evaluating the worth of original ideas is impossible for today's computers and programs.
3. Many teachers are extraordinarily creative and develop new and better ways of teaching.
4. By their presence, teachers stress that learning must be integrated into a world populated by intelligent and caring beings.
5. Teachers, helping students to understand and accept each other, ease interpersonal problems that often develop.
6. Teachers can be role models that children need.
Schools have both positive and negative features for education and teachers also have benefits and shortcomings. Education needs to retain the sizable strengths of both schools and teachers. Merely retaining them in their present form, however, won't change the terrible condition of American schooling. If a meaningful alteration is to take place, American education needs to revamp schools and the role of teachers. Only if profound changes are introduced can their weaknesses and failings be reduced or eliminated, while their strengths are retained and amplified.
Newborn children are soon hungry and curious. They want to eat and they want to learn about their surroundings. They suckle at the breast and they swivel their heads toward sounds. When they can see, they stare at anything new. Eating and learning both carry out innate needs or desires that drive humans throughout their lives. A rule of nature requires actions that fulfill innate desires be pleasurable. Without enjoyment, necessary actions would cease and the species would die out.
This pleasure is obvious and well understood for eating. The enjoyment of learning is often overlooked. Since the need for learning is innate, it is also enjoyable. The reason that Patrick Koch, the second grader in Chapter 2 (in this issue, Section I), wanted to read his encyclopedia was because it was fun.
Despite the inherent satisfaction of actions that meet basic needs, other conditions may interfere with these usual pleasures. Researchers studying the behavior of white rats sometimes combine tasty food with an electrical shock at a certain places in the cage. If the rat nibbles at food in that area, it will be shocked. It doesn't take a rat long to avoid eating there. If an animal refuses to eat good food in a specific location, that area must be responsible.
Students should enjoy their classes because learning, which fulfills a basic desire, is the object. If children reject education, the type of learning or the place may be the cause, but something is wrong. Millions of children are rejecting education today. Many drop out of school. Others remain and attend classes but are bored.
When animals or humans don't find healthy food in appropriate conditions, they look elsewhere for nourishment to satisfy their basic need. When students don't find appropriate learning in school, they also look elsewhere. They satisfy the fundamental need by finding other sources like television or their peers or movies, where learning is pleasurable as it should be. If this "education" replaces what they should receive in school, they and their society suffers. Valuable and available stores of accumulated knowledge are unused and replaced by junk learning, just as animals or humans might be forced to eat junk food, when good food is in a location where eating is painful.
Although reasons abound why education may be unpleasant, some are especially critical:
1. Schools must bind students in a rigid mold where they have to receive instruction at the same pace as twenty-five to thirty others, all with different capabilities and interests.
2. Monotonous and uninteresting classes repel students and make it unpleasant to learn. Like everyone else, you, the reader, can remember when you were forced at times during your schooling to endure tedious classes. Unfortunately, teachers without special talents, despite their sincere efforts, may provide classes that overwhelm the inherent enjoyment of learning.
3. Students with poorer grades often confront a continuous series of frustrations. They quickly get behind in the early grades and can never hope to catch up. Being behind, they lack a real opportunity to learn and miss the chance to enjoy formal education. School becomes a grating, despised activity.
4. Brighter students have different barriers interfering with their learning, but often they also find education unpleasant. The system bores them and fails to challenge them. Although learning new material brings them enjoyment, their delight diminishes when the pace is tiresome. Again, teachers are guiltless. If they go fast enough to make education completely satisfying for brighter children, they interfere with the learning of others.
5. Teaching to the exact ability of diverse students is utterly impossible without individual tutors. Enjoyable learning requires that instruction meet the intellectual capacity of each student just as food must meet individual needs.
Education of students with unequal levels of ability in the same class, with some teachers who lack stimulating approaches, has been going on for centuries. Pupils have been able to learn despite these shortcomings. Many do so under these same handicaps today, but this learning does not prove the efficacy of the educational system. It only emphasizes the strength of the innate drive that enables people to acquire knowledge in spite of obstacles. Nonetheless, millions of American students fail to learn in schools. Moreover, education bores countless others whose education falls short of their capabilities. Consequently, youngsters revolt against the educational process. Their antics create havoc within schools and obstruct learning for themselves and for others. The letter from the Philadelphia teacher, quoted in Chapter 4 (this issue, Section II), illustrated this devastation. Unfortunately, the usual reaction is to blame students. This scapegoating of pupils is equivalent to blaming animals that refuse to eat in a place where they have discovered they will receive an electric shock.
When pupils enjoy education, their learning will improve and much of their current revolt against the system will dissipate. Fewer discipline problems in schools will be an immediate result. Authorities will then be able to devote more of their time and resources to improving education instead of merely holding it together.
A change in the attitude of students occurs in the Florida "at-risk" programs: education intrigues students who had hated school and had intended to drop out. An effective revolution in education must allow the innate pleasure to motivate students and increase their learning. Deriving pleasure from education is a valid goal, and should be commonplace since learning fills a basic need, exactly as eating fills a basic need. Schools must merely eliminate the obstacles that prevent this natural enjoyment.
How schools can tap into the basic pleasure of learning will be treated below. I will explain how education can make learning interesting, avoid condemning students to the lockstep enslavement of present schooling, prevent slower students from falling behind, and enable brighter students to avoid boredom while new opportunities challenge them unceasingly. I will also show how learning can be tailored to the individual level of each student. Schooling will then be enhanced because it is partaking of the pleasure that accompanies the fulfillment of innate desires.
In their brief time, computers have driven, with blazing speed, radical upheavals everywhere. These machines have literally upended traditional practices. Without their guidance, the space program would cease and modern telephone networks would collapse. Scientific advances are dependent upon them. Businesses of every size have discovered their versatility and would now find it painfully difficult to operate as they did before these machines arrived. Financial markets grind to a crawl whenever their computers shut down temporarily. The list of beneficiaries of this modern technology is almost endless.
The only important field that computers have failed to change dramatically is education. Schools have purchased millions of computers but with only a minuscule effect on student learning.
While the rest of the world races into modernization with blinding rapidity, education continues in its well trodden paths. The only major improvement that schools have universally embraced in the last two centuries has been the introduction of blackboards in the late nineteenth century. Serious changes in education have been minimal ever since then. As the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment complained
"... in general, classrooms today resemble their ancestors of 50 and 100 years ago much more closely than do today's assembly plants, scientific laboratories, and operating rooms. A number of information technologists point out that if business organizations today evolved at the same rate as the schools, they would still be using quill pens instead of electronic word processors [ 27 ]."
The United States confronts a frightening conundrum. Education is a disaster yet the nation misuses the most powerful and effective tool of change since the invention of printing: computer technology. This blatant waste would be horrible at any point in history. With the current conditions in American education, squandering this available remedy is a catastrophe.
Computers have taken a major position in the world because they can execute many tasks more effectively than humans. In education, they can communicate information more efficiently and they can do it with a certain panache. They can fascinate while they teach.
For computers to accomplish in education what they have done elsewhere, one new element is essential. They must be allowed to teach students without a human in the intermediary position between the child and the computer. This failure to allow computers to teach is the reason technology thus far has been a dismal failure in schools. I will show throughout the remainder of this book how and why computers, as tutors of children, can revolutionize education as thoroughly as they have transformed almost every commercial activity in the twentieth century. Computers must be the foundation of any enduring, meaningful, and true revolution in education.
When I use the term "computers," I mean more than the basic machine. I include multimedia capability, present and emerging, which computers can integrate and direct, and ancillary technology connected with computers like communications through modems. For simplicity, the contemplated full use of computers will be termed "computerized education" throughout this book.
Background on Computers
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, machines have been extending human power. Railroad engines inaugurated unimagined speed; for the first time, man was able to move faster than a horse. Railroads, however, have limits. They must follow rails that are permanently in place. Then came automobiles, not bound by rails and able to move independently. Nonetheless, they still had constraints; they had to move on the ground. Airplanes followed automobiles and enlarged those boundaries, but other restrictions remained. Railroads, cars, and airplanes are still just transportation. Automobiles and aircraft, for example, don't manufacture goods while moving about the globe.
Machines always had certain limited areas within which they could operate, until computers arrived. Computers serve as extensions of human minds, abolishing many restrictions that once bound machines. Neither a mind nor a computer can carry people or materials or cut and shape metal. Both can, however, direct other machines to perform these actions. Computers share the power of the mind because they are directed by, and are completely dependent upon, the directions that intelligence and imagination give them. They follow these instructions slavishly.
This ability to adhere to written or oral instructions differentiates computers from all other machines. It is their dominant attribute. We know these instructions as programs or software.
Each instruction for a computer is a simple statement that a machine can read and interpret. One programming instruction can be joined with hundreds or thousands of others. Together they provide awesome power. They can command computers to carry out actions and ideas that are complex, some that had never previously been contemplated outside the realm of pure human intelligence.
Playing chess is an example. Great minds have long been fascinated by chess, and masters of the game have been lauded for their brilliance. Computers are now sufficiently adept at chess to the point that they can play quite well. As chess-playing machines advance further, computers can play competitively with champion chess masters, provided there are incentives for human minds to write the intricate and essential instructions necessary.
Without this human programming, computers are useless. With it, however, they emulate the minds that guide them, but add two startling improvements: blinding speed and a massive memory. These additional attributes explain why computers can exceed the power of the minds behind them. Speed and memory, combined with the creativity of the human minds directing them, are the attributes that have enabled these machines to pervade and conquer the world with astonishing swiftness.
Many dynamic benefits flow from programming or software, some particularly pertinent in education. I will here touch upon some of the generalized advantages, and later, beginning in Chapter 9 (in the January, 1997 issue of First Monday), I will be more specific.
General Benefits of Programming in Education
Human minds are eminently flexible, and computers, as their extensions, share that trait. Potential goals of programming are limitless and the possible approaches to reaching any specific objective are extensive. This flexibility will allow software writers to lavish an abundance of learning opportunities on students.
Pupils are not all alike. They differ in intelligence and interests and come from diverse backgrounds. Even an individual pupil may change from one day to the next, depending on his or her emotional and physical conditions. Programming can overcome these variations. Diverse approaches can be used, not only with separate students, but with the same pupils at various times. As a child learns, the computer will continually evaluate his or her progress. The machine will review or repeat lessons as needed, and will permit and encourage the learner to progress faster when the lesson has been mastered, or will slow the pace until the pupil grasps the material. It will diagnose errors and then provide remedial exercises before moving forward. It will also make lessons stimulating and interesting to enhance learning and retention.
Moreover, software can be upgraded continually. Education will never again remain stagnant. It will mutate from a static specialty, unchanged for centuries, to an evolving and advancing science.
2. Emulating the Techniques of Teachers
Programmers won't have to reinvent effective routines. They will be able to copy and use the skillful teaching techniques that the minds of human instructors have developed over many ages.
An example of computers imitating teachers is in the analysis of errors. Experienced teachers often uncover a deficiency through incorrect answers that a student gives on a test or during a recitation. Whenever a critical error appears, a perceptive teacher understands that the student missed a fundamental point.
By capitalizing on this background knowledge supplied by teachers, programmers can enable computers to identify the same difficulties. Although a computer cannot "understand," it can be programmed to recognize types of errors and thus to copy superior teachers. Then it can also apply fitting remedies.
Problems can be set up in the computer that will show when a specific student deficiency is present. The machines will generate and retain in their vast memories the correct answer and an extensive series of likely incorrect answers. The speed of the machine as it analyzes answers will enhance its effectiveness.
Misunderstanding of negative numbers can provide an example, and a simple problem will illustrate the principle:
+ 386 -(-125) ------- ???
The correct answer, of course, is 511. A common mistake might develop a solution of 261 or 136. Anyone confused by negative numbers might come to either erroneous solution. The computer would also find "261" and "136" in its memory. If either answer appeared as the student's response, the computer would again explain negative numbers and give a brief example or two. It would note that a fundamental error about negative numbers had occurred. Then it would provide more problems for the pupil. If a similar inaccuracy reappeared in another response, the machine would be aware of the previous difficulty and immediately provide further and more basic assistance. Additional help would continue until the student showed sufficient understanding of negative numbers. This salutary technique flows from its use of teachers' understanding of the way children sometimes confuse negative numbers.
Analysis of errors will be only one of many instances where the accumulated wisdom of teachers will aid programmers, just as the accumulated wisdom of earlier instructors has always helped new teachers. Software writers will bolster programs with ideas literally used for centuries. Almost all important techniques developed by teachers will be used by computers as educational programming matures.
For example, on a discussion of causes of the First World War, those who have taught the subject understand difficulties that students have when they try to sort out the conditions that led to the conflict. Teachers, from their experience, can show programmers how to emphasize frequently overlooked or misunderstood issues and to make students aware of happenings, both deliberate and unplanned. Teachers can help programmers impress on students the vast panoply of causes and pseudo-causes that are involved in major upheavals, using that war or any other conflict as an example. These teachers can also point out to programmers how they are able to make history come alive for students by stressing the personalities or strategy involved. Software writers can use this accumulated expertise to provide instructive material that will make learning lasting and more enjoyable.
When these tested deliveries have been programmed into the computer, they will be used whenever they will help educate a student. Software will enable the computer itself to determine when they are appropriate.
Improvements will continue by engaging other astute humans to work in ongoing endeavors with programmers to enrich teaching techniques. Human brilliance will then be extended through computers. The combination of teachers and programmers using their immense talents while taking advantage of the resources of computers will result in a continual flow of teaching enhancements.
3. Going beyond the Ordinary Skills of Teachers
While computers imitate and take ideas from teachers, their speed and memory will propel them beyond the natural limitations of teachers. The machines can track multitudes of events that would be beyond human abilities. For example, computers can count and remember how often a specific mistake is made by an individual student and by thousands of students, and then can notify programmers that a specific error or genre of error is being made frequently by students. With this information, writers of software will be able to redesign the portion of the program dealing with that confusion. They will employ a different or expanded method of instruction designed to lessen the likelihood of the mistake continuing to occur. Programmers will again be informed by feedback if the student perplexity is repeated.
Software provides additional ancillary advantages. For example, when an outstanding teacher develops a new method of improving student learning, usually only the classes of that teacher benefit. When computer programmers working with top-notch people develop a better and enriching approach, they will make it available to every student using that software, wherever machines are located.
An additional benefit will also follow. A student, because of his or her unique weaknesses, may find a specific teacher's method difficult even if that teacher is excellent at instructing other students. Software allows the machine to use ideas of different teachers to reach diverse pupils. Every computer through its programming can mimic more than one model teacher. It can use whichever style is effective depending on needs of students. I will return to this important characteristic when I cite the value of individualized instruction.
4. Enhancing other Teaching Aids
Another important educational improvement that the wonders of programming will introduce flows from the capacity of computers to control and totally integrate audiovisual presentations into the instruction of each student. In computerized education, these can be produced on computer screens of students with software that will control them completely. These audiovisual displays are called multimedia in computer terminology. More than the name has changed; the whole concept is vastly expanded. A full chapter later in this book is necessary merely to hint at the dazzling possibilities of multimedia.
Comparing lessons stored in the machines' memories with those found in textbooks illustrates another area where programming can improve on current teaching aids. When books are printed each copy must be identical with every other one produced at that time. Lack of absolute uniformity, however, could have advantages. For example, history might be better remembered by students if happenings in different geographical locations were highlighted for students living in those areas. Computer programs can provide valuable variations, and they won't be limited only to past events. When scientific breakthroughs occur, updated material can be added at once over telephone lines to all copies wherever they are used.
It will even be possible for sectarian schools to have certain concepts, which they wish to stress, easily added or inserted into the software for use in their schools. Specific school districts may want some ideas to receive more attention. Software writers will be able to accommodate their wishes, often with only minimal added cost. Obviously, this may pose philosophical problems which I cannot solve here. My only objective is to point out what can be done.
Basic Objections to Computerized Education
In recent years, several new technologies have been developed that were touted by their adherents as able to revitalize education. Teaching machines, audio-visual presentations, movies, and videos were hailed as potential saviors that would bring a dynamic transformation into schools. Education withstood each of these intrusions and emerged virtually unchanged. The reaction to claims that any new technology can make a major upheaval may be greeted with amused disbelief and quickly dismissed by some authorities. They've heard this trite assertion before about these other novelties and nothing happened. Why expect this latest gimmick to upset a system that has shown itself to be inflexible for over a century?
This time, however, we are dealing with instruments whose range and power are unprecedented. Their unique qualities have enabled them to revolutionize countless other fields. No previous invention has forced similar upheavals. Computers can achieve in education what they have done elsewhere: they can bring a total revolution. Merely because other educational modifications have been unduly praised, and have failed, is an ineffectual argument to prove that no invention can ever revolutionize schools. I ask readers to evaluate the characteristics that computers bring before dismissing them.
Even acknowledgment of the power and unique characteristics of computers does not ensure their immediate acceptance. Arguments against assigning a vital part in education to computers are manifold. The most obvious is this question: "How could a machine do what Miss Smith did for me in the fourth grade?"
Many other objections will also arise:
Some of these objections are valid and some are merely specious. All must be addressed. Answers to these difficulties will be brought out in subsequent chapters. Responses will be summarized in the final chapter. If any reader might be tempted to move there from this point, I must say "Whoa! Don't jump to the last chapter now! We'll get there but first some groundwork must be in place."
- Machines will break down, and students will be left with nothing to do.
- Computer programs always have bugs, and again the students will be left without material.
- Computers can teach only certain facts, not the more important higher-order thinking.
- Some students will deliberately manhandle computers and destroy them.
- Computers can be dangerous because of the radiation dispersed from their screens.
- Computers can be dangerous to the eyesight of students because of the need to read from monitors.
- Computers can be dangerous because of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a malady that pains thousands of people in places where computers are used regularly.
- The cost of giving every student a computer is prohibitive.
- A machine cannot make judgments that a human can make.
- A machine cannot teach values.
- A machine cannot develop interaction among students.
- A machine cannot give necessary and meaningful personal attention to students.
- Pupils will waste time if no teacher checks on them.
- Bright students will discover how to use computers to alter and destroy the system.
- One student will be able to take the test of another student since no human will be checking.
- A school system with computers as teachers will turn out automatons, not warm, friendly humans.
- Some students will be unable to use computers either through fright or incompetence, and will receive no education.
- If computers could be teachers, schools would use them in that way since they already possess millions of the machines.
Fred Bennett received his undergraduate degree in business administration. When he finished, he thought that he would never have to be in school again. After college, he started working as a salesman and later established a book distribution business.
Idealism then got the better of him and he decided to change the world. He chose to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. It was back to school again and he received an STL (Licentiate in Sacred Theology) from the Pontifical University Angelicum in Rome, Italy. Returning to the U. S., he taught Greek and performed ministerial functions.
He returned to school again and received M. A. in counseling from the University of New Mexico, and then a Ph.D. in psychology from University of Utah in 1971. After the advanced degrees, he helped set up a treatment program for clergy with alcoholism and also worked in an inner city mental health center. In these environments, he first confronted the reality that some people without education could not get a job, regardless of how much they wanted to work.
Eventually, he realized he was not changing the world and left the priesthood. He directed public addiction treatment programs in Colorado and Florida and married a Ph.D. chemist, who was an excellent teacher. He then established, owned, and directed a group of private addiction treatment centers. He also became interested in computers and began to write programs to handle the paperwork for his company.
In 1990 he sold the business, moved to Sarasota, Florida, and began new projects. He wrote a computer program for artists, which he markets throughout the United States. He also started to think seriously about the problems in education and spent several years studying the subject. His wife's background in education was of immense help. Finally, he sought to bring together what he had acquired from his studying and education, from his experience working with people at all levels, and from his knowledge of computers. The result is this book, "Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education."
Frederick Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The entire book is ©1996, Fred Bennett.
A Note of Thanks
My thanks go to Marge, above all, who was always so helpful and supportive as this book took shape, and to whom it is dedicated. A number of other people also offered many helpful suggestions, although they did not always agree with all my ideas. These people, in alphabetical order are Gene Best, Isa Dempsey, David Ellison, Margaret Kemner and Earl Krescanko. To all of them, my sincere thanks, and also to Paul Messink who first suggested that I put it on the Internet, and gave me so much help in getting it there.
13. U. S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1991. "National Center for Education Statistics, College Level Remedial Education in the Fall of 1989," Washington D.C.
26. J. R. Dusek, 1975. "Do Teachers Bias Children's learning?" Review of Educational Research, vol. 45, pp. 661-684. http://dx.doi.org/10.3102/00346543045004661
Copyright © 1996, First Monday
Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education by Frederick Bennett.
First Monday, Volume 1, Number 6 - 2 December 1996
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2016.