Teachers vs Machines

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1996

When I was in junior high school, teachers would show us 16mm films about frogs, foreign cultures, and the force of friction. These films were once-a-week treats for all of us. The teacher got a free babysitter and an opportunity to grade some papers. We kids got to take a nap, pass around notes, or space out at the colors on the screen and the sound of the projector motor.

Once the movie was over, the teacher would raise the shades and we’d return to business as usual. We never even discussed the huge mechanism that had taken charge of our classroom for the hour, its effect on us, or the intentions of the people who made the film that we watched.

Teachers who use the computer this same way are doing themselves, and their students, a disservice. Most of them have already figured out that the PC doesn’t work as a babysitter, anyway. While movies and videotapes capture, tame, or at least pacify students, computers seem to do the opposite. They open up new possibilities, lead to more questions, and, when connected to the Internet, open the floodgates to people, information, and ideas that would not normally be invited into any classroom.

Accordingly, many teachers see the computers in the back of their classrooms as the enemy - if not their antagonists, then at best their successors. Teachers who do appreciate computers are themselves reluctant to incorporate them into their curriculums because they don’t know how to use them as well as the kids do. While it may have been appropriate to let little hi-tech Johnny operate the movie projector, setting him down at the helm of the Macintosh is another story.

Understandably, computers threaten teachers’ sense of authority. With computers in their classrooms, teachers no longer hold the keys to information. Students can scour a CD-rom or the Internet and gain access to more information about a subject than any teacher could possibly know. Making matters seemingly worse, most students appear to know more about the computers themselves than the teachers do. If there’s a browser crash, or IP address error, chances are one of the kids will be best qualified to fix it. The teachers begin to feel worthless, ignorant, and obsolete.

They needn’t. Computers in classrooms are simply challenging teachers to dig down and discover just how valuable they really are. Teachers aren’t mere repositories of data, however reassuring their depth of knowledge may have been to them in the past. That’s never what has earned them their students’ respect. Think back for a moment on your best teachers - were they so great because they knew lots of information? Of course not. We valued them because they were inspiring human beings who taught us how to apply the information we learned. They created a context for learning, applying facts and concepts to our passion for real life. They weren’t just knowledgeable; they were wise.

With computers supplying the raw the data, the teachers’ roles as interpreters and contextualizers are even more important. Think of it like a field trip to Spain for a Spanish teacher. Instead of seeing pictures of Spain in a book, the students wander through cathedrals, bull rings, and museums, encountering people, artifacts, and foods outside the teacher’s prepared curriculum. The best of teachers see this is an opportunity and not a handicap. Rather than being threatened by the unexpected, they exploit it.

Computers may not make a teacher’s job any easier, but they make it better. Teachers no longer need to assert their authority by meting out knowledge to supplicant children. Instead, they can exercise their true confidence by giving their students the keys to the castle.

The orthodox lesson plan of the past helped teachers direct an entire class, as a unit, through a particular set of skills. The linear progression went too slow for some, and left others behind. With students learning specific skills on the computer, teachers can create an area of concentration for each week - say, long division, or the Civil War – and then let students explore as far into that area as they can. The “weakest” students in a given subject will learn the most basic, essential skills, while the “strongest” will be free to explore in greater depth, without necessarily moving “ahead” of their peers.

What will the teacher do? More than ever before. Johnny finds out from his CD-Rom that Lincoln’s troops, perhaps unprovoked, fired Fort Sumpter. Looks like he’s ready to consider the works of revisionist historians. If the teacher doesn’t know of any? Send Johnny to a library database and ask him what he learned.

Clearly it’s not that easy. But the resistance to computers in the classroom may have more to do with our fears about the doors they open up than anything else. When teachers relieve themselves of the responsibility of having to know all the answers, they will rise to the greater challenge of becoming living partners in inquiry rather than static storehouses of information. That’s what databases and 16mm films are for.