The adage “the older I get, the better I was” now extends from personal recollection to collective judgment of earlier eras, if one accepts the Alliance for Childhood’s recent report “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look At Computers and Childhood.” Once again, the public is served up conclusions based on research and quotations from laudable, notable people, all of whom share two important characteristics—they are neither children nor educators who actually use technology as a tool to improve learning.

The underlying assumption seems to be that once an educator embraces technology, the love of children is replaced by the love for machines. All we have to do to improve education is change our attitude about the sanctity of childhood, banish elementary school computers, and all will be well. Rather than focusing on the “good old days” that never were, I believe we can build bright new days that incorporate the Alliance’s goals without ignoring what the past decade has taught us about how technology can improve student learning.

“Fool’s Gold” is the perfect snooze alarm for people who have yet to wake up to the idea that educational improvement requires change. And change is about more than velocity; it is also about direction. The debate today is about more than technology or school choice; it centers on whether your model for learning is based on transmission or construction of knowledge. Instead, the report implies that corporate strategies are leading educators like lemmings to the abyss, and that we’re willing to sacrifice our children at the altar of the new economy. These concerns mask a more fundamental struggle about which model of learning will guide our classrooms and homes, and who will teach.

“Fool’s Gold” replaces common sense with attacks on straw men built from misconceptions and distortions that no experienced technology-using educator would endorse or repeat. For example:

‘Either/or’ straw man “What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.” —Steve Jobs (as quoted in “Fool’s Gold”)

Since both technology friends and foes agree the most important person in education is the teacher, isn’t the most critical goal to provide the most effective, best-prepared teachers possible? Data from the 1998 Teaching, Learning, and Computing survey—involving more than 4,000 teachers in more than 1,100 schools across the United States—provide substantive insights about what is required to do so.

One of the survey’s dramatic findings is that teachers who have been identified as “teacher leaders” in their schools, districts, or fields were 10 times more likely to be teachers who used computers themselves and have integrated the use of computers with their classroom instruction.

These teacher leaders—teachers with a high degree of professional engagement and respect—contrasted with a group of teachers whom the study’s authors, Margaret Riel and Hank Becker, refer to as “private-practice teachers.” This group had a much lower investment in its own learning in pre-service education and in later years. When the private-practice teachers did use computers, they did so in ways that supported drill-and-practice games.

The evidence shows that teachers who invest highly in their own learning are learning how to teach effectively with computers, using them for problem-solving, analysis, and presentation. Becker finds that a computer is more likely to be a valuable and effective instructional tool when certain conditions are met. Teachers need to be personally comfortable and at least moderately skilled in using computers themselves. There needs to be regular and easy student access to computers “to permit computer activities to flow seamlessly alongside other learning tasks.” And, perhaps most important, a teacher’s personal philosophy needs to be consistent with student-centered, constructivist pedagogy that incorporates collaborative projects defined partly by student interest.

‘Technology is dehumanizing’ straw man The power of the internet is people, not machines. I’ve personally witnessed a group of fifth-graders in New Jersey take on the United States Immigration Service to prevent a classmate—who was 2 years old in the Ukraine when Chernobyl exploded—from being deported (see the link to the “Children, Chernobyl, and the Internet” web page below).

The students used the internet to conduct a public information campaign that resulted in the state Legislature passing a unanimous resolution to allow him to stay. Being sent back would have represented a death sentence for this child, who is in remission from leukemia and would have been unable to find proper medical care if his illness returned.

Dizzy Gillespie once told me, “It will take you 10 years to learn to play your instrument, and it will take you 20 to learn what not to play.” The arguments being made about technology’s role in learning might have held water a decade ago, but we who’ve been working in this field have moved beyond infatuation. We know how and when to use technology, but more important, we know when not to use it. We have experienced in our own lives that technology and rich human relationships need not be mutually exclusive. Used in a healthy way, technologies can enrich what happens in real life. That’s why we use them in the first place.

‘They’re too young to play’ straw man While concerns about physical injury to young children are legitimate, the risk is a defined domain, similar to sports injuries or the realizations that led very young children to use quarter-size violins in the Suzuki method. The research shows that students are lucky if they get to a school computer once a week, and that the average number of computers in classrooms lucky enough to have them is two. If children are using computers four to five hours a day, they’re doing so at home, which argues for better school-to-home communication on how to partner in shaping appropriate computer use.

Perhaps we’re not arguing about technology, but common sense. Young children can benefit when caring, competent teachers use these machines to enhance their learning landscape. For example, by using the computer to keep information over time, first-grade students who were studying a small pond discovered there were fewer ducks each year. This graphing of observational data inspired them to action, and six classes of first-graders—the population of one small school—got the attention of city planners. Now, the pond has been restored and preserved, thanks to the actions of the computer-using first-graders.

In “The Beliefs, Practices, and Computer Use of Teacher Leaders,” Riel and Becker write, “The findings are consistent and strong—teacher leaders are better-educated teachers, continuous learners, computer users, and promote constructive, problem-based learning over direct instruction. They use computers to help their students achieve the same level of respect and voice that these teachers have achieved within their professional educational community.”

That’s the good news. Although students of the best-educated, most professionally involved teachers are three times more likely to use computers in powerful ways, the bad news is the distribution: Teacher leaders make up 2 percent of the teaching population, while private-practice teachers make up 58 percent. Literacy has expanded beyond Ozzie-and-Harriet days, yet we have allowed the acquisition of these new skills to remain optional for our teaching force.

Rather than perpetuate drama, we could choose dialogue. Those of us using technology to improve learning have more in common with the Alliance for Childhood than either group suspects. How will the next version of this report look once we engage each other in purposeful, action-oriented discourse?

As editor of MultiMedia Schools magazine, a board member of the Consortium for School Networking, and director of the Online Internet Institute, Ferdi Serim is well-known for helping educators understand and harness technology’s power to transform education.

Teaching, Learning, and Computing survey

Children, Chernobyl, and the Internet