The Future of Schooling: More of the Same?


"Ithink there is a world market for maybe five computers." Thomas Watson, chairman, IBM, 1943

"There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, president, chair and founder, Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

"640K ought to be enough for anybody." Bill Gates, co-founder, Microsoft, 1981

"The best teacher has always been a person, not a machine." William L. Rukeyser, author, "Computers’ Role in Education," the website of "Learning in the Real World," 1998

That all of those luminaries are wrong ought to sober anyone who wants to think around the corner.

Who has been more eager to change? Isolated farmers or insulated teachers? Compare agriculture at the turn of the last century with the current American reality--genetically engineered seeds, computerized combines, microcropping determined by geopositioned satellites, soon, cloned livestock. It’s not farming, it’s agribusiness and it literally feeds the world.

Think about the transformations in health care, in commerce, in transportation, in communications. The first Internet computer (the "IMP") was built by UCLA in 1969. In September 1999, the amount of telecommunications e-traffic worldwide exceeded the amount of telephone traffic. Outside of schools, the pace of change whipped by technology is staggering.

Now think of schools as they were at the end of the 19th century and as they still are at the end of the 20th century. The late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, used to observe that schooling was the last unreformed institution from the last century that we are about to trundle, unreformed, into the next.

Why? Mark Twain was right: Education and schooling are not the same things. The larger event of education is learning and not necessarily coupled to public places or professional roles. Schooling is the institutionalized provision of teaching in hopes of learning. Children attend school and teachers present instruction. And, in the telling phrase, administrators "keep school." Two-income families guarantee a steady demand for the school’s custodial service. The political clout of organized teachers guarantees their continued dominance of the reality of classroom instruction. School change no longer takes decades, but integrating technology into the classroom remains a big hurdle. Will teachers allow it to happen? Will the public pay for it? Will school leaders expand their vision from "schooling" to "education"?

Michael Sullivan, the executive director of the Agency for Instructional Technology has remarked, "(L)earning need not be school-based. ... schools must reinvent themselves as institutions with a far greater purpose or cease to exist." Adding purposes to the already goal-overloaded school may make less sense than joining others in transforming learning.

A Vexing Task
Every time we hear "education" and think "school," we are minimizing the prospects of improvement for children. There are a lot of educators--the TV, newspapers, parents, religious and cultural institutions, video games, sports and peers. Other countries have ministries of education that bracket all the educators. The United States has a Department of Education that stops at schools.

We need to add a learning focus to the teaching focus. The frontal act of instruction, the vexed business of trying to guarantee that children learn particular things is very difficult. (Ask any teacher; ask any taken-over school principal; ask any state commissioner.) What if we added to our intensity about teaching children, the mission of facilitating learning, wherever it happens. It might be more possible to encourage learning than it has been to force teaching.

Second, we need to add learning technology to teacher talk. Where learning technology is used appropriately, clear evidence of its power exists. In a recent study funded by the Milken Family Foundation of a six-year, statewide initiative in West Virginia, one-third of the gains in children’s reading and math scores attributable to the school were associated with learning technology. That only happens where computers are concentrated in a critical mass, where they are distributed into classrooms available to the children (not in "labs") and where the learning technology initiative is sustained politically and economically over several years.

Third, we need to add homes to schools; we need to add parents to teachers. In 1966, James S. Coleman undertook a massive study to determine how much of children’s achievement was associated with the school and how much with what Lawrence A. Cremin, the late president of Teachers College at Columbia University, called "the other educators." It turns out that only 30 percent is due to school characteristics and the other 70 percent is from the family, the media and the peer group.

Telecommunications is literally perfect for school-home-school connections. If E-mail can bring commerce to customers, why can’t E-learning bring teachers to parents? If children learn from the TV and movies because they are captivating and fun, why can’t we put the final stake through the heart of the "learning should hurt" crowd? Why can’t we make our peace with what coaches and early childhood educators have always known: Play is a child’s work?

Several groups are putting the Digital Revolution in the service of learning and others are trying to make good on the learning promise of "serious play." The earliest and best documented of these efforts is the Lightspan Partnership Inc. of San Diego. Five schools in the Adams 50 District in Westminster, Colo., used the Lightspan Partnership’s CD-ROM "curriculum of the home" plus Sony’s low-cost PlayStations to connect homes and schools, parents and teachers. Student performance in reading, language arts and mathematics in the schools using Lightspan exceeded student performance in the control group schools.

A Democratizing Impact
Finally, we need to capitalize on this historic moment. Ready or not, learning is moving to the learner. The late futurist Herman Kahn maintained that the future could be understood only in terms of trends that were long term and manifold, that is, powered by multiple, independent but convergent forces. The Digital Revolution and its consequences for the transmission of knowledge is such an event.

Whether or not schools help, telecommunication has and will move learning to the learner. In the earliest times, boys went with their fathers to learn to hunt. The artists of the cave walls moved learning inside. The creation of the common school still required learners to go to the site of learning and to be dependent on the knowledge masters. As long as learners have to go to the learning site and the learning master, they will be dependent and that dependency makes them vulnerable to the politics (and ethnic and class and gender) prejudices of the masters.

Digital communications bypass that transaction and may transform that politics. With the Internet, learning goes to the learner. This is the "4 Any's Future"--Any Learning, Any Time, Any Place to Any One.

The democratizing impacts of that reversal are only dimly perceived. And the consequences for bricks-and-mortar knowledge citadels have not begun to be imagined, although they are probably captured by the observation of technology as train--you will be either on it or under it.

Dale Mann is a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and managing director of Interactive Inc., a learning technology consulting firm, at 326 New York Ave., Huntington, NY 11743. E-mail: interinc@aol.com